Letter to a Friend Whom I Lost to Suicide
A psychotherapist's reflections on loss and healing.
Posted Jul 10, 2019
Over the past few years, my friend had offered me a job to work with him in a city on the opposite coast. We joked about how I would move there just to see the otters in the bay. I think both of us knew that I had no plans to ever move, but I always took his calls over the years because I enjoyed catching up with him about his life. We shared a lot of interests—in writing, poetry, literature, philosophy, and art.
I remember texting him when I found out that he had been diagnosed with a very serious medical illness and was in the hospital. I did not hear back, so I left a voicemail. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I waited for his call back. Weeks passed. I texted one more time to check in. But a phone call never came. I assumed he was busy with recovering or maybe was back in the hospital.
A few months pass in the way that your own world always gets busy. Winter passes and so does spring. In midsummer, I receive an email from a shared colleague with a forwarded obituary and a short message: “Sorry, Marlynn."
I am at a loss for words. I check my phone again to see what the last words I texted him were. I check my phone log to see when the last time I called him was. I am shocked to see it had already been several months. I start to compose a letter to his parents, but as I’m writing, I realize the letter I really want to write is to him. But it is a letter that he will never receive.
I want to apologize that I didn’t try harder—that I let the months pass without trying again. I want to say I’m sorry I never followed up with scheduling that dinner that we had talked about getting many years ago when we were in the same city. But most of all, I want to say I’m so sorry that he must have been suffering and in so much pain that I had not been aware of.
But is this letter just for me? Is it my own selfish need to be exonerated? Sometimes I still wonder: Was I a negligent friend? What if I had called a few more times? Would we have gotten to talk one last time? Or was he protecting me by not calling me back? Or perhaps he just had too much on his mind. Even if he had told me how things really were, would that have made any difference?
I work with many people who have also lost friends and relatives to suicide. The grief is often unspeakable. There is a mixture of guilt, shame, helplessness, confusion, and sadness that is difficult to put into words. There are questions that never get answered. I am not sure the fragments of that kind of loss ever completely go away. Perhaps one doesn’t really want it to.
Having sat on different sides of this question, I only know that I don’t have all the answers except to be present to our feelings and accepting, to try not to blame oneself even though it may happen, and to be grateful for the times and memories we have. For those of us who remain, I think the best that we can do is to continue to connect—to pick up the phone and make the call we have been postponing, to schedule that coffee we keep promising to have with our friends but never get around to, to be present to loved ones and grateful for shared moments, and to cherish the entirety of the experiences with one another.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK