Tonight, my thoughts are full of her. It has been seven months since my friend and colleague left. That summer night, as the sun was disappearing behind the basswood tree, the call came. I had finished mowing the lawn and noticed the white letters of a friend’s name across the black screen of my phone. I pulled the tab on a can of local craft beer, inhaled the sweet, pungent smell of wet early-summer grass, sat on the back step, and answered.
“Hi, Jill. I have some really bad news….” In the brief space between that greeting and the string of words that followed, I squeezed in safe, imaginable scenarios of really bad news. Not one of them matched the words that came next. “… I’m so sorry to tell you that she took her life.” Stupor shocked thought, unbelief sucked up words, horror saturated being. Fragmented questions and swirling mutterings clung to each other as the news of her suicide settled into my bones. Beloved children. Dependent family. I didn’t have syllables to complete the questions that flooded my mind.
That morning, she had come in later than expected and in truth, it had been inconvenient. ]Yet I knew she was shouldering a lot and so, didn’t mention it. We talked often about household struggles and compared notes about thorny family transitions. She was aching about impending circumstances in her life. It was hard. At the same time, she was advocating for others in the ways she always had. Vindicating justice, shielding the helpless under her strong wings, absorbing wrongs and righting them when she could. Advocacy was her vocation and her calling.
“I’m sorry to tell you that she took her life.”
In the days that followed, friends and colleagues gathered to pray for her family. We shared our confusion and unbelief, we remembered. We cried, we laughed, we cried again. We grieved for her loved ones, we grieved for us. We wondered who would step up to call us out, to envision ‘us’ as better than we are. Truth was her gift, her sword. She could slice between injustice and convenience in the way I differentiate between orange and red. It was simply obvious to her in ways that caused scales to drop from my eyes. If she aggravated me by truth, it was because she was right and because it was so inconvenient.
Later, there was just so much to be done. There was not time for grief. Diving into tasks, I worked through grief project by project. Each time the lump found its’ way to the back of my throat, I lifted my chin, set my face and tackled something new. To-do by to-do, grief was buried. File by file, sadness was tucked into the far corners of awareness. Tucking and burying difficult emotions is a mastered strategy – a luxury of sorts. It is not lost to me that this way of coping with grief, with loss, with injustice was incomprehensible to my friend. She felt everything and she metabolized it all.
However, on this day, grief has surfaced. Today, I remember. It has been seven months since that warm summer night. The weather is now cold and damp and gray – the kind of weather she hated. The grass is unmown and covered by inches of snow. The day lilies planted in her honor are dormant. I am feeling the sorrow of missing her. I am holding the tragedy of her family’s loss. She is not here, yet she lingers – in friendships, in the color yellow (she wore it like she owned it,) in the faces of her beautiful children, in unsettled questions, in awareness of privilege, in the click of high heels on tile, in bursts of bold laughter.
Today, I know my sadness pales to the anguish that so clouds a spirit with torment and taunting that death seems more bearable than life. I have not known that kind of despair, nor the darkness that accompanies it. My friend knew it, lived under it and I never suspected the sinister power of its’ hold. Today, my spirit aches.
What if? Each of us who loved her have wondered this, I imagine. What if? I know my friend would not want us to concentrate on what-ifs. I imagine her looking at me square, half-smile lifting the corner of her mouth, chin tilting, brown eyes sparking. “Ain’t nobody got time for that.” Her story would remind us both of what she had overcome to gain her life, to gain her voice, to make a difference.
Her imprint is indelible. Even in her leaving, she advocates and prophesies.
Her life reinforces the importance of seeking to feel another’s story more deeply. To avoid the tendency toward comparison. To honor the sadness of others through questions, through presence, through wondering, through accessibility. To advocate for resources to increase access to care for mental illness and health care for all people. To stand up for the powerless, the underserved, the under-resourced, and the weary. In all this, she still advocates.
One tiny, brazen woman with the courage to dig up pain and untuck grief has (inconveniently) challenged all who knew her to conceive a more equitable and unified world.
She took her life and she gave her life. Nothing is the same.
Jill English is an avid encourager of humans and lover of words. She is most at home out-of-doors, and in particular, while walking any beach. Her most magical moments involve being Grammy to two remarkable grandchildren, and Mom to their lucky parents. As a discerner of call in higher theological education, her favorite conversations involve connecting the sacred dots of every-day life and faith. Jill lives in Grand Rapids, MI with two small, elderly pups.