At the height of a recent bout with depression, I attended a memorial service for a beautiful young man who had committed suicide. I’d never met him, but had seen his photographs on missing person posters shown on the local news and online. I attended out of respect for one of his relatives I am friends with.
I hate funerals and wakes, avoid them at all costs and attend them only when I absolutely must, which means I limit myself to the funerals of family members or the relatives of very close friends. I could have gotten out of this one. I’m not close friends with the relative of the deceased. But I felt drawn, somehow. I’m not sure what I expected. I’ve been to black funerals, white funerals, Polish-Catholic, Muslim- enough to know the drill. This young man was Ethiopian, and I know there’s a large Ethiopian community in our town, so I expected to see a number of exotically beautiful, heart-broken people. But no experience in my life prepared me for what I witnessed.
Although I don’t know for certain, from what I have gathered, he took his life because he didn’t want to disappoint his family by admitting he had failed to graduate from college. I entered the church parking lot, knowing from news reports that he had been charming, a good son and well liked. I knew there would be sorrow. There were a few people outside when I approached the church. The depth of gravity on their faces made me clumsy. When I entered the lobby, there were a few family members standing in a kind of receiving line, but again, the raw pain in their expressions threw me off balance. Rather than greet them and offer my condolences, I hurried inside the chapel to be seated.
After ten minutes, the family entered. His aunts wailed as they walked down the aisle- loud, open-mouthed expressions of torture. The men sobbed fiercely and openly. His mother could not walk upright. The sight of her, bent, veiled and blinded by agony, combined with the sounds of her grief made my knees shake. Immediately, cries of sympathy erupted through the crowd until there were twenty or thirty people, heads back, mouths open, sobbing and wailing.
Several ministers spoke, using a combination of English and what is probably Amharic. One of them could not continue his eulogy when he began to cry too hard. There was a point in the service when a video was played, showing the young man’s childhood pictures against of backdrop of Ethiopian music. Every new photograph provoked a new round of wailing, louder than the first. And when two close friends, kind, decent young men, shared their fondest memories, both tributes were cut short by emotion.
As I sat stiff and stunned, with my knees continually shaking, I tried to translate what I was seeing and hearing into a language that was recognizable to my American mind. In the United States of the Stiff Upper Lip, most of us mourn publicly with restraint, saving our dramatic displays of despair for the depths of our pillows. I’d never seen this kind of unabashed honesty firsthand. The nearest I’d come was watching CNN footage of some foreign, natural disaster. I told myself it was a cultural thing. Not the grief. The grief, regret, shock and guilt that follows a suicide is understandable and universal. It was the display that was foreign and bone rattling.
As a depressed person who, at the time, had found myself longing too often for a final end to my own pain, I was profoundly touched by my view of The Aftermath. I wondered if people would mourn for me like that. Almost instantly, I told myself they would not. I don’t have as many close friends as this young man had. I don’t come from such a close knit community. I don’t know if I’m as treasured as he was.
Or maybe I was missing something. Something lost in translation.
Maybe there wouldn’t be the wailing. I don’t know. But anguish, regret, guilt? I could never honestly tell myself people would not react to my loss with those feelings. Someone would. More than one someone would.
This young man was adored. He took his life because he couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing those he loved. He did it privately, remotely, in a way that suggests he hoped his body would never be found. He could not have anticipated the devastation his last act on earth would bring. Someone so loved would not willingly inflict such agony. He did not know. And neither do I. None of us know.
I left the service after an hour to meet prior obligations. On my way out, I saw that the lobby had been filled with seats to contain the overflow, and outside, crowds gathered, stunned and miserable, on the sidewalk. The parking lot was so full, people had begun to park on the lawn. As I drove away, shaken and weighted down with sympathy, I sensed that I was meant to witness that. Meant to witness what followed one person’s fatal case of depression.
Now, a mere three weeks later, I have noticed that my own despair has lifted. I still have the same stressors, the same disappointments and uphill battles, but at some point in the past 21 days, I decided to try harder to realize my dreams. I don’t know precisely when things changed, how or why. But I know the memorial service profoundly changed me. Me. One who has suffered depression off and on for thirty years and even wrote a novel about it. I was changed by the suicide of a beautiful stranger.
We never know when something will come along to help us. We never know who will mourn us or how deeply. Those of us who have longed for the unknown spaces of the “other side” should remember there is plenty that remains unknown to us on this side.
Donna Butler is the author of Manifesting Daddy, a novel that follows one woman's victory over depression.
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