We were right on time. People were claiming their seats in the uneven circle, and since Jo had told PJ, the leader, that we were coming, PJ had saved us two folding chairs right next to her blue sky and white clouds beanbag chair. Welcoming, not at all tall, and with her hands busily underlining her words, she reminded me of a fun Italian Mama, someone born with a happy spirit. She greeted us and gave me some printed materials describing the special nature of grief for survivors of suicide, and then it was time to start.
I studied the room while people settled in. Didn’t look at anybody. I concentrated on PJ’s office decor instead of people’s faces. The signs and objects scattered around expected absolutely nothing from me. Good. Most items looked like offerings from grateful clients. Rocks, sea glass, unlit candles. I looked at one of the frames hanging on a wall.
doesn’t always roar.
Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying,
“I will try again tomorrow.”
Oh, jeez. Really? I thought. I don’t belong here. But I read the rest of them. The wall to my right held a framed set of four sepia photographs, each one depicting an architectural feature that doubled as a letter. Two joined posts of an ironwork fence: H. A window in a Victorian house: O. H-O-P-E.
A purposefully peaceful poster of a tumbling small stream, which looked welcoming but chilly, hung where there was still space, and framed photographs of individual leaves floated in small clusters around the room. A large Cades Cove print showed a log cabin with some bright orangey-red maple leaves vivid on the tree in front. They were the same color they would have been when Lee died. Death can be so beautiful; that’s what I would think today. That night, I thought only of Lee and how the day he died he might have seen leaves that matched those in the print.
Studying the room’s furnishings and knickknacks ended my nervousness. It wasn’t really my kind of place, but I could tell it was a safe place.
“We always begin,” PJ said, looking around the circle, “with brief introductions. Please share your name—first, or first and last, whatever you prefer—and tell us who you’re here for. Let us know how long it’s been. What your relationship was to the person.” The room had become very quiet.
“Remember,” she continued, “we never mention the suicide method. We don’t need to traumatize someone any more than they might already be. And always know that if you can’t speak, maybe don’t want to speak, that’s fine. You don’t have to. Just shake your head no or say, ‘Pass.’”
Jo was sitting next to PJ, and PJ asked her to start.
Jo sat up very straight and tall in her beige chair. She looked proud, as if she spoke on Lee’s behalf. “I’m Jo, and I’m here for Lee. He was my friend. He was—is—Nancy’s son.” She gestured toward me. “We lost Lee five months ago. . . .” Her voice dropped off, quivering.
When you’re left behind by a suicide, it doesn’t take long before people try to send you to a support group, but I’ve never been a support group kind of person. Just not my kind of thing. Sharing secrets with strangers didn’t appeal to me, and I figured it couldn’t help with my awkward re-entry attempts either. Plus, I never felt comfortable crying in public. Nope, no support group for me. I would do this on my own. That’s how I’d always done things.
My two boys and I had mostly managed to hold each other up, like a somewhat battered but determinedly sturdy three-legged wooden stool made in the nearby Smoky Mountains. But when, in early November, my older son all-of-a-sudden no longer existed after almost twenty years, it was as if one of the stool’s legs had come unglued, fell away, and was lost. My younger son, Luke, and I were having to figure out how to move forward in spite of our hopping and toppling over each other. Lee had added balance to our family; he was the kindest one of us—and the best hugger. Luke and I were struggling without him.
One of my New Year’s resolutions had been to make it through an entire phone conversation with my parents, who lived in my home state of Virginia, without ruining it with my sobs or attempts to squelch them. That would be an adjustment to make us all feel better. Mom and Dad were worried I might follow their grandson. They were determined and maybe scared. Dad went to funeral homes to research options as he figured they had had experience with survivors of suicide. Called some doctor friends, too, and in mid-January, when I broke down again over the phone, he encouraged me to consider taking an antidepressant.
“Absolutely not,” I retorted, incensed and surprised. Embarrassed, too. “I’m not depressed. I’m grieving. What I’m going through, how I’m acting, well, it’s perfectly normal.”
Dad told me about a group called the Knoxville Suicide Grievers Support Group. The funeral home in Lynchburg had suggested it. They told him I was lucky since it was the only one in East Tennessee. Dad looked on a map and found that it met only five minutes away from my home.
“No,” was my brief response. “But thanks for checking into it.” I was almost always polite, even if adamantly opposed to something.
Now, I knew I wasn’t going to commit suicide, no way I’d ever do that, but my parents didn’t know that. After all, I had kept their grandson’s mental illness a secret from them for years. Plus, I cried a lot, couldn’t sleep, and refused to take any medication except the occasional, tiniest chip I nibbled off the end of an Ambien. My son Lee and I had maybe felt the same way about meds; we were bullheaded self-healers. We could handle it. And lots of times, we did. But then everything changed.
So, I understood—I really did—why my parents and my friend Jo from work conspired to trick me into getting some help. Jo called late one afternoon in March, said she’d pick me up, that some people she knew needed my help, wouldn’t I please talk to them, parents who’d just lost a child. I fell for it. Always thought the way to learn how to ride a bike was to tell someone else how to do it.
Jo told me the truth right as we pulled into the parking lot—we were going to that support group for people who’d lost someone to suicide, and it met the second Thursday of each month at the facilitator’s office. She had tears in those Kentucky cornflower blue eyes and a tremor in her voice.
“Please, Nancy, try. Lee didn’t want you to suffer like this. He thought you’d be better off with him gone. He didn’t know. Please come inside with me. The leader’s supposed to be really good. She’s an LCSW and a certified thanatologist—if you can believe that term even exists—and she leads this group for free. People think she’s some kind of saint.”
I didn’t know about going in, but I did know Jo was right about what Lee thought. Plus, Lee had loved Jo; he had carried the processional cross in her wedding even though he didn’t believe in God. I loved Jo, too. I knew I should do this for her. Go inside, I told myself. Don’t make a fuss. Lose gracefully. Pick up your cross. It’s only an hour.
PJ was looking at me expectantly. My turn. Already. But what did I want to share?
“I’m Nancy, Lee’s mother. He was nineteen, almost twenty.” I spoke rapidly and didn’t cry. I looked at PJ and faked a smile. I was holding up fine.
In later meetings, once I became more comfortable, I opened up a bit. I told them about the online suicide support group Lee was involved with, which I called Wolfpack. It was unmoderated, and I always thought it was a really bad idea for a group of mentally ill people to try to help each other without professional support. At least, most of them were ill. But I think there were hunters and trolls in there, too, and maybe some of them found Lee an attractive victim; most of all, there was a person who said she was a young girl named Milly, whom Lee thought he loved but who I had come to think was evil incarnate. My son was such a genuinely nice guy, and I think it was fun for some of them—especially “Milly”—to watch him twist in his pain. Maybe it gave them a weird sort of pleasure to use words to kill. But maybe I was wrong, overreacting. Surely people wouldn’t really do that—push someone over the edge and watch with satisfaction.
But that was all too much to bring up in that first meeting.
“I’ve been busy blaming myself for Lee’s death—that’s my job as a mom, right?” This was my bitter attempt at a kind of humor, and it worked with this crowd. A light scattering of chuckles splashed against the stiff air in the office.
As I finished, a short-haired blonde with sunburned cheeks ran in the door. Jeans and muddy leather cowboy boots. Tall and sturdy. Plopped down in the empty chair across the circle from us. Looked like a strong, self-sufficient young woman.
The introductions took some time; the circle contained more people than I’d expected to see. More than twenty of us, and most had come alone. I empathized with each person even then, before I heard all the details of their stories. The husband who found his wife on their bed, surrounded by photos of her ex-husband and even dressed in her ex’s clothes. The father who’d found his son by the lake, in the rain, at their favorite fishing spot. The friend who screamed “NO!” when he read the note, drove fast to the note writer’s home, and found him, too late. A sister who’d lost two brothers, a partner, and now a parent to suicide. Some couldn’t stop crying. A few couldn’t speak, shook their heads, and looked embarrassed.
I wanted to give them privacy. That was what I sought; everyone here deserved it, too. This room wasn’t The Cave, the place I went most nights to count all my guilt and blame. Sure, most would claim that The Cave wasn’t real, but it wasn’t imaginary to me, and my friends and family were starting to find their way there, as well, to rock with me in the dark and try to figure out why we lost him. The Cave was also where I had recently begun to consider my options, what I could do about what had happened to Lee. If there was anything I could do. Something felt familiar about this room, something that reminded me of The Cave. But PJ’s meeting space was also different, sort of like a petri dish full of strangers, a place where we could tell the truth—there didn’t seem to be any judging going on—and experiment with living and growing again, while also working to decipher the changes and losses we had been forced to endure.
We finished the circle and doubled back to the woman who had come in after we began. She said her name was Sissy, and she apologized for being a little late getting into Knoxville but her farm was an hour away, and a Guernsey calf was coming, and she had to help the mama out a bit, but everything was going to be all right, so she’d come along. Said she was there for her brother Bobby. That he’d died eight months before. I liked her. Even trusted her. She seemed real. Honest.
“OK, good,” PJ said. “You’re all welcome here. I’m glad to see you, but we are all very sorry for what has brought each one of you here.
We never have an agenda,” she added. “You decide what we talk about. Each month, y’all bring in what needs to be discussed. Who’s brought something for tonight?”
The room went silent again. PJ waited patiently, her normally animated hands still. I spotted four large boxes of Kleenex as they began their bob and weave around the circle of chairs: white plastic, folding metal, a two-person sofa, bentwood rocker, PJ’s beanbag, an overstuffed armchair.
I looked around at the people in the chairs. Time to see who they were. I hadn’t been able to look at them during the introductions but knew I needed to validate the humanity of each person there through my own direct recognition of them. But I had to begin with a superficial view before I looked into their faces. Nothing too invasive.
Bow tie. Ripped jeans. Flip-flops. Red heels. Worn cowboy boots. Polo shirt. Strand of pearls. Smashing Pumpkins T-shirt. Chipped nails. Orange and white GO VOLS T-shirt. Big diamond. Lanky. Stocky. Tattoos. Old briefcase, with a sticker for George Strait’s “I Just Want to Dance with You” slanted up the front. Ponytail, pulled tight and up high. Chapped lips being gnawed. Hot pink lips. Dried bloody side of a thumb. Jiggling legs.
Not much eye contact. Eyes flat dead or focused on the floor.
“When?” Pink Lips asked. She’d identified herself as a first-timer like me. Obviously hadn’t slept much for days. Gray face. Deep circles underlining her eyes. She tried again. “When will I feel like myself? Like normal?”
PJ looked at John and Mary, who’d lost their sixteen-year-old son five years earlier and now served as co-facilitators. John began, his black eyes glittering. “You will never have your life back as it was. You’ll never be the same.” He patted his wife’s knee. They touched often. It’s a rare couple who make it after a child’s suicide.
“Yes,” Mary added. “How could you be the same? Something—someone—has been ripped from you. They’ll always be in your heart, but you’re entirely changed and new. And new isn’t always so good. Or easy.”
“You’ll find your new normal,” John said. “You’re probably already redefining who you are. Part of the process. Your re-entry and rebuilding process.”
After a quiet space, Flip-flops asked his question. “Will I ever laugh again?”
“Yes,” said PJ, “but it could feel different. Not as open or free. You might always carry some sadness within you, even when you laugh. It may take a while. But eventually, I promise, you’ll laugh again.”
Eventually. After all this helpful information, most of us scooched back in our chairs to let it settle in a bit. Some looked stunned. I was some months out from my son’s suicide, more experienced than several of the others, and none of this was news to me. But it confirmed what I had thought was true, even as I hoped it was not. I hadn’t laughed a real honest laugh, not even a small unforced chuckle, for five months. Doubted I ever would again. I had always been known for my quirky view of life, one that had helped others laugh in the past, but it wasn’t in me anymore. I didn’t think anything was funny. Part of my adapting to life after losing Lee, I assumed, was accepting that I no longer had my sense of humor. Laughter required a certain amount of trust and a belief in the power of goodness in the world. I had lost those, too.
A few months after our first meeting, Jo and I sat again in what were now our folding chairs. The painful introductions had been completed, and the cast of characters I’d first met in PJ’s office were almost all there, plus a few new ones, and PJ opened up the discussion.
We chatted for a bit about how group members were planning to get through some birthdays coming up in the next week or so. Longer-term survivors offered some tricks and tactics for making it through the first birthday without the person who had committed suicide. There was an enthusiastic debate whether or not to have birthday cake. I voted with those who decided to have one—I’d made Lee’s favorite sour cream chocolate cake on his birthday—but understood why others would decide not to.
Somewhat a pro, I’d already survived the “terrible two”—my first Thanksgiving and Christmas—as well as Lee’s birthday and MLK, Valentine’s, and St. Patrick’s Days. And then came Easter with its focus on death and resurrection, which didn’t cause the traditional joy for me this year. Now I was dreading my own upcoming spring birthday. No handmade or store-bought card, no gift, or, most missed, no hugs from Lee. I definitely didn’t want to observe it—or the date arriving a little before it on the calendar, the one I still call the-much-dreaded-Mother’s Day. I was glad when we moved to a new topic and found ourselves on our first, unplanned major agenda item of the night.
“I am so mad at him,” threw in Bow Tie, and the topic was officially opened. “Oh, maybe not mad at him. But mad he’s gone.”
Tattoo Sleeve dropped a Kleenex box on my lap. I was wondering if I’d ever been mad at Lee, at least since he died. I didn’t think so. I mainly missed him. Felt that hole. But now, listening to Bow Tie, I realized I could feel anger rising. I had been ignoring it as best I could—I wasn’t absolutely certain where it came from or what to do with it. I didn’t want to think about it. It hurt.
I knew I would have to face it, sooner or later. Ah, here it came, freight-training in. Couldn’t stop it this time. I was mad at the people whose words had killed my son, the people who supposedly counseled and befriended him in Wolfpack.
Sissy leaned forward from her chair. The young woman with the heifer, the blonde who’d been a little late at my first meeting. Her presence billowed into the room; she was not corner material. I took a Kleenex just in case, or maybe only to be polite, passed the box on to Jo, and waited.
“Mad? Let me tell you about mad.” Sissy paused, composing herself.
“A railroad track crossed the road close by the funeral home,” she began, pointing her index finger at several people around the room as if there would be a test. “And time and again, I drove my little red Honda truck over that track. Bumpity-bump. Headed toward the low red brick building. And then, right after I felt the track, I made a U-turn and drove back, away from there. I kept at this for maybe half an hour. Back and forth. Screeching into the U-turns.”
She took a breath. Picked a string off her jeans. Flicked it onto the floor. “Now, my best friend since sixth grade, Maribeth, was with me, and she shook her long shiny black pigtails at me and said my whole family was inside and we were already late.
“‘Get ON with it, girl,’ Maribeth said. ‘There’s no choice here. This is what you’ve GOT to do. Stop being such a common little shit, holding everything and everybody up.’”
Sissy said she obeyed for once and pulled into the lot. Everyone in the room, me included, leaned a little forward, interested in her story.
She talked at high speed. “I slammed my truck door shut so hard I was afraid it was too hard, then walked fast toward the funeral home. I was so mad at my brother Bobby. I loved him the very best of anyone. He knew that. We were way more than fishing buddies and always gave each other true advice. About everything, from crops to how to train our dogs. Even capital-R romance. I knew him inside out. And now he’d sneaked out on me, took the chicken’s way out. He should’ve told me. Talked to me.”
She looked around the room, squinted her eyes as if she was reading a weather pattern coming across the Smokies. “Plus,” she said, more softly, and lowered her eyes so we couldn’t see their bright blue flash. “It was more than me. Who’s gonna tell that yellow-haired boy about his daddy, who he really was? Not Bobby’s ex. Me, and me alone. It’s gonna be a hard row to hoe. A long one, too.”
She coughed. Maybe she was a smoker. I’d had to quit thirteen times before I beat it. I was thinking I could tell her about those new nicotine patches.
“I got madder when I got into that big room. All filled with people,” she said. She was growing angry again, right in front of us. Her cheeks and the front of her neck blazed.
“Before I had any idea I was gonna do this, my boots walked over to that shiny bronze-colored casket. I looked in at Bobby. Cold, pale, dead, and someplace I am not anywhere near ready to go. Then?” She paused. Looked around at each of us.
“I made a fist and pulled it back as far as I could. Stood tippy-toed. Leaned back. Then leaned forward as I powered my right arm in. Socked Bobby, hard as I could, dead center. On his jaw. Pulled back, and hell if I didn’t hit him again. Harder.”
She paused. Smiled. The smile a baby sister gives when she gets her big brother and shows him who’s really boss.
Tattoo Sleeve chuckled. So did Pearl Necklace. I almost did.
“I would’ve done it again, but hell, the coffin started swaying on its flimsy self, and the stand it was restin’ on made a squenchie noise. Bobby was a big old boy. Looked like it all might tumble him right down on the floor.”
Our room went silent. I felt something free start to bubble up inside me. I think everybody did. I tried to hold it back, but cool oxygen rushed in, fresh and filling my lungs. I saw Sissy’s nostrils flare. That’s a sure sign in my family, especially with women who sometimes try to tone things down. Those nostrils portend wild, wide-open laughter.
“Well,” she continued, “I thought Bobby would be proud. I was the only damn person acting normal in the whole goddamn place.” She took a breath. Seemed to twinkle a bit. Smiled around at everybody in the room, glad to see we were with her, and we were.
“Somebody yelled, ‘FIGHT! FIGHT!’—probably one of Bobby’s friends making a joke—and two bent-over friends of my dead grandmother’s, both in light, flowery, see-through like summer dresses, came running up on their skinny beanpole legs and tried to pull me away from the casket.
“‘Now, Sissy. Now, Sissy,’ they clucked and patted and pulled at the puffy sleeve of my lime green Sunday dress.
“They looked a little afraid of me when I gave ’em the slant-eye.” Sissy said. “And then?”
Sissy started giggling. Those nostrils were about to fly her up in the air. She worked at it, and somehow made herself stop laughing. I felt that bubbling up feeling again. It wanted to escape. To explode. In a nice way.
Briefcase Guy snorted, looked embarrassed. Shook his head no, and then snorted again, louder, trying to hold it in. Grinned big. Looked surprised.
Chipped Nails ventured a tiny laugh. Like sending up her weather balloon.
Sissy rushed in to continue her story. “And then, Aunt Fan handed me her very own funeral handkerchief. I’d seen it before. She flourished it in front of my face. Shook it there.
“‘Here, Sissy,’ Aunt Fan said. ‘This’ll help you. Take it.’”
Sissy was nearly doubled over with laughter. She grabbed some breath.
“It was a folded up square, printed with violets and with purple embroidered scallops on the edges, and how on earth she thought that would help me, I had no idea. But this handkerchief was the thing that made me start to laugh. And I laugh really hard when I get goin’ like that. This time was maybe the loudest ever.
“So, then, everybody was afraid of me. People who hadn’t already left the room scattered fast. It had been real crowded in there. A suicide and all.”
Sissy snorted. Some people started chuckling louder. There wasn’t a frown in PJ’s office.
“That parlor got so empty. Just Bobby, Maribeth, and me. We’d cleaned it out. Ha!” She slapped her knee.
Some of us chuckled again. Two or three giggled. A forgotten rhythmic sound. I wiped tears from my cheeks. My nostrils had started to pick up where Sissy’s had left off. I could feel them flaring and lifting. Jo joined the gigglers.
“Maribeth and I fell on the floor in front of that coffin. We just had to. Screamed with laughter. We got in that fetal position. Two babies facing each other, howling at something that had tickled them. Then we’d flop over and open ourselves up, flat on our backs. Gasping for air. Arms flung out wide open. Couldn’t stop laughing. The funeral home director huffed in to talk about respect for the dead. One look at his little whimpering white face, and it just made us both hoot louder for at least a minute or two more. But, suddenly, we felt the room change. We turned to see what it was, and one look at my daddy’s face, where he’d come and stood in that parlor door to look down at us, and we pulled it together quick. The service started, twenty minutes past the time in the Anderson County paper.”
Sissy laughed loudly again, wiped tears from her eyes, and all of us laughed right along with her.
I slapped my leg. Made a loud exclamation point on my old comfy blue jeans. Some people clapped their hands like old codgers. Loud, single claps with “Haw!” or “Aw!” right after. No one was quiet.
We’d just about calm down, and then someone would start up again, a single burst of laughter, and others would join in, and soon everybody was at it again. Like a family on a road trip, when everybody is tired and getting silly. And everybody spoke the same language. We threw Kleenex boxes back and forth. I dabbed at my tears. I hadn’t felt so comfortable in months.
I wanted to go give Sissy a hug. Maybe buy her a beer somewhere. I owed her. She’d made me feel almost free for the first time since Lee died. I looked down at the now translucent Kleenex in my hand. Saw remnants of big, round laughter there. It felt and sounded different from my old joy, was more muted, but it was real. It was alive. It could grow.
I felt lighter, as if I might fly. I breathed in and wanted more. I’d taken a step back toward life. My first laugh had also released other emotions, familiar but also new, because losing Lee had transformed me. Nothing was the same. I was more certain what I had to do to move forward. I accepted for the first time that I was full-on angry, but not at Lee. I was mad at them, those people who’d hurt my son. I had work to do, and I could begin it because joy, even a tempered joy, would help me with the hard stuff that anger would unearth. Joy would bolster my balance as I walked through the mess that was surely awaiting me, and anger would hold me up and keep me going, too.
Jo and I grasped each other’s hands and squeezed. She was such a good friend, and she understood. We both knew Sissy wasn’t going to take Bobby’s death lying down. No siree, Bob.
And I wasn’t, either. No siree, Lee.