On the Death of a Student

I learned early this morning that one of my students from last summer committed suicide.

I don't even like the phrase, "committed suicide." It criminalizes a victim who is so haunted by his own mind that he can no longer cope. It is not an act of malice, but an act of mercy--no matter how it might feel to those left with the shadows of that life gone.

I only found out about this tragedy through another former student, one who sent me a lovely email regarding the powerful nature of our classes last July. For one month of the year, for the past eight years, I have taught creative writing to groups of exceptional students. Some summers I become inordinately close to those students, other summers less so. This past year was one of less so. I had fewer deep connections with students and generally found that even less than a year on, I have forgotten many of them and I'm sure they have likewise forgotten me. There were some students who were memorable, of course, but the nature of the class was not as familial as it has been some years past.This, I believe, is both due to the nature of the changing youth culture, as well as my own inabilities to be as present for my students in 2014.

The past two years have been incredibly difficult for me for a variety of reasons, all of which will surely air out eventually--in a book, in essays, in spoken word, in some form. I've had to take more space for myself and be okay with that. In August or September of 2013, I wrote about my own suicidal ideations, and I posted those thoughts in a note on facebook. I've learned through writing, through yoga, through living and breathing, that dialogue of (often unspoken) truth is the way to compassion, to connection, to deep and transcendent empathy.

So, I awoke around 4am this morning and I couldn't fall back to sleep; this is when I saw my student's email. He only mentioned to me that the young man had died; he didn't say how, but at this 4am hour, I had a sick feeling that the cause of death was suicide. Internet searching and a found facebook memorial confirmed what my intuition already knew. There was no reason to believe in July that by November he would take his own life, but the sense of sadness, the same sadness that can live within my own eyes, was there.

Jack was a vibrant young man and incredibly talented. His memorialized facebook wall is flooded with messages of his talents, his humor, what appears to be his shining popularity. I don't know if he ever knew of his own likeability or if in the face of such great darkness, it would have even mattered. His wall also contains messages from very young people, teenagers, who somehow through it all, seem to be more compassionate than angry, more loving than afraid.

Only last week in Greece, I sat on a bus (at the front, of course, for those who know of me and my motion sickness woes) heading to ancient Greek hot springs with a beautiful group of individuals undertaking the same Thai Yoga Massage training course as I. I sat with a new friend, Sanatan, for most of the ride, and at one point, we even discussed suicide. I spoke of how suicide, for me, has become part of the mental furniture. Sometimes it is very far in the back, pushed away, dust-covered. Other times, when things become deeply overwhelming, the dust is cleared and this piece of furniture somehow rolls to the front. It's my own spirituality that keeps me and has kept me from venturing fully down this path. In my darkest moments, I always had this deep sense, this deep belief, that I had done this before, removed myself from body too early, in a different life, a different existence, and that if I did it now, I would have to come back and learn all these lessons again.

I think this is harder to understand when one doesn't have this mental furniture. It must be excruciating as the individual suffering if you don't have something, some spiritual beliefs like I have or something else, that can anchor you and hold you back from a very dark brink.

The first time I thought about suicide, I was nine or ten. I thought about taking cinder blocks and boat rope and somehow tying them to my little, overweight body throwing them deep into Lake Michigan. Years later, when I learned of Virginia Woolf's suicide, how she weighted herself down with rocks to drown in the River Ouse, I was met with kindred understanding. Worse yet is that I think her suicide note is one of her greatest pieces of writing.

Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.

I remember screaming at God when I was ten--telling him how much I hated him and then incredulously asking, "Why am I here again?" It is startling how young I was to have had those words, those beliefs about reincarnation without ever even knowing they were beliefs, that there was something called "reincarnation." After this screaming session, I panicked in the way a child of a religious family does. I worried God would send me to hell or strike me down right then and there. God wasn't understanding or compassionate. God was fire and brimstone. God was scary. How is this religion? We create our own hells right here on earth and we don't need God for that. For me, God is everywhere now... God is tree and leaf... God is both the love and sadness in my eyes... God is manifested in everything.... So where does that leave suicide?

With Sanatan, I spoke of my constant internal dialogue about the intersection of the pre-destined and free will. Sanatan spoke of how he views the body as a loan, as a gift, and to throw it out is effectively cosmically forbidden (my words, not his). But then I asked him if suicide was not somehow part of the timeline, not a possibility on the chart of that birth? These are just thoughts and questions--nothing to encourage the act, but just an owning of my own spiritual grappling.

When I saw Monica Lewinsky's TED talk recently, my world shifted in many ways--many of which don't relate to this note: issues of gender, power, what young women see, etc, but what relates here is what she said about how her mother and father worried she would be humiliated to death--how her mother insisted she shower with the door open, how her mother slept next to her at night. Hearing this, tears immediately came. In the hours after watching that talk, I thought of my best friend who called me every morning in the autumn of 2014, how she was on suicide watch, terrified that I wouldn't be able to make it out of my own darkness--how even not that long ago, people in my life came home due to the terror of possibly losing me early.

I'm not really sure what the point of this note is... other than to just be in dialogue... even to be in dialogue with the dead... who more than forgiveness need compassion, and understanding beyond reason. If you've never been to these depths, you cannot know how black that ocean is, how easy it is to drown.

In the middle of the night, I lit a candle and burned incense for this young man. Sweet soul. He wrote a series of haikus that were published in our summer creative writing magazine. I have a video of him reading the one about the dragon. It's called, somewhat startlingly, "Breath Comes."

Breath Comes I High in the mountains Breath comes short, clean sweat runs cold Smooth hands grip sharp rocks II Someone long ago Built wooden stairs down the cliff. Nobody’s near. Dance? III Yellow dragon, look! Over the sea! I love you. There it goes. Goodbye.

This is all that can be said. Indeed, breath comes. I love you. There it goes... and goodbye.

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© Julie Bolitho 2018