Death of a Friend

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It seems so prescient upon reflection to have written about the nature of final goodbyes in my previous blog post. A few days before my forty fourth Birthday in 2015, one of my longest standing friendships came to an abrupt and terrible end.

I’d known David J Rodger since 1994. It was one of those situations where you meet another person and just click on so many levels that the friendship that blossoms from such an occasion , feels like a hand fitting in a perfectly tailored glove.

We shared a house together in the mid nineties and enjoyed a friendship that spanned just over twenty years from that era. I’d begun writing a longer history of our time knowing each other sometime towards the end of November but decided that I could use the story for fleshing out the autobiographical section of this website. The thing is,  when you truly find a kindred spirit and form bonds that span decades, its hard to imagine that you will lose that connection. I saw in David a man who’s face I could easily imagine growing old, who’s smiling mischievous eyes would be playfully cajoling me over a drink somewhere in time and space right into our senior years. I could see it so clearly that it never seemed uncertain.

Then on November the 22nd, I learnt the lesson that apparent certainties can never be taken for granted. He’d taken his own life. The metaphor that sprang to mind in the immediate aftermath was that of watching a bright star collapse and leave nothing but a black hole in its wake. It felt that way, most literally. I looked inside myself to all the places of possibility and futures yet to happen, all those places and events that I’d anticipated as ‘still to come’ and I found him gone. It was the collapse of an unwritten timeline who’s previous possibilities for potential had all but vanished to some hideously painful , entropic zero point.

It was an event that quietly changed the world of all those who knew and loved him. I watched the wave of grief rise up and spread in the inevitable way that It only could in this 21st century. Online outpourings of pain and loss as friends and relatives put their emotions into this digital data sphere. It was both appalling and equally fascinating. The former as a cementation of the now irreversible fact, the later as an education in how grief has so many facets and aspects.

In writing this on New Years Day 2016, I accept that this is a manifestation of my own grief. It is hard to say it, but I found myself coming to terms with the emotional fallout of Dave’s sudden departure a lot sooner than I would have expected. I’ve been searching my soul for the reasons I seem to have apparently taken his absence in my stride and I should put it into words as it helps me, but also I hope that it helps someone else at some point.

He’d spoken several times about his wish to end his life a month or two before he committed to doing it. Even though I was appalled that he was entertaining the notion, at the time I wasn’t sure if it was all just talk. I’d grown up in a world that said “People who talk about taking their own lives, rarely do it.” I now know this is not a golden rule. But, when the matter was still a point of conjecture in our friendship, and after the inevitable conversations where I argued against the fuzzy logic he was expressing, a part of me began to withdraw, I’d say it was an intuition for self preservation.

About a fortnight before he chose to end it all, I had a most curious ‘omen’ occur. Yes, I will use that word because that’s how my mind and heart work sometimes. I was leaving my workplace in the dusk of a damp and grey, early November evening. An object thumped to the ground before me and I quickly realised that It was a wounded pigeon.

My instinct to pick up and protect the injured bird flapping on the ground kicked in immediately, but to my horror, as the thought entered my mind, the creature craned its head back and spat out a small jet of blood then fell deathly still. I felt shaken by what I’d just witnessed, then on some deep gut level I found myself realising “There will be lives you want to save, but when it is time for those lives to end, there will be nothing you will be able to do about it”

I heard that inner voice and knew it to be true. I began to emotionally prepare myself thereafter. Dave and I had a few frustrating conversations after that little event. He wasn’t interested in reason, rationale or positive outcomes for the yet unwritten future. He was convinced that he was utterly doomed and really wanted to hear no argument against it.

Naturally it follows that having lived through the event of a loved one’s suicide, you can think of all of the things you now know that might have provided greater pause for thought in your arguments against it, and If I had owned a time machine then I truly believe the weight of pure guilt I could have inflicted would have been sufficient to prevent his death. However, as it is often said ad nauseum ‘Hindsight is a wonderful thing’

I’m not willing to put online the multitude of complexities of why Dave did what he did, after all, they would only be my personal opinion not necessarily facts. What I can say as fact is that he experienced a rapid and catastrophic mental illness that was initially diagnosed as acute anxiety disorder coupled with depression. From my own insights of the man, I could add that this diagnosis described the symptoms of the surface of a psychological abscess that ran immeasurably deeper for considerably longer. There had always been signs of a more troubled psyche, but on the most part he’d always publicly managed to suppress the symptoms.

Any observant person will know that suicide is an act that causes deeply divided opinions about itself. Many consider it to be the most selfish thing that a person can do, the other half see it as a terrible and preventable tragedy of someone drowning in their own life. Until  November last year, I could only sit on the fence between these two schools of thought, but now I have insight enough to recognise that it is both of these things. Sorry, there is no clear cut answer that will provide comfort, both sides of the coin are ever present.

The selfish act will inflict untold misery to all who bear witness to it. Like a bomb detonating in the middle of a group of loved ones, it will devastate those who were closest to the person committing the deed. It scars and taints, leaves wounds that may never heal, bears little regard for the consequence of the action or just how many casualties it will leave in its wake. It is the ultimate act of self centeredness, which can only be underlined if it is clear that it was one of many options unexamined and unexplored. If you are not terminally ill, then there really is something to live for.

Then, drowning in your own life, seeing no light at the end of the tunnel, seeing nothing but darkness and being utterly convinced that this will be the only future available to you. How tragic, desperate, infinitely sad, to find yourself feeling that way and believing every word you tell yourself to reinforce that notion…

It’s possible that you have been thinking suicidal thoughts and have stumbled upon this page because of the subject matter. If so, pause for thought, the negative self talk is a lie. It really is, and if you can’t see beyond that, then talk to your closest friends and family and tell them what you are going through, hopefully they will tell you things contradictory to what you are feeling and you really should listen to them, no matter how opposite their thoughts are to the facts of what you are going through. If you  valued the love you have experienced from all those you know, then their thoughts and feelings may well define the stark line between life and death.

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It is a colossal act of ignorance to reject that love and while you may see your problems as a situation with a tempting end point, all you will really do is pass that pain you’re feeling on to all the people you ever cared about, the ones you forgot about who didn’t forget about you. A suicide transfers all the misery and pain of its own experience over to those who live beyond it. As a final solution, the emotional mess left behind is incalculable.

On the 11th of December I attended Dave’s funeral and wake. The occasion brought with it a certain sense of closure. In the stripped down facts of the ceremony, family and friends reunited for the final emotional farewell. Nothing can compare to the ultimate full stop of a life’s story than arriving in a building in a coffin shortly due to be cremated. In life Dave had been a writer of science fiction and horror stories. During his mental illness, it had been suggested that his depressive state had been a form of creating some kind of twisted, nihilistic, narcissistic narrative where he had made himself the central suffering protagonist. As one of his friends said in a brief eulogy “Dave, your ending sucks!” and he was right, it did and still does. I can say with pretty much one hundred percent conviction that everybody in attendance and those who couldn’t make it have all thought ‘What a bloody waste of a life”

What a pity that such clarity of thought and feeling doesn’t enter the minds of the suicidal before the final act.

Since Dave took his life I’ve learnt another lesson about grief in these circumstances. Suicide devastates the grieving process by turning something that should be pure into something that feels like a polluted emotional fug.

On the one hand, the natural tendency is to mourn and feel the pain and sorrow of the departed’s absence, yet these emotions are frequently robbed by an equally natural combination of frustration, anger and resentment. There is nothing clean about post-suicide grief, friends and loved ones must learn to come to terms with their conflicting emotions about the event, even if that ultimately means today I feel tearful, but tomorrow I will feel resentment, the day after that I may feel sadness again. If I were to compare it to sleep, then it is like being woken up by the snoring of the person in bed with you every time you come close to nodding off.

You get to examine your own capacity for guilt. Did I do or say enough to prevent this shitty outcome? I must admit that whilst such thoughts were briefly entertained, I drew a line through them fairly quickly. By nature I am not a masochist and in understanding human nature I recognise that while guilt may be a natural tendency, it provides the potential for self flagellation in an endlessly empty rhetoric. I think there is also a danger in it as it provides fertile ground for the kind of toxic emotional environment that the suicidal person was experiencing. In this light, one could view the transference of negativity from the sufferer to those left behind as blatantly apparent.

I know I said and did what I could, I know that those closest to him did the same, I know that his long enduring partner continually supported him in his most desperate times, showing love, kindness, understanding beyond ordinary limits and it still wasn’t enough for him. In the end, he chose darkness over love, he sought death rather than embracing the opportunities of life. In his darkest and final moment, Dave chose to ignore or couldn’t see the only things that make life worth living, even though it was all around him. In the end he made a choice, it was the wrong one and nobody should blame themselves for it.

I’ve come to terms with living in a post-Dave world. I’ve chosen to let go of him in the most part. These words are part of a remaining residue of a friendship that concluded unnaturally before its time. I have mostly happy memories of a friend who at best, I could whole heartedly call my ‘Brother from another mother’ , who at worst could be so frustratingly self absorbed, it was lonely being in his company sometimes.

Of course, these are two extremes of emotion and I wouldn’t dream of doing the couple of decades of our friendship the disservice of saying that’s all it was. I loved him, I recognised the best and worst of him, laughed and cried, fought and tickled, shared journeys and adventures, chatted endlessly, enjoyed silence together, argued and hugged…all the hallmarks and ingredients of a proper loving relationship.

I will hold onto these memories and cherish the times that were, but I have put them in a mental box with a lid on it.  I’ve recognised that wishing Dave should still be here is like wishing I was still a child or that it was eternally last Saturday, to think this way is a path to deep unhappiness, self torture in wishing for things as they aren’t rather than as they are. What would be the point?

All I really know of my particular grief is that I will continue to live in a world where I will occasionally enter zones of experience, such as hearing a song, seeing a movie, finding a beautiful or interesting place, hungering for a particular kind of conversation knowing that there’s an empty space in life that Dave would have filled, would have enjoyed, would have offered an opinion or a like and his absence from these moments will be deeply felt. I feel as if a part of my own life has died, there is a perceptible void, a valued friend should have been in that space and now there is nothing in that space. This will not be unique to me, or any of the friends and family who remain. It seems that one of the hardest lessons that death teaches, is that life goes on and  that in living fully, one has to let go of the dead.

I’ve written this post over the course of a couple or so weeks, partly due to the incessant demands of a life away from the internet and partly due to wishing to gradually allow thoughts and feelings to percolate. Since beginning writing this entry, celebrities from the entertainment world have also passed away Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister, the actor Alan Rickman and global superstar David Bowie. The recent passing of the later has served to underline the sentiments I’d felt about the realisation that a person’s death is also a little part of your own life dying also. This is accompanied by the realisation that should you live a long and good life, one will inevitably see that most of what had formed the vital backdrop of that life has died away also. To continue living is to become a survivor. I don’t think this has to be a fatalistically bleak outlook, after all, I’d like to think for everyone and everything that dies, new things will fill their places and In these renewals, the cycle of life will sustain.

Dave’s ashes were scattered yesterday at Holy Island, Northumberland. Although I wasn’t present during the small family gathering, the news of the event reminded me that Dave had loved a science fiction book by Richard Morgan called ‘Altered Carbon’. I remembered the title and found it hard not to connect it with the final fate of my friend, and see the irony of it. If his consciousness exists posthumously, I’m certain that he’d have enjoyed the dark humour of this observation.

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