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My husband Terry killed himself on May 25, 2020, a little over three years ago. A book about his life, our marriage, and his death, THE SWEET PAIN OF BEING ALIVE, is going to be published this year and people from total strangers to close friends often say, “It must have been cathartic to write the book,” or “It must have been sad to write the book. Did you cry a lot?” The answer to both questions is no.

I’m a writer. My reaction to almost everything is to write about it, or think about writing about it. The writing engine finally started puffing away when I was around 50, when I had some time to myself, and it’s never stopped, so it isn’t surprising that I wrote about Terry. Many aspects of his suicide were unexpected at the time or uncovered after it happened; those things would be of interest to readers. Who knew that every suicide was considered a crime scene, for instance? It makes perfect sense, but I’d never thought about it. I’d never thought much about suicide at all, but looking back, I see that it brushed me many times. My high school friend Wendy’s car crashed into a tree going 60 miles an hour with no skid marks. My brother’s friend Eddy ran full speed into the barrier along the helix leading to the Lincoln Tunnel. I’ve looked at those walls wondered how he managed to do that, but doctors deemed it an attempted suicide. Many years later he hung himself in his basement in Austria. My 8th grade Social Studies teacher, who became a friend when we were both adults, closed herself in her garage and turned on the car’s motor, leaving two young adopted daughters behind. Carlos shot himself on his front lawn, where the cleanup could be accomplished with a garden hose. My second husband’s mother said she never forgot what it was like to clean up the bathroom after a cousin shot herself. A partner in a law firm I worked for jumped in front of a New York City subway train. When I first moved to Vermont, my plumber’s son, then my electrician’s son killed themselves. At a 40th high school reunion, I spoke with Frank about his profound sadness and two months later, he killed himself. My litany of suicide shocks is not unique…I forgot to mention Robin Williams, Anthony Bourdain, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and possibly Marilyn Monroe. This story is the anatomy of a suicide, one of those stories where the pattern becomes clear only in retrospect. It made sense to write it down, then see what I had wrought.

Perhaps that could be called “cathartic,” but catharsis is a heart-driven experience, and I didn’t feel any kind of purging. Grief runs the show in its own time, at its own pace. It can take command twenty years later or might show up when you’re dancing or making Brownies. I didn’t write the book with the intention of controlling grief through a controlled release, like the spillways of a dam.

For our 12th anniversary, Terry and I went to Jean Georges, a high end restaurant in one of the New York buildings named after Donald Trump. The food was excellent, but the service was unctuous—a server, aided by another server, brought me a single spoon on a silver plate to eat my pudding with. I had trouble containing laughter, and one look at Terry revealed a similar muted reaction. In laughter and all other states, I was not alone. “We’ve entered the category of a long marriage,” I told him. Not the 60+ years of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip or Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, but the point when bumping into Terry when I moved around in bed at night felt like bumping into a part of my own body. Losing him felt like losing a part of my integral self. After his death, parts of me that were Terry exited my body with random force. Wordsmithing my thoughts and feelings could be planned, a part of me drifting out of reach could not be.

Tears flowed so rarely when I was writing that I can’t recall a single time, though it probably did happen. The pain was separate from the writing; pain comes from the heart and writing comes from the head. While Terry’s ashes were arranging themselves along the steep side of a ravine leading down to a rushing brook, my sister-in-law expressed her feelings poetically, “His ashes will wash to the sea,” and I said, “Or into somebody’s soup.” I guess I’m less sentimental than some. As E. Jean Carroll said, “Some women cry. Some don’t.” In Facebook groups I had the privilege of seeing how grief engenders different responses; some can’t go back to work for months, others show up the next day. My handyman went to work the day after his wife’s death. When asked why, he said, “What am I supposed to do? Sit home and cry?” Today, fifteen years after her death, he still speaks of her reverently. His lack of tears didn’t signal a lack of feeling.

I have tried to follow the instructions flowing from my Buddhist practice. Let the grief come, embrace it, feel it deeply. Cleansing the mind of distraction during meditation laid bare unfettered emotion which came out willy-nilly. My body made strange sounds and produced tears from time to time as the loss found its place. Thich Nhat Hanh showed a way of handling disfiguring emotions. He reached his hands to enfold an invisible object, perhaps anger, grief, or hatred. “I know you. There you are again.” He held it tenderly in his arms. “I will take care of you. Don’t be afraid.” I try to handle grief that way, as part of me and therefore not a stranger, not an enemy.

In the long term, I have found suicide grief to be unique. Just as with any terminal condition, there were warning signs that I didn’t ignore but felt powerless to change. Terry spoke about the option of suicide in the context of terminal disease, but my mother had made sure by repetition that I knew that if she was fully debilitated, I should pull the plug. It was sensible to have a plan for such eventualities. Terry told me about the culture of honor surrounding suicide in Japanese culture which he’d learned about while becoming a high level player of the Asian board game GO. Talking about suicide could hardly be called a signal of impending action. The pandemic sobered him into a low-level depression, but it was sobering a lot of people into depression. He’d been depressed when he had to stop teaching, too, but he’d gradually gotten over it. His desire to “know what it would be like to be a woman” was more problematic, but attempts to discuss it in depth ricocheted onto other subjects. This gender malaise did affect our life together, and he should have told me about it before we married, not after, but that was water under the dam. And it’s not as though I didn’t contribute my share of thorns to our nest; I had a history of bad choices that were still playing out professionally and personally. Adjusting to each other’s present and past was one of the keys to a harmonious and stable marriage. From a number of clues that look clear only in hindsight, I’m quite certain he knew he was going to kill himself that night. Yet he didn’t ask for help from me or from a suicide hotline or a doctor. The difference between a heart attack and suicide is that I felt betrayed. He was my rock, revealed as sand. The pillars of our marriage were revealed as artifacts shielding the real Terry. The stability I had depended upon was canceled in a single stroke.

If he had admitted to a recurring impulse to suicide and gender insecurity before we married, I would have relegated him to the status of “friend,” and we wouldn’t have had our happy and productive years together. In her book, SHE’S NOT THERE, Jennifer Finney Boylan writes that she thought that truly falling in love would straighten all the crooked places. Terry may have felt the same way. In his poem Layers, Stanley Kunitz writes about looking back on “the slow fires trailing from abandoned camp-sites,/over which scavenger angels/wheel on heavy wings.” Terry had slow fires trailing behind him, and each held a complex story. How could he have known which of those fires would come alight again? I had some fires of my own that retained some of their embers. Kunitz continues “the manic dust of my friends,/those who fell along the way/bitterly stings my face./Yet I turn, I turn, exulting somewhat,/with my will intact to go/wherever I need to go.” For me, the “wherever I need to go” was writing a book, an act of defiance, an announcement of renewing energy and life.