An old friend of mine took his own life yesterday. I got the news on a voicemail from a mutual friend in the morning. I hadn’t spoken with either in years. Close friends through my teens and twenties, we lost touch nearly a decade ago when he moved away to start a life with his new family. He eventually got ahold of me on Facebook, but beyond a few brief exchanges online, I wasn’t active in his life. I did however make a point of periodically checking his wall updates. The last thing I noticed he was making a spirited rally in a battle with alcohol, and taking stock of the things that mattered most in his life—his wife and children.
I was quietly happy for him, and although our lifestyles and values had changed, our history hadn’t, and I’d entertained ideas about catching up on old times. It never occurred to me that I may have just been content watching the outward appearance of something more desperate. I spent much of the day following that news doing what I imagine most might consider an exercise in futility— asking myself if I could have done more; asking myself if fixating on my own life came at the cost of time spent providing encouragement or insight to someone who could have used it.
Playwright Arthur Miller once wrote, “Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.” For whatever personal truth can be excavated from that, I also believe while there’s no utility in habitually punishing yourself for things you’ve already done, perhaps a bigger lesson can be learned from the things we haven’t done. As details of this tragedy became clearer, I learned apparent significant personal and financial trouble interrupted my friend’s life in quick succession, and many close to him weren’t even aware of his sudden spiral.
Today I watched a video of my friend playing with his son, and heard his voice for the first time in years. I stopped trying to fight the tears. It’s easy to judge people from a place of relative stability, when the things we most care about aren’t forfeit. The truth is we each don’t know how we would react with our backs against a wall until our backs are actually there. I don’t know how much veiled pain my friend was already enduring when these stabilizing forces in his life toppled beneath him, and I think part of the reason I didn’t know is probably a bit of both of our fault.
I can think of few things that serve as such a solemn reminder that life is so finite and the relationships that comprise it so fragile. It would be at least arrogant to pretend I had all of the answers my friend needed, or that any one of us could have vanquished the demons that only recently characterized his life, but I’d be lying to say it hasn’t made me think twice about how much I’m asking the simple question, “how have you been?”
If you’re hurting, there’s help out there, and it isn’t limited to the help you think you have.