He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
‘Out, Out—’ by Robert Frost
The first time I read this poem I was fifteen years old and the last two lines impacted me so much I’ve never forgotten them. They were so cold and ruthless and true. I’ve seen it happen all my life and done it myself, survived loss and moved on. In the wake of Lenore’s death and the throes of my bereavement so much has come forward from the past about death and loss. I’m considering everything I know about that.
Grief is indeed unique to the individual and so this is only about my personal experience.
First there was the concussion that hit the day Lenore died, the shock that slowly shattered my heart into pieces as I drove away from the hospice, and the numbness and disbelief even though we’d both seen her death coming. She was reconciled to it and at peace and met it with unbelievable strength and grace, but then that was her, who she was, how she lived.
When I was with her the last time, after her body had been washed and cleaned and arranged by the hospice staff and the stuffed Murphy puppy and my wool shirt were nestled up to her neck, I saw the slight, gentle smile of a Madonna on her face and knew she’d died the way she lived.
I’d had a near-death experience when I was young and had told her about it and in those last days reminded her of it again. I hoped in that final moment with her body that at least in part her peaceful smile was because she had experienced the peace and timelessness and connection and time to decide to go on I had experienced when near death. I came back, I had a choice. She did not, her circumstances were different. I just wanted her dying to be as beautiful and gentle and easy as it could be for her. That was all I ever wanted for her, in life and at the end.
There is no order in my grief. It’s a random, unnumbered hopscotch of days where I land in unspeakable places, fall into deep holes, teeter on the edge of precipices, walk through life with the thousand-yard stare of concussive aftermath. I often meet the daily events of my life in an outwardly unremarkable appearance, having conversation with others, beholding the beauty of nature, eating, cleaning, and taking care of the daily mundane chores of life in a body. Inside it’s a different story. I’m a gutted, hollow hulk, living by habitual rote, more robot than human in my actions – but very, very human in the pain at the core of it all.
Memories come unbidden now; they’re random emotional tics that hit my heart like a spear point. I wrench my mind away from them and go do something that requires my full attention. They return.
My external impartial observer notes daily that I’m living dead. Everywhere I go my face is numb and my mind barely engaged. I don’t smile except when it happens reflexively when I meet and talk with other people. The behaviorally conditioned responses of politeness and cordiality during engagement with another human being bring a smile here, a sympathetic agreeable nod there, all the appropriate requirements of the rite. I am merely an automaton, but a good one. In those moments I am engaged, registering, responding, identifying, sharing. Without joy.
There are people in my life who are worried that I won’t survive Lenore’s loss in my life. They should be. I am.
They know how we lived our life together; know how deeply we were bonded. They suspect at some deep level, either consciously or subconsciously, that perhaps the life we lived together may have abolished any chance I might have for living this life without her. One of them called me just last night and I was so very grateful that she has the insight and sensitivity to know what I’m experiencing; the sad, hard, terrible, beautiful, terminal truth of it.
That’s the place I’m in now. I doubt that there are very many people at all who have grieved and not considered suicide at one time or another in the course of their passage through the pains of loss. The most open and honest confessions of people who have experienced profound bereavement always include a time when they felt like dying and wanted to kill themselves. It’s a consideration, an option. I have to look at it. I have been.
I have to find out where I stand, if nothing else.
I’m not in a condition to act upon my conclusion if it all adds up to suicide. The friend who called me last night reminded my yet again that I am in no condition to make any serious decisions right now, and I know that. At this point I just want to know where I stand. I’m willing to forestall any decision or action regarding suicide until I’m standing on certain ground and know without equivocation or reservation that it’s what I desire more than life.
Writing is part of my process, it helps me sort things out, put them in order and articulate my experience. It’s necessary for me because I process the things I encounter in life at a high level of complexity. I can see and hear Lenore responding to my saying that, raising one eyebrow in my direction with a smile on her face, loving me because I am that way. “Oh, really Bob? Do you think?” I can hear her pleased laugh. It’s who I am. Life gets pretty confusing for me if I don’t do that.
I will add, however, that her heart is in me as well, as my mind was in her. We were/are both intelligent, loving human beings. In my regard we were/are, together, one of the best examples of the potential humanity can reach in the practice of true love.
That’s what this is about. It’s about putting in order my complex confusion about my life now. A lot of this writing goes into my archives because it’s very personal. I’m writing this with the intention of sharing it with others for whatever understanding might be made available to them about this part of their own grieving, if only in a general way.
In particular I hope it might provide some understanding to those people who do love me and might be affected by my suicide if that turns out to be the choice I make. I think it might be easier for them to return to their own affairs if they knew I made a reasoned, solid choice for myself, and why, and know that I was not a victim of a temporary despair or derangement.
What I do want to know is whether or not my life ended when Lenore died or if there is a measure of life without her left to me.
My bereavement has slowly moved from the place where all I can see is her loss to a place where the perspective is larger and broader. Bereavement does that, it leads people to consider not only the life and death of their beloved but their own life and death as well. It does not diminish the loss of the loved one. That will always be there. No matter how broad the perspective, that loss will be at the core of everything in even the broadest of landscapes.
Bereavement is part of the ground in this life. We live, and we die. Many of the bereavements we encounter are brief, glancing encounters, times when we are reminded of the fact of our own death but return quickly to our own affairs. The loss of former acquaintances, former friends lost in time, even the occasional glances we have of obituaries in the newspaper or word of someone’s death in social media give us at least a short pause for thought about death and loss and lives lived and ended.
Some of the losses we have involve significant bereavements. In my case I count the loss of my brother Tony and the deaths of my maternal grandparents among those. They struck hard, their loss lingered in me, and it took time to return to my affairs. I was changed significantly by their loss, yet able to go forward in much the same direction I was going before their deaths.
And then there are the profound losses, the life-changing bereavements that changed my life forever. I’ve had two of those. One of those bereavements took me out beyond the edge of life, into a complexly rooted insanity and a time when I was homeless and mad as a dog, wandering aimlessly on the beach in southern Oregon, eating out of tidal pools, smelling like wood smoke from the fires I slept by at night wrapped in a wool blanket, my only possession.
The roots of that hit were very complex and involved an element of traumatic stress disorder taken on in my childhood as the result of the loss of my father, who I loved and who loved me very much, at the age of seven and then my exposure down through the ensuing years to more death, an exposure to evil and abuse, and many more conditions which wounded me and did not heal for many years.
It was also complex in the fact that no-one had actually died during that bereavement. My first marriage had failed due to my own failings and afflictions. I loved my ex-wife but I was young, tortured, and incapable of embracing the behaviors that are necessary to sustain a marriage, and it ended. We had three children. It wasn’t right and not even necessary, as I realized later, to view the separation from my daughters as bereavement, but in the condition I was in and because of the past that was bursting like an infection from the encysted pains of my early life, I felt like my children had died.
They were gone from me, just like my father was gone from me, and what made that sense of loss so terrible for me was the feeling that while at the same time I grieved them as lost forever, they still remained here in this world. I think the pain of that conflict is what finally, utterly broke me at the time.
I tried to commit suicide twice in that time, serious attempts, and I learned then that it is difficult to do, and can even be denied to you by the grace of God when you have seemingly succeeded. In retrospect I’d have to say the toughest part of committing suicide is the commitment that has to be in place before you can accomplish it. You have to be certain beyond doubt of where you stand.
Somehow I survived even that, the time of my life when I walked through the darkest valley I’d ever been in. I went on, I slowly healed the old and recent wounds, I found myself reconciled to the pains of life and the scars I bore, accepting what had gone before and my own part in it, willing to face more of the same while hoping for better then I had up to that time. I found a spiritual core in me that did indeed consist of faith and hope and love.
And then Lenore and I, seeking one another across the face of this earth for as long as we had been alive, finally found one another. We lived 33 years together and had a life together that was whole and holy and indescribably wonderful and beautiful.
Now she is gone, and I’m here in this landscape, considering what is left, and what is next. Regardless of whatever decision I might make as far as suicide goes and regardless of how fully and wholly reasoned out it is, it needs to be fully recognized that the emotional and, more significantly, spiritual impact of her loss is the largest element in my considerations. It can’t be otherwise.
How can I not contrast my knowledge of knowing what life can be when it achieves the highest level of love with my knowledge of what life is like without it? Even when I consider the unknown future, which always holds a measure of hope simply because what is unknown always has a possibility of hope attached to it, I see no life available to me which would even come close to the life I’ve had. Even if there were one I could clearly see I doubt that I would take it up simply because I’m completely satisfied with what I’ve already had in this life.
And that’s another thing. In addition to the typical manifestations of grief I recognize in my own experience, most of which involve pain, there is something very unusual present. I feel like my life has been fulfilled, and is completed. It’s a feeling that’s not painful at all. It’s a peaceful, quiet recognition that I’ve lived a full life and done everything I needed to do, had all the experiences I needed to have. I’m satisfied with it all. I really do feel that way. It’s one of the places I already know I stand, certain and with no doubt whatsoever.
So here I am at this existential milepost, trying to decide which way to go. When I make my final decision it won’t be just a head thing, or just a heart thing. It will be a head and heart thing, reasoned and felt to a degree of certainty that has no doubt left in it.
Those of you who are reading this by now have an idea of my inclinations toward suicide, and hopefully some of the revelations here will give you an understanding of why I did it if I do choose to end my life voluntarily and not wait for nature to take its course. And if it’s more than you can take on right now, take hope in the fact that I’m still here – a surprising thing considering how deeply I’ve desired to be dead and with her – and so it seems that there is at least a small possibility that my life may go on a bit further without Lenore in it.
On the other hand, you deserve a full picture of where I’m at right now, just in case you find yourself having to meet and reconcile my suicide. Here are some things to think about, the thoughts and feelings that are prevailing in me right now. Some of it I’ve covered here already. I’m just bringing it up out of my archives into the light of day.
Though life is what I want, there is something I want more than life. I wish to go on. I want to die. I’ve considered my options. I’ve had the very best that life offers. People tend to avoid all things unhappy or undesirable in the belief that this improves their contentedness. Avoidance is fine, but why would we want to live in a constant state of denial?
I’ve always been one of those who can do what others don’t, or can’t, or won’t. I can look at things others turn away from. I can’t say how or why I am what I am exactly. I have a good heart and a good mind. I’ve had a very full experience. I know that the choices I made, good and bad, and a willingness to learn from my mistakes and missteps helped me gain the life I desired. I know that a mysterious grace helped with the rest.
This is my final choice. It is my hope that with the help of that grace I will gain what I desire yet again. And if dead is dead and all we believe is dust then so be it. I will be with her. That’s what I want.
I choose to not avoid or deny my circumstances, condition, or prospects. I have had a good, full, complete life. I am not compelled by incompletion to fulfill myself. As a matter of fact, everything still available to me here in this life I have already visited. I have no need to retrace those tracks or engage in future facsimiles. I am content with my history, it is enough.
I am old and my body has lost much of its vigor. I’ve held much of my physical condition close, not even telling Lenore everything, although I shared enough with her so that she knew enough. She was an observant girl and I suspect she figured out the rest. My lungs and heart are in bad shape, not retrievable to a condition approximating some form of reasonable health. The symptoms of their further deterioration are showing up in the mirror and my days as they are ravaged further by the stress of grief. I don’t care to deteriorate a piece at a time until death comes. I prefer not to wait on death.
Lenore’s loss and my resultant grief and sadness and despair are a part of my perspective, and I have reckoned with that. It is real, and it is a large part of the choice I make. It is not the only factor. When I consider everything, I’m certain of the choice I’ve made. It’s time to go on.
To many my choice will be a weakness, a sin, a failing, a tragedy, or the result of a temporary derangement. It is none of these. I know what I want, and I know what to do. It is an act requiring strength and resolve and certainty. It is an act of faith, and hope and love. It is an act of faithfulness and devotion. It is an act of completion. I go to her; I go to join her where she is. It is what I want more than I want this life itself.
Those who know love, and know me, will know this is my time to go on. They will know their love didn’t fail me and will not suffer wondering if they could have done more. They will know this is my time to go, and nothing could have held me here.
What about my best friend, Kay, what about the regained connection with Alicia, the loving child I adore, what about the friends and family who love me and would like to have me around for awhile, if only to know that I was still here in this life with them, what will this do to them?
Well, it will hurt them. That pain will also enrich them, but it certainly isn’t my aim to sensitize them to the poignance of life and the nature of death any further than they already are. They’re all exceptional hearts and minds, and know the score of life already. They will understand. They will understand that life without Lenore is not really living for me. They will know that for me, in my circumstances, suicide is a reasonable option. A preferable one, actually.
To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time of war, and a time of peace.
A time to be born…
I have been there. I have done all that.
… and a time to die.
That time is coming, I’m just bound by the fact that until it does come, it is for now that day and hour no one knows. When it comes, it will be that day and hour. Either nature will have taken me to the end, or I will end my life and I will be with her, wherever that is, because that is where I wanted to be more than any other place in the universe.
And if, in the end, this all proves to be only the blood-letting of dark humors in one of the normal stages of grieving, then let it be at least a cautionary tale of the dark ground that will be encountered there in the loss of true love.