How we can rethink "checking in" on those who are considering checking out...
"Trigger Warning: this post mentions grief & suicide*
The afternoon that I walked away from my 7 year relationship with my partner I finally envisioned our wedding. Even though we had spent the better part of the previous year talking about locations, scoping out rings, and determining when we’d make the joint announcement… I could never quite see it in my head. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we didn’t make it to the altar. I ended the relationship in January of 2020. And 2 months later, one week before the world shut down, he loaded his car with half of the life we’d made here in New Orleans and tackled the 19 hour trip to NY to stay with family.
We had cried together numerous times since the actual break up took place. We’d apologized for hurts and talked through what came next. And the day of his departure was no different. He hugged me tight and told me we had to stay in each other’s lives. He begged me to work on my self-criticality. “Please,” he cried while squeezing the life out of me, “ you have got to stop being so hard on yourself. Please.” Then he was gone. I drove to meet with friends for brunch. I foolishly figured time with other people would distract my mind. But two minutes into my drive the entire vision rushed in: A micro wedding in the park. Ray in a tailored navy blue suit. Me in a short white dress and combat boots, friends who
couldn’t make it later commenting on my shoe choice and me, laughing. Big smiles. A small wedding party. An airbnb rental for drinks and food and dancing afterwards. It was everything that we’d wanted even though I had just made the difficult decision to walk away from it. In that moment, I did not know what to do with this daydream. It came so clearly and now it had to be held next to the less-shiny reality that I had created in choosing to go at life alone.
Ray and I kept true to the agreement made on that last day though. We talked constantly. We confronted past mistakes and areas where our relationship had become painful. We talked about jealousies, and flaws, and times we wished we were better to each other. In those early days of the pandemic, we tried to uplift each other with playlists, memes, and jokes about staying wrapped up in bed forever. Burrito-mode as he called it. Over time, he listened to stories of my new relationships and sent advice on fixing my car. And it became clear that he would be in my life forever. I couldn’t speak to what capacity. We’d only seen each other twice in person since the break up. But it was obvious to us both that a love like ours would sustain even if the romantic relationship had not. On September 20th, only a month after Ray had comforted me through my father’s death, I received a call notifying me that he had passed unexpectedly. I crumbled. I paced the street yelling “what the fuck” while strangers looked on baffled. I cried. I beat my fist against trees and wailed. I made a fucking fool of myself and have not been able to show my face in the coffeeshop where I received the news since.
My father transitioned from this earth in August. Ray followed a month later. The anxiety, crying fits, and panic attacks took a toll on my body and I developed new health problems that I had no clue how to tackle. I was utterly overwhelmed and I had never felt so alone in my life. In the weeks that followed I lost grip on the world around me and found myself yearning for death.
I truly don’t believe I will ever be at a place where I am not thinking about leaving this earth. It is entirely normal for me.
When Ray died, familiar questions about my desire to stay on this earth resurfaced. I have always struggled with suicidal ideations. I first attempted when I was 13 and death has been in the background of my life ever since. There are periods when she comes closer and we get real cozy with plans, notes, and life insurance check ins. Sometimes she just lingers on the horizon knowing that even if I am at a place where I look and feel happy, she is still a part of my reality. In some lighthearted days of my college career, for instance, I started conjuring up the plans for my homegoing celebration. Friends told me I was weird as fuck when I passionately explained that my funeral would be a good time and a party that they didn’t want to miss. But it never occurred to me that it was odd to spend your life thinking about the end of it.
I truly don’t believe I will ever be at a place where I am not thinking about leaving this earth. It is entirely normal for me. As I muddle through what is the most grief-stricken time of my life, the desire and the urge to not be here anymore pulses fervently. I dream about death the way other bitches dream about those floating breakfasts at island resorts. If I’m to believe my instagram timeline, most Black women my age long for first class flights with their besties, matching colorful dresses, and photoshoots running through whitewashed buildings on the Santorini coast. My dreams couldn’t be more different. These days, when I lose myself in my mind I conjure up a vision of my backpack filled with weights, strapped to my body, as I walk into the Mississippi River.
I tell myself that I want to gift my body to the water. I want to pass in the same muddy river that claimed so many of our people since this country’s inception. I want to go in high off my ass and let out the biggest scream I have ever had escape my body once under the water. I know that sound travels faster underwater and reverberates. So I wonder if echoes of this one glorious scream will stay trapped in the water forever. If it will join the chorus of release that came from others lost to the river. I wonder if in death someone or something under that water will finally hear me. If they will piece together- in that one scream- the difficulty of living on this earth. The pains of being a queer Black woman in America. I wonder if my scream will hit a pitch that makes clear what it is to lose the only two men in your life who held you sacred.
Earlier this month Twitch, a popular DJ and dancer, killed himself out of the blue… many of us didn’t know this man personally so the suddenness of it was jarring. And the common talking points emerged.“Check on your friends,” social media stars urged us. “You never know what people are going through.”
When Twitch transitioned and the world began the usual tirade of “Check on your friends” it took a lot for me to not call bullshit.
I watch it all unfold with death lingering in the corner of my eye. And I begin to get a sense that how society handles self-harm, depression, and grief are one in the same. People in my life were very understanding when my father and Ray died. They were super empathetic and sentimental… for about 2 weeks. Then it seemed like some folks literally forgot. A friend joked about me always canceling plans. Another asked if I was taking on new creative projects since I had more time on my hands. She seemed baffled when I responded that no, I wasn’t writing more because most days I couldn’t do anything.
In true Andrea fashion,I figured these misunderstandings had to be my fault. Clearly I was not doing a good job of articulating what losing my father, followed by a best friend of 12 years (and partner for 7) had done to me. So I tried to be more honest about my state during the check ins. But attempts at sharing how I was truly feeling- the fact that I struggled to rise from the bed, that I cried (and still do) every single day, that there were whole days where I was simply not interested in being alive in this wretched timeline- any mention of these realities was quickly shut down. “Oh love… Time heals all wounds,” a friend texted. I got the usual: “It gets better, ” and “You have so much to be grateful for.” I slipped up once and told a friend about waking up everyday and having to try to want to be here, and she collapsed into tears. I calmly bottled the rest of my talking points and spent the remainder of the call consoling her. “Don’t talk like that! I love you so much. You can’t go anywhere,” she sputtered over Facetime. And I replied, “Of course I won’t. I’m overwhelmed. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine.” I quickly folded and tucked away my true feelings, realizing that all people seem to have patience for during these check-ins is what puts them at ease.
When Twitch transitioned and the world began the usual tirade of “Check on your friends” it took a lot for me to not call bullshit. And I quickly found that many people shared my sense of exasperation. A close friend posted about how checking in on people is sometimes not enough. How it’s actually helpful to know your people and look for signs that someone is intending to die. We sent voice notes back and forth delving further into the topic. I told him that my issue was that people were wildly uncomfortable with something that is entirely normal for many of us. And everyone’s extreme aversion to sadness and grief made life devastatingly lonely. I told him that in lieu of these deaths that color each part of my life, every day that I do not want to die is a win. And I cannot even share these minuscule wins with folks because they simply do not want to be sad. It baffles me even more because I consider myself a lucky one. I’m incredibly blessed because I have a sibling who is comfortable discussing these things. We have open conversations about topics like the why’s behind desiring death, how they and all my people would grieve (even with my dope ass homegoing ceremony planned), and what the aftermath of self-harm would look like. And it is those exact conversations that have kept me here when I most wanted to give my body to the river and meet my lover, my friend, and my partner on the other side.
But if there is anything I’m taking from all this unexpected death, it’s that checking on folks is useless if it’s just encouraging them to look for the good. Some people can’t see the good shit, just the possibility of the end.
It pains me that a lot of folks do not know how to have the open and frank conversations my sibling and I share. I am astonished thinking about how isolated people are in this world because they have no one to talk to about these realities. I think most folks check on their friends but only to the extent that it doesn’t make them uncomfortable. They shift conversations to things like work and tv and pop culture. They urge you to talk about how you are distracting yourself from the darkness that comes with death and sadness. I imagine that they are sometimes bored by the monotony of grief. And I suppose, in an effort to protect their own energy they shy away from talking about what it is like to waddle through this daily and instead plead with folks to look for the positives.
But if there is anything I’m taking from all this unexpected death, it’s that checking on folks is useless if it’s just encouraging them to look for the good. Some people can’t see the good shit, just the possibility of the end. And maybe, if the people around us weren’t so insistent that we ignore that reality, we could share those thoughts more. Imagine… how many of us wouldn’t have to feel broken or crazy. And in attaching some normalcy to it, the loneliness of it all might dissipate. Isolation would become one less thing pinging around in our noisy heads and hearts. Maybe for some of us, that alone would make it a tiny bit easier to stay. Idk… it’s likely too simplistic of an answer. But I like to muse on it anyway. There are worse things to daydream about.