Last week, a co-worker lost her brother to suicide. I found out through the grapevine, from a friend who herself has been the survivor of two suicides herself. No one was talking about it, otherwise. I saw no flowers on her desk. There was no sympathy card passed around for everyone to sign (despite the fact that we did just that for the widower of the co-worker who died the same day as this co-worker's brother). Even my friend the SOS said to me, "Well, I'm not going to say anything to her unless she says something first." When I talked to E about it, because he knew because of his position at the company (but couldn't tell me because of mine), he said much the same. The code word was "discretion," it seemed, but to me it read a whole lot like shame. Like our co-worker didn't deserve the care and support of the community (what little it has to offer in times like these) because of the way her brother died. We were all just going to pretend it didn't happen, the implication being, I guess, that he died shamefully and his family should feel the shame of it as well, reinforced by a good, old-fashioned shunning.
She came back to work on Thursday after four days away. I heard her voice first, and it was flat and devoid of the liveliness it usually had. When I saw her later, she had that look on her face: the eyes empty and seemingly turned inward, and the rest of her face arranged in an expression that seemed pissed and defensive and shocked. I recognized it as soon as I saw it, even though my own face hasn't looked that way for a long time (thank goodness). It is unmistakable.
I talked to E about it over the weekend, and I called bullshit on no one saying a damn thing to her about her brother's death. Where the hell was our "family company" when one of the family members had suffered a great loss? Had he talked to her then, Thursday, when she came back? No. Had he seen her face Thursday, how hollow she looked? Yes, he had. She was not doing well, which was totally to be expected only a week out, but no one was there for her. If she wasn't going to talk about it, we were free to pretend she was fine? She's not fine, and no one even cares? Or no one wants to, because they secretly judge her brother for killing himself, and they secretly wonder, like many folks who have no clue, why his family couldn't stop him.
I used to be one of those people. I had all kinds of answers about the strong and the weak, the observant and the clueless. And then I read at the widow board and learned a lot about suicide, and the lot of the survivors and what they had to go through, and what they were put through by other people as ignorant as I was. Changed my entire perception, and I realized I didn't know a damn thing about it, despite my judgments from afar. I know better now; but most don't, I guess. And they don't want to, because like any death, they want to believe suicide won't happen in their family, can't happen, and is totally preventable because they are clearly superior human beings who wouldn't allow that to happen on their watch; if they admit otherwise, they are vulnerable, and vulnerability is scary. So they just don't admit it.
Fuck that, I told E. Screw silence. Screw "allowing her her privacy" when what we really mean is, "it's all too icky and unpleasant, so she gets to mourn without even token sympathy from the people she spends 40 hours a week with." It's one thing to give someone space when they ask for it. Giving people so much unrequested space that we refuse to acknowledge that their life has just been irrevocably and painfully changed by death is plain cowardice. It pisses me off, frankly. As if grieving isn't the loneliest road a human being ever walks, we have to make it lonelier by avoiding the subject, or the person, touched by a death? THAT is what's shameful.
I was adamant about getting her a sympathy card, at the very least. She had told the secretary that her brother had passed. That made it officially "known," and it didn't matter how (though of course, the secretary had asked). E was uncomfortable with it; he's still uncomfortable with the idea of death, with the idea of grief, with the idea of reaching out to someone in it, despite all we've been through. I wanted to send a picture of his aunt, who's been widowed a number of years now, and her husband, that we'd found to her; he said no. He frequently says he doesn't want to mention this or that to someone so as not to remind them of their loss; sometimes I'm that someone. I tell him that they (we) never forget it, and would appreciate someone else remembering with them (us), but he doesn't get it. And bless his heart, as frustrating as it can be sometimes, I'd just as soon he not. But he agreed that a card would be okay.
As I was filling out the card last night, I mentioned that I was going to lend her the first (and probably most useful) grief book I'd read. He got really uncomfortable then, like I was overstepping imaginary bounds. "Don't you think you should wait until she asks for help?" I said she wasn't going to ask, and probably wouldn't know what to ask for if she did. I asked him if his house is on fire, should his neighbor wait until he asks her to call 911, or should she just make the call? It wasn't like I was going to force her to do a book report. I was offering her a book that she could read or not, if she felt like it. And that's what I said in the note I attached to the book.
What I didn't say is that I know she's lost right now, and that I know in a month no one will think to ask her about it (if they're barely asking now), and that most of her friends will not have lost a brother at such a young age, nor one to suicide, and that most everyone she knows is so fucking afraid of death that she will start faking being all right in order for more of them not to fade out of her life in fear. I did say that while our losses were not the same, I have walked the grief road, and I was there for her, now or later. I know there is nothing else I can say, and nothing more I can do unless she takes me up on it.
I got an e-mail back thanking me, telling me she'd considered finding a grief book but didn't know where to start.
Fuck silence; we owe it to each other to be there for each other. We owe it to each other to try to help; we might not get it right, but we are absolutely guaranteed to get it wrong if we wimp out and don't try at all.