The Journey

Photo from Italy in 2005 that just fits my mood right now.

It’s so easy to say this past week has been the most challenging in my life … and I’ve lived a challenging life. At the same time, this past week has been the most emotional, the most haunting, the most healing and the most extreme all around.

Therefore, I thought it appropriate to title this blog entry simply “The Journey” because it’s the simplest way to describe this experience. It’s been a journey. 

For those who haven’t been following my blogs, my dear friend and neighbor, Nancy, shot herself Jan. 25th in her home. I was the last person to be with her the night before, and it was myself and my other neighbor, Karen, who discovered Nancy’s body.

The days following that incident were both a foggy haze, although I remember them so clearly. Distraught friends – who Nancy had disconnected from in recent weeks – were showing up on my doorstep, anxious for answers and wanting to share their grief. Neighbors of our close-knit cul-de-sac gathered at my house, too. We had a crisis action team come in the day after to talk with us, and it was all very healing. Through those conversations, it was pointed out to me time and again that Nancy had obviously seen me and my home as a refuge. She had shared things with me that she hadn’t shared with others. I will never understand the reason for this, but it felt good to hear.

Then, over the weekend, the phone calls started coming. Nancy was from Detroit and was part of a large, Italian Catholic family that included neighborhood friends who had known Nancy since her diaper days. As word reached the family of who I was, and how I was the last one with her and one of the first to find her, her sister and brother wanted to reach out to me. Those phone calls were so draining, but it was clear to me that I needed to be there with them. There was no way you can share so much over the phone, you know what I mean? And I wanted to be there for the funeral to pay my respects. I had told Nancy so often that I was her friend, and that meant being a friend through the hard, dark stuff, and that I would never abandon or reject her. And this was clearly a test for me to follow through with what I had said.

So, I flew to Detroit this past Tuesday and stayed for three days. There were two wakes for Nancy, and then the funeral and burial.

I stayed in Nancy’s sister’s mother-in-law’s home. It was this ranch-style home that reminded me SO much of my own grandmother’s home. The knick-knacks. The carpet. The family photos. Gertie was SUCH a grandmother, too, anxious for me to eat and to make sure I was comfortable. She warned me that I would probably be mobbed when we arrived at the funeral parlor, everyone was just so anxious to meet me and hear what I had to say. I expected as much, and she was right.

When we arrived, I had just removed my coat when I was literally mobbed by Nancy’s family. There were tears and apologies for such grief and pain. Nancy’s sister was stroking my hair and touching my face, I think both to greet me, but to also try to feel something tangible of her sister. I was the living link to Nancy’s last day on Earth, and I knew that. Then, Nancy’s 83-year-old mother was in front of me, hugging and thanking me. It was just such an unreal experience to be accepted so openly by these strangers, although for me, they weren’t strangers. Nancy had shared so much about them. But, they had only been aware of my existence for days.

I was able to talk with them and share with them everything I could have possibly known about Nancy. I brought with me pictures of the neighborhood children, and of course, of Miss C and my family. I brought the book Nancy had read to my daughter the night before her death, when she tucked Miss C into bed. This was especially emotional for her brother but they all really appreciated it. I shared the details of the night I found Nancy – they had only heard so much from the detective on the scene. I was able to give them a timeframe, and of course, the efforts that Karen and I made to help Nancy, even though both Karen and I knew she was gone. It’s the human spirit, though, the hope that drove us to do all we could.

I was also able to share good stories, too, though. Funny stories that made them laugh, in which I took great pride. On the second day, during the second wake after a short prayer service, there was an opportunity for people to go up and share their memories. There was the uncomfortable pause after that announcement – there’s that saying that death is the first human fear, public speaking is the second. Since I don’t fear either, I popped up and went up and told two stories about Nancy that I knew would lighten the room. One about getting lost together in downtown DC and the second about the time Nancy loaned me a dress for a formal event and how it was so low-cut and so not something I would normally wear, but Nancy was pleased she had “let my girls out.” People were laughing and nodding their heads, obviously relating to her sense of style (which was gorgeous and impeccable) and her geniune desire to lift up those around her.

And everyone spoke of her scrapbook pages. She had shared the pages she had created at my home with her family and they were all so impressed. Needless to say, those pages carry a whole new value. And it was clear that scrapbooking brought joy into Nancy’s life there at the end. It was something for her to focus on and work on with love. It meant a lot to me to hear her family speak of those pages … what a gift those are to them.

The whole three days passed both very slowly and too quickly. I enjoyed being around Nancy’s family. I could feel her amongst them. At the same time, suicide just leaves so many people in a dizzy fog. It’s not like a death involving an accident or natural causes, where people can focus on celebrating a life. The tragedy of it all lingers over like a dark cloud masking the capacity to feel joy, like I’ve experienced at other funerals.

However, there was a deep feeling of people accepting Nancy’s disease of depression. While there’s still much to understand and accept, her family knew of her illness and her lifelong battle with it. Here was a woman who was so successful and vibrant – she really did seem to have it all together. But the thing that she just didn’t have was mental health. And through all of this, I have really developed an appreciation for the disease of depression – not the occasional bad or sad mood we all feel time to time, but the very real disease that eats away the body and the brain like cancer. I’ve always been sensitive to this, having dealt with it in my own family and some friends. I’m just now more respectful of it’s power, so to speak.
I also learned a lot about Nancy’s life during those days in Detroit, and it was able to provide a lot of perspective for me, more insight to the things Nancy had related to me about her life. She and her sister didn’t get along sometimes, but the disease magnified those problems. And her sister, Janet, is a typical older sister. I’m the oldest of three girls, so I can relate. She confronted Nancy sometimes, telling her things nobody else had the guts to tell her. It was always coming from a place of love, but is driven by the deep frustration one feels when they witness someone they love is hurting themselves or not taking the actions to get help.
This is causing Janet some guilt now, but she’s going to have to get past that – Nancy understood her sister’s love, the disease didn’t. I was able to share with Janet the true and honest words Nancy told me about her sister, of her love for her and how much she realized her illness was hurting Janet. I had to repeat this several times to Janet, but each time, I think, brought her some comfort. At least, I hope it did.

I am still on my journey of grief and I am still working through the post-traumatic stress that is a result of what I saw. I am in no rush to “get over” anything and am taking the emotions on as they come. My network of support has been incredible and Martin has been such a blessing, so patient with me. Miss C is doing good, too – we’ve explained that Nancy is no longer here on Earth and while we can’t see her, we can pray to her, like the Mommy prayer. She is really a light and a joy in all of this.