On Losing a Friend to Suicide and Learning to Understand Depression

03/19/2015 05:15 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2015

I have lit a lot of candles for the dead. It's a custom that spans many cultures, and I've lit them in churches and synagogues, in my childhood home and my apartment's living room. I am a superstitious atheist, so I mutter a directionless prayer when I light a candle, but for me, just seeing the flame lit is the best part: That small fire, consecrated in the name of the dead one, lets them take in oxygen again -- breathe again, for an hour or so.

It's been two years since my friend and college roommate J. took her own life, at 22. Among my friends from school, her death was cataclysmic: We mourned, scattered around the country and the globe. We asked the searing questions that human beings have built a carapace of belief against: Why? And: What happens now? And: How can it be that my friend is dead?

Over the past two years, I've started, slowly, to chip away at the incomprehensibility of her act. I've turned to art -- Anne Sexton's poem "The Truth the Dead Know," Wordsworth's poem "Surprised by Joy," and "The Body," an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, of all things, that's a perfect, raw evocation of grief. Allie Brosh at Hyperbole and a Half and Andrew Solomon's formidable work, The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, have helped me to understand, a little better, the contours of her struggle. I've gone about trying to understand her death as she herself might have: through books and poems and webcomics.

I have come to hate depression as fervently as anyone has ever hated cancer, or AIDS, or any of the other scourges that take our loved ones from us. Over the five years I knew her, I watched it slowly devour my friend. Depression is often said to be vampiric, draining life away. In my opinion, if it's a vampire, it's not the sexy modern kind: It's like the old stills of Nosferatu, the gray, grinning demon coming up the stairs.

Suicide demands a different kind of grief than other deaths, one more fraught with blame and self-blame and sometimes anger. If I was ever angry with J. for committing suicide, it passed quickly, because I'd seen her, up close, during her most wrenching periods of depression. I could fill a book with small recollections of J. -- her pale small hands and staccato laugh and her tie-dyed Chinese nightgown. But over the years, it became increasingly difficult to untangle who she was from the disease.

She had a quick, agile mind and an enormous vocabulary, and she was almost always ferociously eloquent. And so she articulated -- sometimes curt, sometimes crying -- what it felt like to fall as far as she did. She told me she felt compelled to be alone, because with other people she felt like an automaton. She said she was trying to approximate what feeling emotions looked like, because she no longer did. She said she didn't want to be here any longer, not like this.

The winter of our senior year of college was long and vicious, but when it finally receded, the lemon-yellow light of that reluctant spring shone everywhere. It took me too long to realize J. hadn't gone out into it at all; for weeks, she'd been sleeping during the day and staying awake all night. But one afternoon I asked her to come out and walk with me, in the new, pale sunlight. She said she couldn't leave her room, her bed. So I took her in my arms and lifted her up -- she was so tiny -- and carried her downstairs into the light. She blinked and said she couldn't feel it at all.

I was terrified. There was a gray film between my friend and the world, and it was smothering her. She took a medical leave of absence. I reached out to our college with my concerns again and again, to no avail. Her family was a world away, in another country. I graduated and moved to another country, too. She stayed on while her friends began other lives, and she got worse.

When I started to read about major depression the next year -- after I turned 23, a birthday she would never reach -- I realized what I'd learned from her. No matter how black my moods can get, they are measured on a different scale than major depression. Trying to understand depression in relation to everyday blues is like trying to measure laughter with a chromatograph.

Two years after her death, I still bitterly hate depression, which demands, then forsakes, kindness. I will light a candle on the anniversary of her death -- this year and the next and the next. While I move forward through my life, she will stay still in the past and recede. I am no longer drunk with grief's initial furor, and the funeral is over, and so is her life. I will spend the rest of mine reconciling with her loss.


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Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. For the UK Samaritans, call the helpline on 08457 90 90 90.