If any of you folks in the US hear about my school, Carleton, in the next few days, it will almost certainly be because a Carleton student committed suicide this morning. He wasn’t more than an acquaintance to me–I took organic chemistry with him last fall–but it will be the sixth student death since I started school here, a little over three years ago. Four in car accidents, one from cancer, and one suicide. That amount of death at a school this small (hardly 2,000 students) is a little overwhelming.
Yesterday, while I was working in the greenhouse pruning tomato plants, I was thinking about Paxton. If you haven’t followed me long enough to know who Paxton is, he was my friend who died in a car accident when I was a freshman here. There hasn’t been a day since he passed away, almost three years ago now, that I haven’t thought of him. But I was thinking about him, and grief, more than I usually do.
Whoever came up with the phrase “processing grief”? I don’t think it’s a very good description. It implies that grief comes in, turns the gears in your head for a little while, and then leaves. But the truth is that it never leaves. At a vigil that I went to for Paxton, a student spoke and he said that he was worried that he would move on and forget about his friend. He said that was one of his greatest fears, that he would forget what his friend’s voice sounded like and what his face looked like.
For me, those fears have been unfounded. I’ll never forget those things, which is both a blessing and difficult at the same time. I still remember how lighthearted and joking our last work shift was together with my coworkers. Then we went off to class, and he went off to pack for his frisbee tournament. We didn’t say goodbye because we didn’t know it would be the last time we’d ever see him. I wish I had, but I can’t let myself feel bad about it. How could we have known?
Even though I am older now than he was when he died, Paxton will always be two years older than me in my mind. It’s another one of those funny things about loss that you don’t realize until you have experienced it. In my mind, I will always be the freshman begrudgingly putting on her orange work uniform and plastic gloves, trying to hate every second of serving in the dining hall, and Paxton will always be the kindhearted, funny, lead-by-example manager who didn’t let me have my pity parties.
One of the reasons that I have mixed feelings about choosing Carleton over other schools is because I felt like I didn’t get what I thought I wanted going into it. Everyone talks about “the Carleton Bubble”–so many alumni talk about how they never thought about what was happening in the world outside of campus while they were here. They got to live in their own little worlds, where they could pretend that academics and what so-and-so said to so-and-so’s ex-boyfriend at the party last weekend were the most important things that had ever happened.
I wanted to be able to do that. I lived like that the fall term of my freshman year. I studied hard for a 4.0, I partied, I got in trouble, I stayed up late and screwed up my health and made bad decisions and there were no consequences. I got to pretend that every little thing that happened in my world was actually the most important thing that had ever happened.
But loss makes you grow up very quickly. It makes you realize that your world is not the world. That there are problems far larger than you and your gossip out there and that you need to live out your values and contribute something meaningful, because life is unpredictable and far too short. I never got to live out the Bubble experience, because once you’ve grown up there is no way to go back. Even now, I sometimes selfishly miss the times I didn’t know what grief was like.
Loss is isolating. Paxton (and two other frisbee players) died a month after Eric and I started dating, and we were nearly the only ones among our friends who knew him (in Eric’s case, he had played frisbee with all three of them). We turned inwards to one another and became close very quickly, because while everyone else was able to move on within a week or two, we were not. Instead of sharing candlelit restaurant meals and movie dates, we shared boxes of tissues and deep conversations for months after the car accident.
I will never be able to see Paxton’s death in a remotely positive light, but I have worked very hard since then to overcome the issues that it brought to light for me: my shaky faith, my anxiety and depression, and my eating disorder. I have tried to honor him by overcoming. I have tried to make my life worthwhile in whatever I do.
These are the things that I was thinking yesterday at work. When I woke up this morning and saw the “MISSING PERSON” alert on my phone, my mind immediately went to suicide. I hoped it wasn’t, but I wasn’t shocked by the “Sad News” email that I received this afternoon.
I am sad, because I know that some students are living out my experience three years ago right now, as I’m sitting here writing this. I will see them carrying their tissue boxes around the dining hall and remember what it was like.
I feel for the student’s family. Paxton’s mom still emails us dining hall workers sometimes, on Paxton’s birthday and on the anniversary of the accident and sometimes just out of the blue, with a drawing he did as a kid or a funny picture of him. I take the letter she wrote me, in response to the one I wrote her, everywhere. I pin it on all of my walls and reread the fortune cookie fortunes taped into it when I remember who I need to be. I cannot imagine what losing a child–especially one in the prime of life with so much potential–would be like. I hope I never have to experience it.
And I feel for the student, that he didn’t realize how much potential he had, how much he had to live for.
But this time, it isn’t my grief. I’m on the outside. I will be the person who I saw as unsympathetic and emotionless, able to move on within a couple of weeks. And I’m at the end of this post and I don’t really know how to end it. Because for some people, the journey that never ends is just beginning. I want you, whoever you are, even if you aren’t dealing with this particular event but some other one that I don’t know about, to know that I’m not just here for you (I am!) but also that I understand the swirling mix of emotions that you are feeling right now. Because that is what I really wanted three years ago, for someone to understand me.
I also want to remind myself and you that just because we’ve been reminded that life is unpredictable and short doesn’t mean we should hide from the world. Whether the New York bombing, the Oklahoma shooting, or this suicide has touched you. I tried that–it didn’t work. Just because there is so much death and destruction in the world right now, and so much hatred and fear as a result, we shouldn’t run away, because it isn’t going to go away by itself. We create the world we live in, so let’s make a better one.
No questions for you today, but hey, you–I love you! I’m sending you a virtual hug. Remember to hold your loved ones a little longer today. <3