On August 8th, one of my closest friends committed suicide. Just a few weeks prior we celebrated his birthday at his family's home in Marin. Little did I know that his birthday party would be the last time I would ever see him again.
I met Carl in graduate school at the London School of Economics, where we were both studying in the Social Psychology department. I can't remember the exact moment that we met, but I remember our long friendship and the countless conversations we've had over the years. While our friendship began in London, it continued to the Bay Area — the place where he grew up and where I eventually called home. We even shared an apartment in Cole Valley together, a home I know he loved very much.
Carl was one of the most intelligent and thoughtful people I'd ever had the opportunity to meet. He was an accomplished individual; he eventually pursued a nursing degree and for the past five years was working as a palliative care nurse with Hospice by the Bay. He had many hobbies and interests — he took cooking classes, earned his bartending license and even wrote a book entitled Finding the Middle, A Comprehensive Non-Partisan Guide to American Politics Today. But what I admired most about Carl was how deeply he cared about people, from his family to his friends. He was the type of person that you could talk to for hours — about everything from relationships to politics.
Over the years, he became more than a friend; he was like family to me. Carl and I shared some similar challenges, and we bonded through understanding those obstacles. Whenever I was upset and needed a good friend to talk to and ask for advice, Carl would be one of the first people who I would call. He was always there willing to offer his support, guidance and love. Knowing that I like to spend the holidays in San Francisco, where I have an extensive network of friends but no immediate family, Carl would always invite me to spend the holidays with him and his family. He also lived about a 10-minute walk from my apartment, so we would often have dinners at our neighborhood Thai restaurant.
In the days after Carl's death, I felt most at home in my mourning and grieving process at his mother's home. At first, I didn't know if my presence would be intrusive, or if I was respecting the family's need for private time to grieve. His husband, Andy, told me to just come over the day after Carl died. So, I did. I didn't realize how being with his immediate family and husband would be so comforting to me; spending time with other friends just didn't feel right.
With Mt. Tam set in the background, their home used to be a fun gathering place where we would occasionally have dinner. Carl and Andy hosted their wedding reception there, and we celebrated Carl's 38th birthday on the deck around the pool. Now, their home was a hub of mourning.
We sat at their kitchen table, eating the food that friends dropped off outside their gate, sharing stories about Carl and shedding tears. I didn't realize how important food would be in the those moments and why bringing food to a grieving family is one of the best ways to show your support. When a person is mourning and shocked because of a loss, food is something tangible that the brain can hold onto. Basic food items, which didn't seem very special on normal days, somehow tasted even better. We devoured homemade brownies, take-out from Gott's Roadside, oatmeal cookies, and junk food food, like candy corn, Oreos and Cheez-Its.
What I noticed is that grief is like a cloud that envelops you, and a grieving person's body and mind uses all its energy to process the grief. It happens in such a way that thinking about the essentials, like food, almost comes secondary. One of his college friends messaged me and said that she had been so consumed by the loss, so overwhelmed by the emotion, that she walked out of her apartment wearing two different shoes.
My only desire and inclination in the days after Carl died was to be around those who knew him and those who, like me, were figuring out what life would look like without him. I felt closer to nature and to the spiritual world. I paid more attention to signs and messages from nature, trying to extract meaning from a loss, which I believe is a common thing to do while grieving.
His mother told me that the morning Carl died she saw a dead black butterfly on the ground at her home in Montana (something she'd never seen in the more than 30 years she's been visiting Montana). In many cultures, a black butterfly is an omen for death.
When I went to the flower market two days after Carl died, I wanted to find something to bring to the family. I wanted to be inspired by a beautiful flower and, instead, I was not inspired by anything at all. I went to a vendor and found a lovely branching tree. When I asked the name, the vendor told me it was called "Tree of Heaven." I bought two bunches to bring to Carl's mother.
That same evening when I brought the flowers over, we watched a magnificent sunset, one of the most beautiful sunsets I've seen in years. Sun rays expanded like arms reaching out to hug us. I believe this was Carl; we all believed that Carl was with us that evening, speaking to us through nature's beauty. We sat in awe on their back porch watching the sunset, remembering Carl, feeling gratitude for being together and for his presence in our lives. That evening, alongside the tears, we also shared laughter.
Life moves on after a loss. It is the same, and it is different. One's heart both contracts and expands through the process of grieving. And ultimately, through this loss, what I learned is that our hearts must keep beating.