After Math

The mental calculations helping me make sense of my grief

Photo: Artur Debat / Getty Images

I think I knew she was dead before I knew she was dead. But the human mind is a stretchy and abstract thing when confronted with particular combinations of variables.

9:00 Saturday night, early January: My friend’s husband calls. She is “missing.” She has been missing for about 21 hours. We begin the math: They won’t look for her until it’s been 24 hours. He’ll wait three more hours to call. Could I try to contact her?

I text her and then stare at my phone, waiting for the message to flip from “delivered” to “read,” because she always uses read receipts. It remains at “delivered.” Deliverance, it turns out, means nothing.

People get mad. People take off. People come back. She’d done it before. My boyfriend and I drive to the university where she and I teach to see if she’s in her office, to look for her car in the parking lot. Nothing. Still, things are probably fine. She had a job interview for an administrative position yesterday morning. She just got tenure. She has a promising book proposal under consideration — at Oxford, or as she and I called it, “fucking Oxford University Press!” We’d jumped up and down together like schoolgirls when she found out they were interested.

But she left her dog. That doesn’t make sense. She took her dog everywhere with her. She would never, ever leave the dog like this. But somehow I hold the fact of the abandoned dog simultaneously with the conviction that she’ll still come back. I go to bed because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do. I leave my phone on the pillow next to my head, as though I’m in danger of falling asleep. I wonder, What is she doing? Where is she right now?

Midnight: Her husband calls the police.

The math expands beyond all comprehension, a pointless calculus of hypotheticals and if-then clauses.

2:00 a.m: Police find her car. It is abandoned, encased in ice, in a wooded area. Dogs are searching. These are TV words, and I don’t believe them.

If a beautiful young college professor vanishes into the frigid north-country night, what is the likelihood that she will return with a reasonable story that solves for x?

Of course she’s been dead for hours already, but right now we don’t really understand numbers, because time is doing weird things, warping and compressing and twisting. It’s a liminal space lined with funhouse mirrors, with terrifying possibilities.

I get out of bed, and I begin to shake. I walk around shaking for a while. I worry that she is cold. I’m now freezing, and I’m inside my apartment. There doesn’t seem to be any way to get warm in the middle of this night. Idiotically, I think, How will she survive outside of her car in a wooded area in northern Wisconsin in January? It is 15 degrees.

4:00 a.m: I find some splotchy bananas about to rot on the counter, so I make banana bread while I wait, while I wait for news that a shrinking part of me still thinks might be good.

5:30 a.m: The dogs find her.

And then the math expands beyond all comprehension, a pointless calculus of hypotheticals and if-then clauses. We begin a collective speculation of anachronistically swapping out this variable, that variable. What would have made the difference? If I’d called her earlier that day? I almost had. If I’d even texted? What is the metaphysical weight of a call compared to a text if the values are being factored into the decision of whether to kill oneself?

And of course there were clues, right? How many clues did we miss? In what order were the clues presented? How many of us missed the clues? Whose academic specialty would have rendered them most likely to pick up the clues? We’ve all taken suicide prevention training, for god’s sake. We are educators who work with the most vulnerable suicide demographic on the planet. We have PhDs, and we are trained in discourse analysis.

She was struggling, yes. I knew that. We all knew that. She had suffered with depression, with family grief, with relationship woes. But the thought that she might do this? It never so much as flashed by my peripheral vision.

Even now, in this futile post-game analysis, I can’t locate the glaring red flags. She didn’t give things away, she didn’t start saying goodbye, she didn’t issue any threats—there was none of that.

This is the mother of disappointing decisions, but she had a right to make it. Didn’t she?

So, when the answer to the question “What did we miss?” cannot be satisfactorily answered, what do we do with that? It’s not useful for hindsight. We can’t talk about it as part of some cheesy “If her story saves just one person, it will be worth it” dialogue. What do we do then?

I’ve racked my brain with this question, and the only thing I keep coming back to is this: We accept it. We accept that she made the best decision for herself, no matter how cruel, horrifying, or senseless that decision may seem to the rest of us. We accept that the decision has a long, whipping tail that will haunt every one of us until our own ends, that will sometimes lie quietly and let us go about our business and other times threaten to strangle us as we try to sleep.

People make disappointing decisions all the time: Children take drugs, spouses cheat, parents leave, heroes fail. This is the mother of disappointing decisions, but she had a right to make it. Didn’t she?

Hasn’t someone so brilliant, so accomplished, earned the right to make that call? To decide that the benefits of continuing to live are never going to offset the costs? Nothing was ever that simple for her, and nothing was ever enough — not in quantity nor intensity — but she must have made this one calculation, this final decision, one way or another. She was always grasping for some imaginary number, and in the end, in her end, she must have just decided it wasn’t worth the reach.

Editor’s note: If you are struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please do not hesitate to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is a free 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources. For more information, call or visit SuicidePreventionHotline.org.

English professor and humor writer based in Green Bay. McSweeney’s, Points in Case, HuffPost, Slackjaw, Little Old Lady Comedy, Human Parts, others.

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