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Bear With Me, As I Live and Grieve

by Laura Gentle 6 months ago in coping · updated 6 months ago
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How planning memorial events helps me cope with my friend's death by suicide.

Jakey, the traveling memorial bear.

During the last two years of the pandemic, I have lost three friends to suicide. Each death has been difficult to process for unique reasons, but the most recent loss has gutted me.

It’s the type of grief that leaves your body feeling weightless and unbearably heavy at the same time. Heartbroken is what we say, but for the first week, I didn’t feel heartbroken at all. My heart wasn’t broken, it was ripped out, leaving behind an empty, aching space.

I sobbed without control for days; sometimes I still do. The tears only stopped when I was busy notifying mutual friends. To lessen the blow for others, I’d pull myself together as I fielded calls and messages about the death and details. I had to do what I do best in a crisis situation, I had to be strong.

Over and over, I repeated the same, simple sentence about his death. It became a foul, twisted mantra. My grief had a taste — salty and bitter, like metal stained by endless tears.

My mind went into planning mode the day after finding out. The pain demanded structure, or I would shatter. I created an invite for a virtual friend memorial, which took place on his 33rd birthday. He hated people knowing his birthday, so it was fitting. And I made a memorial playlist for friends to share the many songs he loved.

He had died almost a month prior, but only his family had known. He had been traveling, and dealing with his own recent grief. It took time for his friends to realize that no one had been in contact for weeks.

His friend groups began to overlap, circling across the country, and continents. Then, we found the coroner’s report online. It was awful to see, and I felt conflicted about how to mourn him.

On the fourth day, I made a post in the Modern Loss group page. I asked for advice about how to handle the sensitive nature of his death, while respecting his family. I understand his family’s grief and why they kept it private. Processing death by suicide is beyond difficult and painful. It can feel impossible. The group advice was helpful, with the responses centered around honoring his memory.

Speaking with longtime mutual friends, and as more of his friends that I didn’t know reached out, I came to a realization. His death wasn’t just about his struggles, or his family’s grief. Hundreds of people are grieving him, many in vulnerable mental states themselves.

Many of his friends have struggled with depression, suicide ideation, and attempts. Myself included. Joking about death and suicide is not uncommon among his close friends. It was a coping strategy that worked for him for a long time, until it didn’t.

Our friend, forever bending light and time.

The grief of his close friends remains wrapped in questions, what-ifs, and should-haves. And guilt… so much guilt. It’s a word that has come up a lot in discussions. Guilt that life steered connections apart, and guilt that we didn’t do more for him. We all know this is a common feeling around death by suicide, but understanding doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I continue to feel alone, crushed, and guilty that I didn’t see the subtle warning signs for what they were. But, I’m not alone, and my grief has a lot of good people company. There are many broken, dangling hearts over this loss. For someone who was beautiful in a deep way, wickedly funny, and perfectly imperfect.

The world is difficult to navigate during normal times, let alone with the added stress of a seemingly never-ending global crisis. We are all in fragile mental and emotional states right now. My friend’s death opened old wounds, brought friends closer, and has created new connections.

His death will never sit right with me, but I can handle it by continuing to honor his life. His loss has spawned a larger group of people to reach out to when life seems hopeless. We are now an interconnected circle of the grieving, trying to make sure no one falls through the cracks. It has brought to the forefront the importance of staying alive.

He had a stuffed companion with him during his final travels, a bear named Jakey. Well, we think it’s a bear… it might be a dog. This has become a running grief joke since none of us are sure, and he never made it clear. Jakey went on many travels with his dad, and his friends will continue this tradition.

For the next year, Jakey will travel between friends around the globe. His journeys will serve as a living memorial for our beloved friend. This stuffed animal, whatever he may actually be, has an important slogan:

Bear with me, as I live and grieve.

Our friend would have loved that.

We’ll have a special memorial anniversary trip for Jakey on his daddy’s 34th birthday. I’m thinking an annual pilgrimage of friends. Out to the country, where five of us gathered in person to host the virtual memorial. It’s a beautiful place called Brooks Manor Farm. We ate homemade grief food, took tractor rides across the fields, and toasted our friend’s birthday over a bonfire.

Brooks Manor Farm friend memorial. Photo by Karisha Anderson.

If he were still with us, he would have complained about the cold, and the coyotes, but secretly loved it. Jakey won’t mind, and after months traveling the world, some fresh, country air will do the bear good.

It will do the living good.

Jakey serves as a reminder that I, we, too, have to keep living and journeying. So, I will, and so will others. After all, no one can coordinate the bear’s international travel plans as well as we can.

We love you JJ, always and forever.

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About the author

Laura Gentle

Writer. Equality advocate. Unholy Hollywood + Hillbilly hybrid.

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