Semicolons and Suicide: A Sentence Lives On
My deceased father’s birthday was October 23rd; my childhood best friend, Lindsay, committed suicide on October 25th. They died the same year.
It was 2010, and I had just gotten married. Lindsay had also become engaged. Prior to her death and to my father’s, I hadn’t spoken with either of them for a long time. Daddy and I had had a serious falling out six months before his death; Lindsay and I had simply become separated by geography and time.
But growing up with best friends in a small tobacco town means connections for life, even when careers scatter people and busyness takes hold. Middle and high school glory days are never forgotten; a few chords of a song or a single picture can drop you back into endless summers, sleepovers, and inside jokes.
Despite not being in touch face-to-face, it (virtually) appeared that Lindsay was living a good and full life. But she had always been stoic in her ability to ensure we were all OK, even if she wasn’t. That skill hadn’t wavered with age, and in 2010, she 29, beautiful, successful, and betrothed. Externally, it seemed that everything had fallen into place—only it hadn’t.
Lindsay took her own life on a Monday morning. I was sitting in my downtown Durham office, raising money for a nonprofit organization, a profession Lindsay and I shared. I’d checked Facebook during a break and saw a hometown friend’s enigmatic post. I began phoning for details. A former high school crush called me and explained: “Lindsay’s gone.”
Panic, what-ifs, and regret ensued, as it always does when death comes swiftly and unexpectedly. Amid the next few days of memorializing, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s explanation of grief, in its five traditional stages set in: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Denial: “This cannot be happening.”
Anger: “I’m so angry! How could she not let us know that it was this bad?!”
Bargaining: “If I vow to be a better friend—a more persistent and insistent one—can we have her back?”
Depression: “I just want to crawl in my hole.”
Acceptance. “I cannot change Lindsay’s suicide, but I can keep her memory alive and help others choose to live.”
Lindsay’s death hit me hard. I’d watched my mother muddle through the grief of her own father’s suicide 57 years ago. Mom had been through all the stages but one, moving back and forth, sometimes rapidly, other times unable to move in the viscosity of depression. Even after six decades, she still has not made it to acceptance.
Seeing the way my grandfather’s suicide affected my mother made me want to do better by Lindsay.
I refuse to let my grief keep me silent; I refuse to be without power to help others.
A Sentence Continues …
Teaching a freshman composition class means I’m up on all the latest trends, even when I don’t want to be. My students talk tattoos while I dance to songs about parts of speech. The college classroom is a constant push-pull of keeping them engaged with content that can feel archaic.
A few years ago, not too far into the semester, I refreshed them on the usefulness of semicolons. Though they’d forgotten the rules on everything else they’d learned a decade prior to college, they told me they’d always remember the semicolon’s purpose.
“It’s a strong pause–but it doesn’t mean the sentence is over,” they explained. I was puzzled as to why they knew this punctuation mark, but couldn’t remember other, more basic ones.
It’s because they (and their friends) have semicolon tattoos, an indicator that one has thought about or attempted suicide, but chosen to live on.
“The sentence doesn’t have to end,” they urged me.
Changing the Record
My father and Lindsay are gone, full stop. But arriving at grief’s acceptance stage means I’ve replaced the period at the end of their lives with a semicolon, an indelible reminder that their spirits live on through me and others.
Suicide is preventable. There are places to turn. There are people who can help.
That’s why each year I continue to support Lindsay’s family as they raise funds for Team Loving Lindsay’s participation in the “Out of Darkness” Suicide Prevention Walk.
I cannot change the outcome of Lindsay’s suicide, but I can keep her memory alive while helping others choose to live.
Acceptance … and empowerment. We are the authors of our own sentences.
Have you been affected by suicide? Here’s how you can help: