Grieving a Living Person
The grief that came with almost losing a friend to suicide.
TRIGGER WARNING: Suicide
A day less than one month after my dad died, I didn’t text someone goodnight.
It was a night that was eerily similar to the one when my dad died. It was a Friday. My dad had died on a Friday. I was also at a school football game. My dad had died while I was at a football game. I was also planning on going out after the game. The only other time I had done that was the night my dad died. All of these similarities made me a bit nervous at first, but I ended up thinking nothing of it.
During the game, I texted one of my best friends. Demi*. She had thought about going to the game, but to my disappointment, had chosen not to. So instead I spent a good portion of the night glued to my phone, until, near the end of the game she texted me goodnight. While I’m usually one of those people who replies to a text 0.5 seconds after I get it, for some reason, I didn’t say anything. I can always reply later.
The game ended, and I still hadn’t texted Demi. I went out with friends and ate pancakes at midnight. That part really reminded me of the night when my dad died, which hurt, but I still had fun.
I’ve always wondered if things would have been different if I had answered her text. If, instead of putting my phone away after seeing her goodnight, I had kept it out. Goodnight Demi. Be safe. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. :) Maybe she would have replied. Told me how she felt. Tried to distract herself. Or, it would’ve led to her talking to someone else, or just going straight to bed. The rational side of my brain knows that my reply wouldn’t have changed anything, but the other side still wonders.
I texted her back later that night and got no reply. I thought nothing of it, assuming that she was asleep.
The next morning, I woke up. It was one month since my dad died. A hard day. She didn’t text me. I tried convincing myself that everything was fine, she was sleeping in, she was grounded, she was mad at me, anything. But a thought kept coming back to me - What if she died?
I knew about her struggles with depression. The fact that it might have killed her was the first thought that came to my mind. As the hours passed and she still didn’t reply, I began to realize the likely truth: she was gone.
I kept on replaying the previous night in my head. The similarities between that night and the one my dad had died kept on popping up in my mind, but as I kept thinking about it, I realized that there was one key difference.
The night my dad died, I was with Demi, and I was really happy. I was walking through the football stands, when suddenly, something felt wrong. My chest suddenly got really heavy and it was like the weight of the world had been placed on my shoulders. I felt empty, and like everything good that existed had suddenly vanished. This pain was so much that I actually sat down. At the time, I was confused, having no idea why I had gone from feeling happiness to hurting that much for seemingly no reason. The feeling passed after a minute or two, my joy resumed, and I mostly forgot about it until after I found out my dad died, when I looked through time stamps on photos and realized that I had felt that way around the time my dad died. It was him leaving.
This time, though, I didn’t remember having that feeling, no matter how much I searched my memory. Even though I knew that my momentary emptiness the night my dad died might’ve just been a coincidence, I still held onto the little piece of hope, that if Demi had died, I would’ve felt it.
Every time my phone went off that weekend, I rushed to it, hoping above all else that it was her. That she was okay. None of the notifications I got were from her, though. I Googled her name, her name and city, her name and “obituary,” and every other possible combination I could think of. She actually came up, which scared me at first, but it was for something unrelated. I checked her social media hourly, hoping she was online. I was waiting for the moment I’d see her “like” a post, breathe a sigh of relief, and then be upset that she wasn’t there for me for the one month since my dad died. I wanted to be upset with her. I wanted her to text me and then have to remind her that it was the one month. I wanted her to just have forgotten, to have made a mistake, to be alive. I was terrified that she wasn’t, though.
That was one of the worst weekends of my life. The pain I felt was similar to what I had experienced just a month beforehand. Constant nausea, emptiness, and like my worst nightmare was coming true. Honestly, my worst nightmare was coming true. She was dead. She must have been.
I thought that the worst feeling in the world was knowing that someone died, but then I began to wonder if the worst feeling in the world was not knowing if someone had died. Taking every breath wondering if that person is also breathing, going outside and wondering if they’ll ever see the bright blue sky again, and thinking of hundreds of things you want to tell them, and not knowing if you’ll ever get to.
How am I supposed to do this without her?
I still hadn’t heard anything from her by Monday. While I usually ignored a lot of what happened at my school, when I walked in that day, I was on high alert. A student dying seemed like something that would spread quickly, so I listened to every conversation that I could, dreading the moment I heard one about her.
No one was talking about her, though, which gave me a lot of relief. To top it all off, I saw her best friend walking down the hallway, and I assumed that she would’ve skipped if Demi had died. Letting myself have a bit of hope was scary, mostly because I knew how terrible it would be if I got hope, and then found out the worst, but I started to get some. Maybe she is alive.
The days passed, each one a bit more painful was the last. I developed a routine. Get up, check my messages, check social media, Google her, go to school, see if anyone was talking, and see if her best friend was there. I went from being convinced that she was dead to having no clue what had happened. So if she’s not dead… where is she?
A whole week passed, and it was time for another football game. I got onto the bus, to drive to whatever school we were going to, and as we started driving away, I got a notification.
She was alive.
Where were you?
You don’t want to know.
She told me. Turns out I was right. Well, partially.
She had spent the week in the hospital, after almost dying by suicide.
I cried. We texted for a bit, and I felt relief. I didn’t have to be scared anymore. It was over. She was alive. She wasn’t okay, but she was going to be. That was the end of this story. It was just one terrible week. Everything was okay.
Except… it wasn’t.
That whole week, I had assumed that if - when. - she texted me, it would be all over. That I’d breathe a sigh of relief, tell her I loved her, and move forward. That I would be okay, and she soon would be too.
So… why wasn’t I okay?
Instead of just becoming a part of the past, that week became a permanent fixture in my mind.
When I would lay in bed at night, I’d think about how she could’ve died. That the text she sent me about going to bed could’ve been the last time I ever talked to her. That she would never have seen my reply. That I would’ve had to live the rest of my life without her. That I’d never get another hug from her, never hear her laugh again, never tell her another dumb joke that she probably wouldn’t enjoy anyway, or experience any part of life with her again.
When my mind would wander during the day, I’d feel guilty. Guilty that I was angry, because I knew it wasn’t her fault that her world had gotten so heavy that she thought death was the only answer. Guilty that I hadn’t noticed. That whatever signs were there had gone over my head. Guilty that I didn't reply. That maybe, if I hadn’t just ignored her message at first, things would’ve gone differently.
When things would get difficult, I’d feel anger towards her. Selfish, terrible anger. I wondered how she could try to leave me, just a month after my dad died. Why I - and everyone else in her life - wasn’t enough. How she could possibly do that to me, even though I understood why, and knew it wasn’t personal.
On top of all of that, I felt fear. Constant, unbearable fear. Fear that it would happen again. That, like the last time, she would be in unbearable pain, and I wouldn't notice. That she would be gone forever. This fear didn’t just lie with her, though, and began to apply to every single person I knew. Whenever someone didn’t answer a text or phone call, I would freak out, wondering if they were dead. Even though I had no reason to worry, I’d text them hundreds of times, call them repeatedly, or check their social media for activity, just looking for a sign of life. The moment someone told me they were struggling, I’d start thinking that they were going to die, even if their struggle had nothing to do with suicide. I started trying to analyze people, trying to find the signs I somehow had missed with Demi, even if I had no logical reason to think that there would be any. I started keeping my phone with me at all times, and replying to texts instantly, and swore that I’d never ignore another “goodnight” text from someone. If I found out that someone was actually feeling suicidal, I’d lose it. I’d panic, not be able to breathe, and feel just like I did during that week I thought Demi was gone, even if I knew they were safe.
These feelings only got worse over time. I told no one, including Demi. The only time we had ever talked about it was the night she got out of the hospital, and we barely talked then. I felt like, because she was alive, I couldn’t say anything about the pain I was feeling. That I didn’t have a right to be upset, I was selfish for not just being happy she was here, and that I should only feel positive things about it.
I was facing this silent struggle alone, on top of all the grief I was feeling for my dad. I felt like I couldn’t tell anyone. That, if someone found out, they would think I was a horrible person and not understand.
The first time I really talked about it was months later. The same thing happened to one of my friends with her boyfriend. When she got to school, I rushed over to her and gave her a hug. I understand. She and I talked about it. It was the first time I had told anyone how I felt, and she understood. It was like momentarily taking a heavy weight that I had been carrying for months off my shoulders. For the first time, I knew I wasn’t alone.
After that, I slowly began bringing it up with the people I was closest to. Explaining that there was a reason the littlest of things would terrify me so much. I learned that, while some people didn’t understand, most were compassionate, and many had gone through similar things that they also didn’t talk about much. I was finally able to get support and begin to realize that a lot of the fears I had developed were irrational. I still didn’t bring it up to Demi, though.
What I didn’t realize until later was that I was experiencing grief from this experience. That was strange to think about since, before then, I had always assumed that grief was only caused by a death. Grief can be caused by any type of loss, though. The grief I felt for Demi closely mirrored what I felt for my dad. The way it was different, though, was that I felt the pain of what did happen, and the pain of what could’ve happened.
Every year, on the anniversary of it, it’s strange. Knowing that it’s just an “average” day, but could be the anniversary of her death. It’s terrifying. This year, I cried. It was strange. I texted her and told her I loved her, though didn’t mention that I knew it was the anniversary. I don’t know if she remembered. As I talked to her, I kept on thinking, Right now could’ve been two years since I last talked to her. Today could’ve been the anniversary of one of the worst days of my life. I could be missing her so much. I grieved her, even though she was right in front of me.
In October of 2020, I went over to Demi’s house, and for the first time, I brought it up. She sat and listened as I told her how guilty, upset, angry, afraid, and sad I was. How I couldn’t imagine this world without her in it, and how terrifying that week was when I thought I’d have to live without her. It was one of the most difficult yet rewarding conversations I’ve ever had.
She looked at me after I finished talking.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
That simple sentence made me cry even harder than I already was. It was strange, but those four words coming from her, the four words that I had been trying to unsuccessfully convince myself of for years, suddenly seemed true.
If she had died that day, the world would’ve lost so much. I would never have gotten to know Demi as well as I do now. I wouldn’t have known what kind of dog she wants in the future. I wouldn’t know that she is a backseat driver and absolutely hates how slowly I drive. I wouldn’t have known that she can (occasionally) be really funny. I wouldn’t have known that she cannot do math. All of those are just a few of the things I’ve learned about her in the past week, and are just a few of the millions of other little things I’ve learned since that day. I would’ve missed so much if she died that day. There would forever be a Demi-sized hole in my life that no one else could ever fill.
It took me a long time, and a lot of opening up to people, but it’s slowly gotten easier for me. I’ve stopped making up scenarios in my head about what would’ve happened if I had texted her back that night, or noticed any warning signs beforehand. Instead of being scared to talk about the difficult stuff with people and just worry in private, I’ve started to ask people how they’re doing, and not shy away from the hard conversations. I’ve started asking Demi more about her mental health and if she’s feeling suicidal, hoping that, whenever she feels that way, she knows that I will always be here to remind her why she has to stay. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that, no matter how much I obsess over the past, it cannot be changed, and that loss can never be prevented completely.
Every time I hug Demi now, I do it a little longer than I did before, remembering how much it hurt when I thought I’d never get to again.
If you or a loved one is struggling, please reach out. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. For more urgent support resources, click here.
*Name changed for privacy purposes.
Natalie Adams created Teenage Grief Sucks after the death of her dad.