Over the last few weeks, the news seems to be scattered with stories of male suicide, as campaigns in male mental health gather momentum. This week I’ve found myself sharing stories with others who have lost a friend suddenly.
On May 21st, it will be one year since I lost a friend to suicide.
It’s strange how a suicide hits you. Al and I weren’t close; we were both part of a larger group of friends who all worked together, when I was still in my first job. It was one of those groups that form for no real reason beyond being young and in close proximity and enjoying too many drinks. I liked him; Al was funny and smart and creative and talented; but I didn’t know him well. My memories of him are the hazy kind, from nights at the pub and idiotic evenings in a friend’s apartment that always ended up with Al riding the exercise bike that inexplicably lived by the sofa, peddling away, brandishing an unlit pipe and a glass of wine, usually delivering a speech on acting, quoting Shakespeare at us or just talking about his dog. Al was like that. At his funeral, we shared stories of his madcap adventures; the time he walked to Hay-On-Wye with only a bottle of wine for company and then spent the night in a hedge on the way, times his landlady found him asleep in the dog basket, his experimental cooking at 3am. I didn’t know him well, but his death was like a light being turned out.
When you’re a 20-something, and busy living your life, mortality is not exactly at the forefront of your mind. You reach a point where your weekends are full of celebrating the weddings of your group, or the birth of first children. There’s no part of you that anticipates standing at the funeral of a friend.
In the year since I read the news of his death, I’ve thought of him often. I often feel guilty, part of a grief that isn’t mine to mourn. I was surprised by how hard his death hit me; he was such a big personality, that even for me, who after moving away from home only saw him once or twice a year for a pint, his absence is noticeable. Sometimes, just for a moment, I forget he’s gone, and I expect to see him when I go home. I half expect him to arrive at the pub, dog at his side, bow tie askew, and full of jokes and cleverness, as he always was. A few months ago, I passed someone in New Street station who looked so much like him that for a moment my brain didn’t catch up. For a split second, I thought it was him, and then my memory caught up with me and reminded me I’ll never see him again. I sat outside work and cried before I could go in.
Loss is a weird thing, especially to something as awful as a suicide. Nothing prepares you for that. It hits you like a battering ram. On the 21st, I’ll be raising a glass of red wine to the Al I loved best, on that exercise bike. I’ll be thinking of his family, and his friends, those hit far harder by his loss than me.
Look after yourselves. Look after each other. Support your mental health charity of choice. Be there for others. Listen. Talk. Always talk.
And always be ready for an adventure, whatever that might be.