Putting my life back together after my best friend’s suicide

Hannah Flanery and Emily Barnhardt

by Emily Barnhardt

If had to choose a phrase that encapsulates my story and the pain and suffering I’ve experienced, it would be: “collateral beauty.”

Several years ago, I lost my best friend and roommate to suicide. It turned my world upside down.

There are no words to explain the devastating grief that washes over you after a complex loss like suicide; it’s as unpredictable and as relentless as waves crashing over the seashore. I wrestled with the never-ending questions and the monstrous-of-all questions, “why?” my best friend killed herself. Time and time again, I experienced the feeling that I failed her and didn’t love her enough.

I wanted to be angry with her for leaving me that way and giving up.

I wanted to be angry with her for leaving me to pick up the pieces of her life.

I even wanted to hate her, at times, because I just hurt so damn much.

But as much as I wanted to hate her for it, I never could…because the reality was that I loved her so much. That’s why it hurt so damn much.

I wanted to talk about her but felt the unspoken and awkward silence of those who couldn’t bear the darkness.

I felt the influence of shaming stigma, though every ounce of me knew that the way she died did not define her, or speak to the wonderful person she was. Without preparation, I experienced “complicated grief” of suicide loss. And through my grief and love for her, I started to find a passionate voice inside of me- a voice that desperately longed to make a difference.

I have also battled my own personal wars

With depression, anxiety, an eating disorder, and trauma.

There were seasons in my past that, truthfully, I should not have survived

There were seasons where I felt the darkness would surely overtake me. Seasons of deep loneliness, desperation, grief and loss, defeat and hopelessness.

Seasons where the light at the end of the tunnel seemed like a cruel joke of a dangling carrot on the end of a stick.

I found help through therapy and treatment, yes. But for me, my healing came through my faith, and in knowing the Lord. He truly changed my darkness into light before my eyes. That helped me recognize how beauty can truly come from the ashes.

Was it easy? Hell, no.

It was a journey of strenuous mountaintops and a hell of a lot of valleys. It was when I was stretched the most that I was able to tap into my passion and purpose. It’s during those valleys when I was the most vulnerable, that the soil is most fertile.

It was a hard reality for me to wrestle with-– that beauty can come from pain and suffering. In regards to my best friend’s suicide, I struggled with accepting that because it felt like embracing something beautiful would equate to me saying that her death was OK. And it wasn’t OK; it never will be. But I’ve learned that both suffering and beauty can co-exist.

I’ve learned that even though her shocking death wounded me deeply and changed me forever, it also helped me recognize the collateral beauty from the experience.

For me, that collateral beauty has been many things- big and small.

I helped write a book on surviving loss by suicide, and another book on how to help the newly bereaved. I also launched a community in my city (a branch of a larger, international community), that creates a safe space and point of connection for young adults who’ve faced significant loss in their lives.

Through my own struggles with trauma, depression, and anxiety, I’ve sought out ways to help others. And I’ve found even more healing, myself, through that. Because I’ve learned how much our stories matter; our stories have the power to help others.

I volunteered with a ministry that helps survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault, mentored middle schoolers, and made it my mission to love the ones I could see were hurting and struggling. By advocating and writing about things I’m passionate about, I hope to make a difference in (grief, suicide, mental illness, addiction, trauma, relational support, faith), hoping to do my part in starting conversations that matter.

By volunteering with an organization that combats sex trafficking in my city and helps rescue victims from trafficking, I have found healing.

Working through feelings of inadequacy

Sharing all of this is in no way an attempt to toot my own horn because most of the time I truly feel so inadequate and ill-equipped to do whatever it is that I’m doing. No matter what human beings go through and experience, there IS hope for healing and purpose through our pain. And healing does not equate to moving on or forgetting.

I look at healing in certain ways that we are able to continue living while using the pain we’ve experienced and honoring the memories of those we’ve loved and lost.

God has shown up in my deepest depths of darkness and shown me that there is always hope for me, no matter how broken I feel. And the greatest gift I’ve been given-the collateral beauty-is seeing that my story matters, and can help encourage others who feel they are too broken to ever truly live or see beauty, again.

9 thoughts on “Putting my life back together after my best friend’s suicide”

  1. Hi Emily. I went to middle school with Hannah. I didn’t know her well but all the same was so sadden when I heard of her passing. I think of her from time to time which is how I came across your beautiful tribute. I cannot imagine the pain of losing such a dear friend. I just wanted to commend you for how you loved Hannah. I pray that you still continue to see the union of beauty and suffering and that God continues to show you his faithfulness.

  2. Go Em! I am so proud of you. I re-read this post today because I just love it (and you) so much. You are doing great things. You are making a difference every day. And I am so lucky to call you a friend!

  3. This is so beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your heart with us and for reaching out to others as you grieve.

  4. Emily, thank you for sharing . I have a few observations I hope you don’t mind me expressing.
    First one – you stated that ‘you feel so inadequate and ill equipped to do whatever it is you are doing’. My belief from my own experience is if you feel LOVE, UNDERSTANDING & COMPASSION from the helping person – that is what brings the heart healing . (My opinion not necessarily fact!)
    Second- the first thing I noticed about the photo you submitted was the way the two of you were positioned. You were in front of her and the impression I felt when looking at the photo was how very protective you were of her. Like a older sister with a younger sister.

    I would like for you to know that I and many others are grateful for your tender compassionate heart and that you have an abundance of ‘what it takes’ to truly make a difference in this world . Diane Fielder McCormick 🦋

    1. Diane,
      My apologies for the last response. Your feedback is so very welcomed and appreciated!
      You are so right about the photo, too. She truly was like a younger sister to me (she was a few years younger).
      Your words mean so much, thank you for taking the time to comment.

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