by Ren Bell
About 12 years ago, my life shattered into pieces. My sister and her boyfriend killed themselves in my dad’s car. The same Nissan Altima that I gleefully drove at age 16, earning a speeding ticket on Powhite Parkway.
When my mom called with the news of my sister’s death, I slumped on to the floor in a jumble of gasps and hot tears. All I could say was “no, no, no” over and over again. I pounded my fists on the carpet, my vision blurred. From that time on, I couldn’t view the world the same way. I focused on shadows instead of light, the dark corners, how even sweet things turn sour. I was angry at people who laughed and smiled, went to parties, proceeding with their normal lives.
A sharp pang in my chest woke me most mornings. I contacted a bereavement group in Richmond that told me not to attend. That since I lost my sister to suicide and not a “natural cause like cancer” my story would be too upsetting to the other participants. My hopelessness deepened. My marriage fell apart and my husband moved to another state. I got roommates to help pay the mortgage and we partied a lot. Easy distractions.
That winter, my closest co-worker shot herself in the head over Christmas break. All the force of grief came back even stronger. A tidal wave knocking me to my knees. I helped her college-aged son clean out her desk. It was too soon for me. I had just sorted out my sister’s belongings. Renting a van and collecting what my sister had scattered across Northern Virginia. Like a twisted treasure hunt with no map, no prize and no answers.
In January, a friend had invited me to visit her on Maui, to take a breather. I spent one week there and felt a tinge of life in those Pacific waters. Upon my return to Richmond, my dog was gravely ill. A roommate had fed him chicken bones and his intestines were punctured.
One emergency surgery and thousands of dollars later, he lived for two more days. He had loved me through all the loss and now he was gone- his big paws, speckled black and white fur and blue eyes. I buried him in the backyard during a snowstorm. Presented with more loss, I drifted through the months like a ghost. The darkness was immense and wouldn’t release it’s sweaty tight grip. Numb and not knowing what new splendid disaster await me.
One day, a moment of clarity, a voice inside said to me- Maui is the answer. You must move there. I had heard that voice before. I knew to trust it. I wrote it on my mirrored closet door in red marker. Move to Maui.
For someone with sparse energy, it was a massive task. Selling belongings, giving notice at work, telling friends, closing bank accounts, finalizing my divorce, selling my car. I bought a one way ticket. With no place to live, no employment, I trusted that everything would unfold as it should. But getting on that plane with three bags of clothes and some art supplies, I was terrified.
Maui gave me the space to grieve. Crying, sobbing and wailing- all manners of release. The island soothing me with soft salty breezes. The ocean held me, bobbing next to sea turtles popping their heads up for air. Curled up on the warm sand, the sun lightened my hair and tanned my skin. Peach streaked sunsets gave me hope and I exhaled deeply along with the waving palm fronds.. Some days I still felt lost. Not sure of my footing or what to do next. But I would walk on the beach every evening and feel gratitude in my bones.
One day I took my paddleboard out on the ocean in front of my house. I was feeling drained but forced myself to head out, the heavy board banging awkwardly against my leg. I set out towards the anchored sailboats, about a mile and a half offshore. Once there, I sat down to stretch and breathe. Trying to shake off the exhaustion, I moved through some asanas.
When I looked up, there was a humpback whale and her newborn calf next to my board. First, I felt panic. My whole body shaking, out of fear, out of awe, these massive creatures dangerously close to me. An average female humpback whale weighs 30 tons and is around 50 feet long.
Curiously looking up at me, moving nearer, I removed my sunglasses. So close, I could’ve reached out and touched the bumpy, barnacle covered, gray-blue flesh. That whale had the physical potential to breach out of the water and send me catapulting. Instead she seemed quite sentient and very aware of my minuscule presence. I believe she knew something that I did not. I was with child.
Satisfied with their inquiry, the whales drifted casually away, leaving me alone, bobbing on my board in shock. I sat there floating and shaking for almost 20 minutes. Eventually I could stand and paddle again. When I stood up, I felt renewed. The mother and calf visit was more than conciendence. It helped me comprehend how little control we actually have over events in our lives. The encounter made me feel powerless and gave me strength at the same time. There is power in letting go, in trusting life’s journey.
Once I moved back to Richmond with my new husband and baby, I knew I wanted to help others that experience suicide loss. I didn’t want suffering people being turned away when they so desperately need help. In 2014, I went through facilitator training with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in DC.
That November, a friend and I started a monthly support group that meets the third Thursday of every month. Survivors of Suicide Loss-RVA has now been in existence for four years. It can be difficult bearing witness to grief. But I see the relief on their faces as they leave, being able to share openly and without judgement. And I hope that they see my life as an example. Love and hope are possible after suicide loss.