Guest Post: Keli Douglass
I met Grace shortly after my husband and I moved to Seattle. Our son was an infant, and I was a newly minted “stay at home mom.” It was lonely. Achingly lonely. Having spent all my life with countless family members just a short drive away, I was lost. There were a lot of tears. Grace was new to town as well. Her husband and my husband had been friends for years and worked for the same company. So, as soon as they got settled we all started hanging out together.
When we became friends, I was surprised at how easy it was. It felt like I had always known Grace. She was Korean, and I’m Filipino. In some asian cultures, it’s a sign of respect to call your parents’ friends “Auntie.” So, as my son started to walk and talk he called her Auntie Grace. She doted on him like an aunt, too, showering him with love and gifts. Grace and I would regularly do dinner and a movie. We always ended up seeing awful movies (Sex and the City 2, Leap Year, When in Rome). Eventually, we started watching bad movies on purpose.
We really solidified our bond when we went to one of Taylor Swift’s “Fearless” tour concerts. If you’ve witnessed the fan fever and spectacle of a Taylor Swift concert, you can understand why after that we were friends for life. We laughed A LOT. No offense Taylor Nation!
A few years later, we got word that my husband was offered a job in Kansas City. I was devastated. We had put down deep roots in three year’s time. We would be leaving lots of friends, a church we loved, and even family (both my brothers followed me to Washington). And now we had to start all over again. More tears, more loneliness, and having to say “goodbye” to Grace and her husband who felt like family. It was gut wrenching, but it was a great opportunity and ultimately what was best for our family.
Six months later, Grace died from suicide.
We were all left reeling. Were there signs? Was there something we could have done? The grief and guilt were all consuming. Nothing felt real.
Immediately we flew back to Washington to help in anyway we could. We helped plan her funeral and spent lots of time with her husband and her family as they arrived.
Soon I realized that when someone you love dies in this particular way, people aren’t sure how to react. Outside our bubble of grief, people were weird. Someone I am close to, upon hearing the news, launched into a graphic story about how her friend’s son committed suicide several years earlier. Another person close to me said “I’m sorry to hear that. I heard she had her ‘ways.’” To this day, I have no idea what he meant by that.When we got back to Kansas City, people were weird here too. My son’s preschool director knew the situation, since we had taken him out of school for several days, and she asked me “Did she know Jesus? Was she saved?” I was taken aback, and honestly pretty damn angry at that question.
I went to see a therapist, and one of the first things she did was Google the suicide rate in South Korea and tell me the statistic. I mean truly, wtf? It was the first and last time I saw that therapist.
It didn’t get any easier as the days, months, and years went by. My primary care physician was the person who finally convinced me to seek help again for depression and anxiety. Then, things started to get a little bit better.
We were a family of four (our adoptive daughter came home just six months after Grace passed away) when we visited a church called Saint Andrew. On paper, it seemed like the right place for us. They are open and affirming of LGBT people, involved in social justice, care for the environment, and much more. So, we gave them a shot. In the program, I noticed they had a grief group that would meet the following Sunday.
Despite my introversion, I decided to give the group a try. It was held in a room in the basement of the church, and people sat in a circle sharing their story about why they had come. When it was my turn, I said through tears “I’m here because one of my best friends committed suicide.” Immediately, a wonderful woman named Jody held up her hand and said “I’m sorry. I’m going to stop you. You’ve said ‘committed suicide’. Using those words makes it sound like the person we love has committed a crime. It’s better to say ‘completed suicide.’”
She was right. Grace was suffering from an illness, and she died from that illness. She committed no crime.
I’m not saying Jody’s words changed everything, but she offered me a more loving and compassionate perspective than the strange encounters I had in the weeks after Grace’s death. They were words I needed to hear. Words that helped me grieve in the way we all deserve to grieve when we lose someone we love. Without stigma, without qualification, and without judgement.
Keli works as an audiobook narrator in the Kansas City Metro area. She is a new midwesterner, having spent most of her life in sunny San Diego. She lives in a house with hundreds of books, three dogs, two children, and one husband.