I Grieved a Stranger After He Killed Himself in Front of Me
Let the healing begin.
On a grey, brisk morning a little over a year ago, I was leaving my apartment building for work when a guy killed himself in front of me. I had only walked half a block when I heard a muffled yelp from somewhere above me. I looked up to see a blurry figure leap from the eighth floor of a nearby building and land in a crumple, 30 feet from my feet. He was elderly, with white hair, and was wearing a navy blue robe. (I didn’t remember these details, by the way, until months after this happened). Only three other people saw it all go down, and we all reacted differently: I stood there—still 30 feet away—and squinted at his body for at least ten minutes, while the woman walking her child to the daycare center on that block called 9-1-1. Her 3-year-old daughter had begun asking questions. A young repairman lunged out of a van he was trying to parallel park and ran up to us.
“Did you fucking see that?” he yelled. “What the fuck just happened? I’m fuckin’ freaking out. Did that guy just jump from his window? What the fuck?” He put his hands on his face and paced. The lady, her kid, and I all ignored him.
The cops and paramedics arrived minutes later (it was the Upper West Side of Manhattan, after all), recorded our statements, and then took the body, leaving a thin, contained pool of blood on the otherwise pristine sidewalk for the super to wash away. I sat on a nearby stoop and called my parents’ house. My dad picked up and I cried with him for a few minutes, wiped my snot with my glove, and went to work. I told my very sympathetic boss that if I had taken the day off and stayed home like she’d offered, I would likely also have thrown myself out a window.
Sorry, that was dark. I’m not making light of suicide, but without my making a little light and getting a lot of therapy, this event could have fucked with me more than it did. The humor is a coping mechanism—one of many I came to adopt when that man’s suicide launched me into a period of grief. No question about it, even though the dude was a complete stranger, the way I reacted would affect my actions and emotions for the rest of my life.
Grief is very subjective and it’s a different experience for everyone, contrary to the “guidelines” our particular society provides us on how we should act and how long we should be sad for, David Klemanski, psychotherapist and professor of applied psychology at NYU Steinhardt, tells me. Even if I didn’t know the jumper, at that moment, I felt pretty damn connected to him. At its surface, my experience could seem to fall into what’s called a parasocial interaction, Klemanski says, in which I grieve for someone I don’t know personally. Other examples of parasocial grief are what happens when a celebrity you admire dies, or when you feel a loss about the people who died in a mass shooting or other national tragedy—cases in which you don’t know the people in real life but nonetheless feel some type of intimacy with them, and sadness about their deaths. When you don’t know the person you’re mourning, people expect you to be a distant, clipped type of sad, and that’s all you’re allowed.
I naively adopted these tacit guidelines at first. I followed them stringently (“I’m totally fine, no worries. No really, I’m fine. Thanks. I feel terrible for his wife, who was in the building. I hope his family is staying strong. I hope he’s at rest”). And then, months later—when I began to startle every time I heard something fall to the ground with a similar thud as the old man’s body had—I brought my jumpy ass back to therapy and talked about what happened. I talked about my fears, the man’s face, his last yell—everything. And that’s when I began to really grieve this person who chose me as his witness.
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“What you experienced was more than the death of a stranger. You experienced trauma,” says Norma Bowe, a professor at Kean University in New Jersey whose focus is death and grieving (she teaches a class called “Death in Perspective,” which I took after chilling on a two-year waiting list during undergrad). “An event like that tends to trigger every single time we’re worried about a friend who’s depressed. It triggers our own sense of life and death and how short life is. It triggers our own impulsivity.”
She’s spot on. During the weeks that followed the suicide, I experienced, of course, sadness. Also, the “fragility of life” slapped me in the face, inciting a lot of fear. And then there was the anger. I’m ashamed to admit this, but I was angry at him for doing what he did in front of me. Bowe tells me I had essentially witnessed an act of violence. “At that moment, there was a loss of innocence, a loss of safety, a loss of living your life without this trauma hanging over your head. So in a way, that’s such an angry act,” she says. I think about the little girl who had been standing near me and hope she doesn’t remember any of it.
More rage bubbles up as I write this: Certain people in my life urged me to “heal” faster than my body and mind feasibly allowed me to. They (you know who you are) didn’t understand why I was still affected by this months later. And it did create triggers. For a long time, if my texts or calls to my friends went unanswered for a few hours, I’d wonder if they’d jumped out a window. You laugh (if you’re a dark motherfucker), but the residue of witnessing a suicide is real.
Back to the grief guidelines: In our society, you have an allotted time to be sad for every type of loss. As Americans, we’re in huge denial of death, Bowe reminds me, citing psychologist Ernest Becker’s theory, “largely because we have a youth-obsessed society.” So then when loss happens, Klemanski says, it can get dicey when you have to place your grief into a specific box—in my case, the “I didn’t know this guy but, uh, we had a super intimate moment anyway” box. “When you don't process your emotions or regulate them correctly, you're going to end up with emotional constipation or sort of a pressure cooker of emotions that need to be released over time,” he adds. And that’s not just in relation to grief. You know exactly what I’m talking about. We all know—or have been—that person that holds something in because our parents or partners or teachers taught us to be strong (“whatever that means,” Bowe says). And then boom. A messy emotional explosion results in a breakup or a breakdown. Either way, you’re going to crack eventually if you don’t do that inner work, my experts tell me.
“You know, tears have an enzyme that stimulates our immune system,” Bowe says. So if we don’t cry, we can get physically sick. I don’t think you’re going to see that on any grief models but I definitely include that in my own. We can get physically ill—our immune system can crash—from grief.”
I cry a lot. I sob at the end of Disney/Pixar movies. I tear up when I see a baby that looks like it could have been produced by me and my ex. I even cry during YouTube videos of animal reunions. I came up in a family where we expressed ourselves, I guess. So you’re welcome, immune system. But after that first shock-sob on the phone with my dad, I did not cry about the jumper. It felt wrong—almost selfish—to feel my feelings when it wasn’t about me.
As it turns out, both Klemanski and Bowe tell me, it’s actually always about me. Humans are selfish by nature and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We internalize what we see and feel, and then add it to the giant pot of past experiences that dictate how to navigate the world.
I asked my experts how I can process this grief, aside from full-on waterworks, because a year later, this shit is still weighing on me. And while I’m not trying to “get over” it (this experience will be a part of what makes me me for the rest of my life, Bowe says), I have caught myself behaving irrationally in situations where I know it’s about the suicide I witnessed and not the actual moment I’m in (e.g. calling a friend 70 times if he doesn’t answer the phone because I’m worried). It makes me look and feel like a complete nutbag and I don’t like it.
First and foremost, I need to actually think about it. “Those who mindfully approach an emotion rather than avoid it really give themselves the space to think about what the loss represents, and how does it affect them going forward,” Klemanski, who uses various mindfulness practices with his clients, tells me. He urges me, and anyone else who’s witnessed trauma, to talk about it with someone they trust—but only when they feel ready.
Bowe’s entire career revolves around grief work, so her advice was locked and loaded. For starters, she recommends journaling. “Getting [grief] out of your body and onto paper is the first step to healing. If you can read it out loud to someone and have someone witness your grief and what your thoughts are about that grief, it can be very helpful,” she says. So here I am, spilling my guts on the interwebs. Thanks for bearing witness.
She tells me to do something in memory of the person who died—to write some kind words on a rock and place it at the spot where he died. “And then understand that when you drop the rock there, you’re going to let it go,” she tells me. “That it’s going to stay with the rock and you’re not going to take it with you. You get to continue living your life without that boulder of burden of what you saw.” A rock on the sidewalk would cause people to trip (which would be a hilarious break from grief, but still) so I didn't do it. But I do know exactly which words I’d choose for this stranger. There’s a Sanskrit mantra we say in yoga sometimes: Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my thoughts, words, and actions contribute to that happiness and freedom.
Bowe also says to consider volunteering at an organization that the person you’re grieving had a connection to. “When we can find meaning and purpose in something bad that’s happened, we do a lot better. Those of us who feel like victims really don’t do very well,” she says. Her own organization, Be the Change, was born out of the practice of turning grief into action.
“I learned it best from Gwen Carr, Eric Garner’s mom,” Bowe tells me. She’s done lots of grief work with Carr, along with other mothers who have lost children to racial violence. “Gwen says, ‘I’ve turned my mourning into a movement and my sorrow into a strategy.’ I really agree with that. We can turn pain into power.”
I've yet to transform my grief, but I'm processing it now, so cheers to baby steps. I walk past the very spot the man died several times a week and try not to walk over it, as if I’d be disrespecting his unfathomable act of sorrow with the bottoms of my Chucks. This silly ritual is my way of placing a rock there. You lived, and I saw you. May we both be happy and free.
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