The summer I was fourteen, a girl I went to high school with killed herself. Her locker was next to mine for all of Grade Nine, but when I came back to school in September, she wasn’t there. There was no public announcement. Someone told me in the bathroom. This was well before the time of grief counselling and there were certainly no strategies for dealing with upset students. There were whispers in the halls and then there was silence.
I remember the feeling in the pit of my stomach. I remember that I couldn’t stop thinking about her. It wasn’t like we were close. We travelled in different circles and weren’t friends. Our lockers were only beside each other by virtue of our last names. But there was still this sudden and terrible darkness, this unexplained and mysterious thing.
All of this came flooding back this week. My girlfriend lost a dear friend—Dorothy (Duru) Angnatok—who lived in the remote town of Nain, Labrador, to suicide.
Duru worked with the youth of her home community who struggle with mental health issues and are at risk of suicide. She led a program called “Going Off, Growing Strong,” which helps connect the youth to elders and traditional ways of life. According to everyone who knew her, Duru cared deeply and was well loved, especially by the youth. People referred to her as the community’s “sparkplug,” a bringer of light and joy to many who struggled. She was known for her huge smile, her warmth and generosity of spirit, and for her mantra that she widely shared: “Create a good day.”
As the shock of the news settled in this week, we witnessed a massive outpouring of love and grief for this exceptional human being. CBC’s As It Happens aired an obituary, both Olympian Clara Hughes and CBC radio host Shelagh Rogers (who worked with Duru in Torngat Mountains National Park) wrote moving tributes, and thousands of people joined the mourning on Facebook. The profound impact that one person can have on so many was keenly felt.
It reminded me of an interview I heard recently with philosopher, poet, and historian Jennifer Michael Hecht, who lost two friends to suicide a few years ago. These deaths massively impacted her, causing her to pen an impromptu blog post, filled with wrenching grief, imploring her other friends and colleagues to “stay.”
“So I want to say this, and forgive me the strangeness of it. Don’t kill yourself. Life has always been almost too hard to bear, for a lot of the people, a lot of the time…”
Hecht goes on to extend gratitude to those who have resisted the urge to commit suicide, who are still in the community of the living and the struggling.
“I am grateful that you stay alive….We have to carry each other, like Bono says. Don’t kill yourself…We need you with us, we have not forgotten you, you are our hero. Stay.”
This post received a tremendous and unexpected response. People commented and shared en masse, and many wrote her personally to tell her how much her plea had meant to them, how it helped them feel not so alone.
All the while, Hecht’s lost friends were still very much in her consciousness. She would dream about them and often feel guilty for not being able to save them. One day she realized that there were others alive she could still help. This prompted her to more fully explore the topic of suicide in a book—Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It—and to scour humanity’s history, searching for a different and deeper perspective.
She found it. And at a time when more individuals, worldwide, die by suicide than by murder, Hecht feels grateful that she can offer a counterargument to the right to take your own life. Her book is a beautiful re-thinking of suicide from the perspective of our essential interconnectedness.
“The conversation has to be about how important people are to each other and how vivid that becomes after a suicide…We are indebted to one another and the debt is a kind of faith, a beautiful, difficult, strange faith. We believe each other into being.”
We’ve all been in dark places. And the very darkness seems to make us forget how our lives are interwoven with others. In an era that boasts more connection than ever, events like Duru’s death remind me how isolated some are. “People can feel isolated in their dark thoughts, and learning that all of humanity suffers, at least some of the time, from such thoughts can help us to feel less alone,” says Hecht. “We can forget that we live in a web of significance and emotional interdependence with hundreds of other people. Sometimes the web is subtle, even imperceptible, but it is real.”
All week, I have heard stories of Duru and seen photos of her magnificent smile. I have read the anguished words of her friends and colleagues. And I have seen my love’s tears.
Can we ever know the depth of another’s sorrow or solitude or sadness? Can another ever really know how vital they are to us? This week, these questions feel raw and unanswerable.
But what I do know is this: You are more important than you know to the people who surround you. Don’t ever underestimate your impact.
If our communities are webs, then Duru was an integral player in the web of Nain. She was someone who connected people even further afield, joining those across the country who otherwise might never have met. Some called her a kind of “glue” that held the web together.
When someone dies, it’s like a part of the web falls away, and it’s up to the ones who are left to rebuild. This week, the community of Nain came together to support one another and hold their web strong. Hundreds took part in Duru’s memorial service and hundreds of others, from across Canada, tuned in remotely to a live audio stream.
My love and I sat in the quiet of her living room with candles lit and snow falling softly outside and listened to the sounds and voices from Nain. As the organ strained and the voices trembled from over 1000 km away, I was more aware than ever of this alive universe, vibrating with the lines that connect and run between us. We are one part of a gorgeous pattern, invisible to the human eye, but connected by fierce love.
Originally published on my blog “This Sweet World”