Christmas was always my favorite holiday. Fifteen years ago, at the age of 17, I shared my first apartment with my boyfriend. We moved into the apartment just before the holiday and I was so excited to have a place of my own, to decorate. I had the Christmas music, the scented candles, and the garland hung in between the rooms. I even started hand painting my own tree ornaments the Summer before. I loved Christmas.
I remember Christmas Day 2003 like it was yesterday. I can remember the temperature in the air, and smell of the cold, all the feelings.
Lars and I got into a big fight a few days before Christmas. It was a fight that I started. I was angry for being 17 and a stay at home mom. I was angry that I dropped out of high school and felt trapped in our small one-bedroom apartment for days on end. I was angry that he was working two 40-hour jobs and never home. And when he was home, it was to sleep, and I felt under pressure to keep a crying baby, quiet. We were so young.
We got into the fight on Monday, and we didn’t talk for a few days. On Thursday, following my family Christmas dinner I drove to Lars’s mom’s house. All afternoon I had a nagging feeling that something wasn’t right. It was there, in her neighborhood, I pulled up to a road blocked off by police. I got out of my car. His jeep was parked ahead, driver’s window broken out, blood everywhere and his body on a stretcher covered with a white sheet. He died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. That’s exactly how his death certificate stated it. The shock is like nothing I can explain, it was as if everything in my chest dropped into my stomach. I walked back to my car and drove to my grandparent’s house, me and my newborn son in the back seat.
The rest of the night is a blur. At some point I went back to the apartment we shared. Our answering machine was full of messages his friends left, apologizing for missing his call the night before. He had called his friends to say goodbye.
The days and weeks following his death were most difficult of my life. You hear about a depression that leaves people unable to get out of bed. I did get out of my bed to care for Connor, but I didn’t do much else. I didn’t leave the house or go into public for weeks. I didn’t shower, I didn’t eat. I was so sick. Sick with shock. Sick with sadness. Sick with guilt. I couldn’t allow myself to put food into my mouth when all I could think of how hopeless he felt the night he put a gun to his head. I had nightmares almost every night. I went to the cemetery every day, for years.
Eventually, after a few months following his death, I began working again. I remember when I forced myself to carry on a normal life. I can remember driving past Dunkin Donuts one morning, the drive thru line was to the street, just like every other morning. I remember thinking how everyone in the World woke up that morning and carried on their normal routines. There I was, barely able to function, I felt so numb. Dealing with his death was impossible. It was a sadness I don’t wish on anyone. Every day was a struggle to get through. I began writing all my thoughts into a journal, always starting with a fresh page and never looking back. I bartered with myself to get through each day. I remember one day I promised if the pain I was feeling at that time, was the same on the following Christmas, then I, too, would end everything. It was a promise that finally offered relief.
Summer 2004 came, and when I wasn’t looking, I had met someone. And though the relationship only lasted a couple years it served a very important purpose, it helped pull me out of every dark place and helped me to find balance. Even though I was still mourning Lars’s death, I was able to see through the fog and to balance the feelings of hopelessness with feelings of clarity and most importantly, future. And because of that I was able to find the energy I needed to be a better mother to Connor.
For a long time, I felt I was the girl whose boyfriend killed himself. I felt people looked at my differently, treated me differently, judged me. I had strangers tell me that he shouldn’t have had a funeral or shouldn’t be remembered in any way because he committed suicide. Eventually I stopped talking about Lars and any conversation that might lead to his name. I became a conversation-ninja avoiding conversation about him, Connor and major life milestones altogether. Unfortunately, I am still that way today.
I have spent the last 15 Christmas’s alone. The years immediately following Lars’s death I pretended I wasn’t feeling well. Many years afterward that I would tell my family I was with my boyfriend’s family and tell his family I was with mine. It wasn’t meant to be deceitful, I just wanted to be left alone. I still to this day, spend Christmas alone. I don’t lay in bed crying, I don’t drink myself into a stupor (well, maybe sometimes). I usually just go for a run, clean the house, etc. I don’t use the day to throw a pity-party for myself, but instead I use Christmas day as a day of recognition and respect for someone who felt such hopelessness that he no longer wanted to be on this Earth.
I think of him every day. I can remember so many conversations, vividly. He always wanted Connor, he was always optimistic about our future, and Connor’s future. He wanted success for me; I remember the Summer of 2003 we bumped into a friend of his at Walmart. We were standing in the back of the store, near the gardening section, talking to the guy. He asked Lars what his post-high school plans were and if he planned to go to college. Lars looked at me and he told him he had to get me through college first. I will never forget that moment, and though it was special at that time, following his death, it became my mission. I had no choice but to go to college and to be successful for myself and for Connor, and that I did.
Today 15 years have passed, his memory is very much still with me. Every Christmas I reflect on my feelings, and changes that have evolved from the year prior and from 2003. This year, in particularly I have reflected on the shift in the stigma surrounding suicide. 15 years ago, people didn’t mention the word ‘suicide’. The only people who killed themselves were drug addicts, or losers. I couldn’t even go to therapy 15 years ago because there was an undertone surrounding his death that felt like ignorance to the situation.
Today, as a culture, we are so much more accepting of depression and mental illness. My silver lining this Christmas is how far we have come as a society to break down the stigma of suicide. Maybe, just maybe, we can go a step farther. Maybe not everyone who kills themselves are suffering from a mental illness. Maybe they are young, with too much on their plates. Maybe they are just an average-Joe person going through a rough patch, feeling overwhelmed, feeling hopeless and unable to see past their pain at that moment. Maybe this shift is something I will get to see in another 15 years.