It was a normal Easter sunday, I did my tri-annual journey to church out of respect for my Mom. I wore a flowy teal dress I had just bought and felt good. We went to lunch with my grandmother. My phone rang right after we finished eating, my friend Saras name flashed on the screen, and I decided to call her back later. No more than 30 seconds after her call rang through to voicemail, I got a text:
“Hey, can you call me?”
“Not right now, I’m at Easter lunch. What’s up?”
“This isn’t the kind of news you want to hear from a text. Please call.”
One thought instantly swirled into my head: who died?
I found a quiet area outside the restrooms and called her. She stuttered for a second, then said “Austin Mills killed himself last night.” I was dumbfounded and had no clue what to say besides “Didn’t he have a son?” She continued, “He shot himself in his car, in front of his mother. You know he’s had a lot of issues the last couple of years.”
I knew Austin in my teens, he was best friends with some guys at church so he was around often. He was quite goofy, off the wall, and usually wildly inappropriate but had a heart of absolute gold. Deep down he was hiding a lot of grief, anger, and pain – his father had gone missing on a mountain climbing trip when he was a child.. His siblings were older so it became him and his Mom on their own. When we were 17, hikers found his fathers remains after an unusually warm Colorado summer melted enough snow. Over a decade of mystery and unresolved feelings suddenly crashed over Austin. You would never know how much it affected him, though. We only knew once he put the gun to his head.
The next evening I met two old friends at a bar. One proposed going to Austin’s house to visit Austin’s Mom. I felt very uneasy, I was downright nauseous. Seeing the stain from Nathan’s death haunted me for a long time. But it was some sort of morbid closure, there is no open casket at the funeral of suicide victims so the bloodstain is the last chance at closure. You don’t know of another way to cope so you cope with what you have left.
We pulled up to his house, his car still in the driveway. We walked up, shaking and nervous. The seats were still bloodstained and dusty from the gunpowder. I immediately started crying. That’s the other thing about death, we have to face these things. The things they don’t mention in obituaries, in flowery memorials on Facebook, or at the funeral. The brain matter, and blood, and skin, and the smell of death that we have to confront that are somehow a little easier than the lasting depression the loss brings. They are the last tangible bits of those we love who chose to leave.
We spoke to his Mom for a while, she was still in shock. We asked to see his room, and when we walked in she yelled “Please don’t sit on the bed, his body imprint is still in the sheets and I don’t want it to go away”. His room was small and messy, stains on the carpet, just a couple of sheets on his bed. A computer he played games on, a bookshelf full of accolades and memories from his youth. His closet was pretty bare; the typical assortment of basketball shorts, faded t-shirts, and button ups that Austin always wore. We smelled his clothes so we could feel close to him one more time. My friend quietly whispered “Look” and pointed to an empty plastic bottle of vodka on his dresser, along with a couple of bullets. He had to be drunk when he did it.
Austin didn’t cope well after his Dad was confirmed dead. We all cope with depression and grief in different ways, some people resort to alcohol and drugs. Austin loved alcohol. Alcohol and depression killed Austin. Grief killed Austin. Austin was a victim of his experiences, his surroundings, and how he chose to cope. I cannot fathom leaving behind a child but I am not Austin, I did not have his experiences, or his pain. When someone commits suicide everyone starts to judge. I am guilty of it, too. It’s important to remember that in that moment they were not themselves. If Austin had been in his right mind he wouldn’t have left his child.
Grief causes us to confront the demons of humanity, the demons inside us, and the demons inside those we love. It pulls us back to places of pain and pushes us into a new reality. Life is never the same after you lose someone. Although Austin is no longer with us, he is no longer in pain and that’s all we can hold onto now.