It was a cold Monday evening in February, and my dad’s cell phone rang. I don’t remember the ringtone, the words that he spoke in response to the wailing voice on the other end, or the expression on his face as he ended the call. But I remember what I felt, sitting on the couch in our living room, as my mom asked what was going on and my dad explained. A spike of fear, buried deep inside my chest.
“That was Gretchen,” my dad said. “Will tried to commit suicide. They want me to come over. Pastor Jeff’s already headed down to pick up Maddie and Miki━they said the coroner is on his way as well.” My dad is the youth pastor of our church, and so he’s often called for situations like this.
The conversation for me was a blur after that. I tried to ignore this overwhelming feeling that was building up inside of me and continued to scroll through Facebook. I look back on those hours now and wonder why I acted the way I did. I pretended like nothing had happened. Someone I had once called my friend had tried to commit suicide. I was...sad, at least intellectually. I was worried about the family, specifically Maddie and Miki, girls that I consider to be my sisters, through and through. But it still hadn’t really clicked yet.
Will had tried to commit suicide.
My mom froze in mid-sentence and looked at my dad, who was repeating what he had heard over the phone from Will’s mom. “Did you say coroner?”
My heart began to pound like miniature explosions in my chest.
“Yeah,” was all my dad could say, realizing the implications.
“Mike,” my mom said, fear in her eyes. “I think he’s dead.”
I spoke up. “You wouldn’t send for a coroner unless someone had died.” Looking back, the words seemed empty, somehow. I guess like I feel there should have been more passion behind them. More sadness. But there was nothing else happening in my heart but a quicker pumping of blood.
“I think he’s dead,” my mom said again, her fearful eyes now wet with tears.
Later that night, we found out that he was dead. Will had committed suicide.
When my brother Connor found out, he isolated himself in our basement next to his computer and listened to a song that reminded him of Will over and over again, crying more passionately than I had ever seen him cry before. He had always felt closer to Will than I had. And to be honest, he probably reached out to him more than I did as well. I felt so helpless, but I sat beside my brother as he sobbed and did my best to comfort him. Trying to say anything would be pointless, so we just listened to instruments and vocals that washed over us like a tide. We let the music blasting from his computer’s speakers feel for us.
That was when my denial finally gave way to grief. I stayed up late into the night talking to my parents and my brother, sitting, standing, and pacing in our living room, reminiscing things we remembered of Will. The ways that he had pulled away from basically everyone in his life before the end. The ways we were sure we had failed him by not reaching out when we had the chance. The pictures on the walls were visual reminders of the people in our lives that were hurting. Tonight, more than ever, we felt responsible for those people.
The carpet on the living room floor was stained with my tears by the end of it all, and soon afterward, my pillow bore the same marks. Will had committed suicide. And he had left dozens of torn and hurting people behind to pick up the pieces.
I, however, could not be one of them. I quickly realized that with all of the preparation that had to go into the funeral, the help the family would need, the comfort all of the many people around me would need, and the hopelessness we all felt, I didn’t have time to grieve more fully. Not yet. I had to be there for all of them. They needed me to be strong.
And so I tried as hard as I could to be that. I’m convinced that I only got through the week because of the love and support of my girlfriend, Anna, who did everything that she could, despite being three states away, to comfort me and let me get out the emotions I was feeling. That was all I would allow myself at the moment.
And, of course, more important than anything else, God was there for me━as I struggled to make any sense of the craziness that was happening around me, as I went through my normal routine the next two days trying to focus on anything but the pain I was feeling. God provided.
It was Wednesday evening. A group of hurting youth leaders and youth from my church, myself included, gathered at a small ranch-style home on Pontiac Drive to comfort each other and get some sort of closure. Kent and Rachel Martin’s house━two of the youth leaders who were taking Will’s death the hardest. Huddled in their living room, on couches, chairs, or sitting propped up against the wall, we talked and talked and talked about anything and everything relating to Will. His life, his death, what this meant for us in the future, how we can help those around us with the same kind of mindset that Will had before he died. But most of all, we prayed. I think that night we prayed longer than I have ever prayed at one time in my life before.
As I glanced around the room, everyone’s faces bored a haunted expression of intense pain...and somehow shocked numbness. I didn’t say much that night, but I did listen. I soaked in the grief and the hurt, letting the tear-choked words of my friends and mentors minister to my own melancholy.
Thursday was a blur. I went to school, reveling in a routine that allowed me to forget. After I could no longer drown myself in school, I buried myself in other planning and preparation for the funeral, which was the next day. Everything was veiled in a zombie-like monotony as I moved from task to task, ignoring everything but the moment that I was in. I put together a music video filled with pictures of Will’s life: his time with his family, his time with the members of the church. His time with me and my family. There were so many people affected by this who would be there for the funeral. More pain and heartache than had ever existed in my life before was forced into one solitary week, and I was starting to rip at the seams, despite my desperate attempt to be strong on the outside.
That night, another friend of Will’s, Taylor, met me at the church with a heavy heart. We practiced singing a song that had been Will’s favorite: “Swing Life Away” by Rise Against. I got out my guitar and with a quaver in our voices, she and I sang until we couldn’t sing anymore. The funeral was tomorrow, but we were as ready as we could be to close the service by playing the favorite song of the young man who had been so dear to us. I stayed up much later than I probably should have that night.
It was Friday morning, and every second was a thousand years of struggle. My family woke up and got dressed in our best formal wear. My parents, my two younger brothers and I were ready to do everything we could to help the day go as smoothly as possible but at the same time aching to just let it all go and cry for hours. We arrived at Faith Community Church, my second home for seventeen years, and it’s walls were at once comforting and damning. The foyer was empty save a few family members and helpers calmly getting the church set up for the ceremony. I was setting up my equipment on the stage for the songs when I saw Will’s sister Maddie walking down the aisle towards me. I stepped off the stage and walked to her. I’m not sure if I’ve ever hugged anyone more seriously in my entire life.
“I’m sorry,” was all I could say.
My dad was in the back of the sanctuary, hugging Miki. Soon, I was doing the same. There were no tears in these embraces. Not yet. There was simply presence. I was there for them and they knew that. It was the only meaningful thing I could offer at the moment.
The next few hours were pure agony, waiting for the service to begin. The visitation line started forming and I started hearing absolute wails of grief from Will’s father. His mother wasn’t doing any better, and the entire place had a feeling of intense sadness that I couldn’t describe in words. I had to escape it all. The fractures in my stoic resolve to see this day through without breaking down were growing wider and wider with each passing breath, and I couldn’t be there anymore. I was leading the service in a time of music where we would sing some hymns, in addition to the closing song, Swing Life Away. I had to be coherent for that. I had to make it through that. Then I could break down.
I locked myself in a small room at the other end of the church, trying as hard as I could to ignore anything and everything that was tearing at my heart. The room used to be a conference room, but now it was empty, save for a simple table and chair that I had put in there myself. The noise was gone now, but the sense of overwhelming grief remained. When the self-imposed isolation become more unbearable than facing the wails of sadness echoing throughout the church, I paced back and forth down hallways and through the foyer, waiting with a pounding in my chest for the beginning of the service. I felt utterly alone, eventually coming to stare out of a large pane of glass at the parking lot. A window. I guess it was a window. My mind was so focused on not collapsing of exhaustion and stress that I couldn’t think straight.
Please, God, I prayed. I need to make it through this. Help me.
The service was about to begin. I walked in the sanctuary, with its wide, vaulted ceilings and dark walls. Will’s ashes lay in an urn on a table right in front of the concrete stage. I breathed deep breaths and clenched my fists, trying to keep as normal an expression as possible on my face as I made my on to the stage. The guests sat down among the rows of brown and blue chairs, the visitation line at the front of the sanctuary cleared, and the family took their seats in the front row, haunted looks on almost every one of their faces. It was time to begin. Pastor Jeff opened the service with prayer. I closed my eyes and bowed my head from the chair where I sat on stage and tried to focus. I could only barely keep myself from crying.
The seconds became minutes. The prayer finished, and Pastor Jeff said...something. Some introduction. My mind was anywhere but the words he was saying. And suddenly, Pastor Jeff had stopped speaking━it was my turn to get in front of hundreds of people, grab out my guitar, and lead everyone in songs of worship. I━
━was ready. I stood with an aura of confidence somehow enrapturing me and played music. I remembered. I could do this. Music was something that I knew. Music was how I coped.
And just as suddenly as they had begun, the songs ended. I sat back down, but the peace did not leave me. Everything was going to be fine. Everything was going to work out. God had it under control. My father stood and spoke. He talked about Will’s life, his laugh, his smile, his genuineness, his faith, and most of all his love for his family and his friends. But my dad didn’t lie. Will had been on a destructive road. He had pulled away from anyone who could help him, including God, and had decided to live however he wanted to, with no accountability, no real friends helping him along, no real connection with his family. But beneath all of that was a hurting kid who just wanted to be loved. And that was what Will had remained, even at the end.
I miss him.
It was my turn to grab my guitar again. I looked out over the audience and felt the last traces of my grief flow down into the neck of my instrument and through the metallic strings strung across its length. The strings held the tension for me. I was at peace. Will’s friend Taylor was standing beside me now. I looked at her, standing on the grey, concrete floor of the stage in her black dress, tears plainly evident in her face, and nodded. We looked back to the gathered crowd. And then we began. We sang with clear, ringing tones, as if our voices could be heard in heaven itself. We sang for Will.
“We live on front porches and swing life away. We get by just fine here on minimum wage. If love is a labor, I’ll slave ‘til the end. I won’t cross these streets until you hold my hand…”
And before I knew it, the funeral was over. Friday passed in a blur of sound, light, and people that I barely remember. I know that there was laughing and smiling again━my group of friends from church and our youth leaders, coming out of the sadness to rejoice in each other’s companionship. We went back to my house and played games and had a great time, desperately needing the normality of it all after the intensely emotional week. I fell asleep around midnight.
I didn’t wake up until four in the afternoon the next day. It was Valentine’s Day. I talked with my girlfriend, spent time with my family, and saw on Facebook that one of my friends had proposed to his significant other. I went to sleep again and woke up the next day. It was Sunday.
Life went on.