When your friend dies, especially if the death is publicized by the media, you will be shocked at how many people reach out to you...people you've not heard from in years....maybe people you don't even like. And, if you're anything like me, your first impression of them will be "ambulance chaser" and you'll be annoyed, even offended. But, before you dismiss them as completely insincere, consider this piece I wrote after the suicide of a local news celebrity in November of 2011:
I've been remarkably moved by the death of Don Harman (a local and well-loved weatherman on a local morning news network, for those of you not in Kansas City). Don committed suicide on Tuesday night. Like so many other Kansas Citians, I'd watched Don that very morning like I did every single weekday morning for the last ten plus years. I would wake up and turn on the tv while still in bed and turn it up loud so that I could hear it in all rooms of the apartment/house. For the last four years, I have had to leave my house at 6:50, and when Don gave his 6:45 weather report I'd know it was almost time for me to leave. When I lived in Pittsburg, KS for my graduate degree in 2008, I was so desperately homesick. Fox 4 was the only Kansas City channel I could get and Don and the others every morning made me feel at least a little connected to home for a little while every day.
A few years ago I would have felt weird about being so emotionally tied up in a television personality. But the events of my life in the past several years have taught me something very important: When tragedy strikes something or someone that affects you, there is an incredible need to make it tangible...to say outloud to someone, "I knew her."; "I have been there."; "I am part of that."
After my life long bosom friend, Leslie, was murdered publicly in 2007 in a mall shooting, I got letters and phone calls from people that I had not heard from in years, from people we barely knew from high school, even from people who were actually kind of mean and snotty to Leslie and I and our friends in middle school. Honestly, my first reaction was to be offended. I was pissed off that people who didn't know her and love her the way we did would try to get involved. I was so consumed with grief that it was hard for me to comprehend that people who were not grieving WITH me could grieve her, too.
But then I realized that none of them expected this to happen any more than I did. They were shocked to find, just as I was, that mall shootings and rampage killings aren't just in Dallas and Colorado and on the news. They are real. They happen in our city, and to people we know...to people we once knew...to people who are in our high school yearbook...to people we went to camp with when we were in Girl Scouts...and to people we were mean to in middle school. They wanted to reach out to me not to be a part of something that they didn't deserve to be a part of, but to grieve for someone that WAS a part of them, no matter how close.
I recently met a man from Joplin who told me that, before this spring, when he said he was from Joplin, a lot of people responded with "Where's that?" And he said that it was weird, but true, that that would never happen to him again. And people (like myself) who had spent time in Joplin will always feel connected to that tragedy...even though I knew no one personally who died there...because I had been there. It was a part of me, no matter how close.
And Don Harman's suicide is like that for me. Don WAS a part of my life. He was in my life every day. I saw him more than I saw members of my own family. He gave me information that impacted my daily life. He told me when I got the day off work (snow day!) and when I needed to scrape my windshield and when I needed to put the car in the garage. He made me laugh. He did School Day at the K which all of my students and I looked forward to so much. I never met him in person, but in a way, he was my friend. And I know a lot of Kansas Citians reading this feel the same way.
I can't say that I wish I understood how he was feeling because the kind of pain that could bring on suicide is something that I cannot comprehend and do not want to know. But I do wish that he knew what a negative impact his death would bring to the hearts of so many. Part of his illness, I know, was the inability to understand that the people and the city he left behind would hurt beyond measure rather than be "better off." But I do feel his loss and I am so sad for him, for his family, and for my city.
And I need to reach out now and say outloud that I knew him; that I hurt, too; that he was a small part of me and that part is empty now.