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  • Writer's pictureLee Erickson, MA, LPCC

# 3 When Love is Gone: The Weight of Absence in Relationships

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times, it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

A GRIEF OBSERVED by CS Lewis © copyright CS Lewis Pte Ltd 1961.


     My mom didn't know details. They were trickling in. She said she'd call when she knew more information.

     I barely remember driving home that day. I walked in the Seattle spring air to the circular parking ramp attached to a department store in downtown Seattle. I was holding it in… holding it in… holding it in… and as I searched for my car and opened the car with the remote, the rear lights flashed. I opened the door and collapsed on the car seat, sobbing. Struggling to grasp this bombshell of an idea, I was struck with an overwhelming fear of the unknown. 

     My brother had just killed himself. That is what I knew. I knew little else but my mind was swirling. I put both my hands on the wheel and repeated over and over to myself, “Pay Attention!” because I could tell that I was not very present.

     Catherine, the co-worker who had recently moved to Seattle from Boston, offered to drive me home but I wanted my car because I knew I needed to run some errands. Errands? My brother had just killed himself.  How could I think of running some errands? 

     So much sifted through my mind. I needed to make flight and car rental reservations and I needed to call my friends and I needed to call my brothers and I needed to get new license plates and my tabs renewed on my car before I left. I needed to call my parents back. What was going on with them? What was it like for them to lose a child?

     I drove home. I headed up 15th Avenue towards the Dravus turnoff to head to the apartment I was renting in Magnolia, a neighborhood west of the west slope of Queen Anne. When I got home, I realized I didn’t really want to be there either. I wanted to be with my family. I called the airline and made a reservation for the following morning. I was crying as I booked the flight with the airline agent. 

     “Is everything OK?” she asked?

     “No,” I said, “My brother just died.”

     “Well if you want a bereavement fare, you’ll need to provide a death certificate,” she said, suspicious of my motives. I hadn’t thought of a bereavement fare but the flight, on short notice was expensive. I couldn’t argue with her. I gave her my credit card number and confirmed the flight for early Wednesday morning.

     “You have a good day, now,” she said, as if she didn’t remember that moments before I had told her my brother had died.

     I made a car rental reservation. I called friends. I sent out a mass email. Being the middle of the day, I got mostly voicemail messages but I asked them to call me back. I paced back and forth in my apartment. Feeling the need to do something but not really knowing what that was. 

     I called my mom back. She had a few more details. My brother had killed himself at home. With a gun. My adult nephews were safe. My parents were heading up the next day. I told her about my reservations. We talked in stilted conversation, with shock filling in the quiet places between the words.

     My old Illinois license plates were still on my car from when I had moved to Washington State and they had expired February 28. I had looked online to know that I had 30 days after the expiration date to get them renewed, I wasn’t sure how long I would be gone and I knew I should get them renewed before I left town. It was close to noon and I knew I had to venture out. The licensing office closest to me was in Ballard, a short drive from my apartment in Magnolia.

     As I was driving to get my license plates my phone rang. It was my ex-partner, Henry. We had been civil to one another in the 15 months since he left Seattle and were moving closer towards a friendship.

     “You called?” he said, not fully grasping the depth of what I was about to say.

     “It’s my brother, Doug,” I told him. “He killed himself.”

     I had a long and complicated relationship with my family related to my sexuality and coming out. I was separated from my family for about 18 months, most of that time when I was with Henry. The first person in my family to reach out to me during that time was my brother Doug. He sent an honest letter where he said he loved me no matter what and cared deeply for me and Henry and we were welcome to visit him and stay with him at any time. It was what I deeply needed to hear at that time. 

     Besides my brother Doug, the only person I had ever really talked in depth to about this story was Henry. 

     He knew about the letter. He knew the complexity of the story of my relationship with Doug and my family and while we were no longer together, it was comforting to hear his voice and to chat with him. I could also hear the helplessness in his voice, the desire to do or say more and not knowing what that would really be. There was also the stark reality that he was no longer my "support system" and our break up had changed how he would be able to or want to support me in all this. I was stuck in the past of his support for me and time had marched on. I knew, even then, that I would want more support from him than he would be able to give and there was sadness in that. We talked briefly and then planned to chat more later.

     I couldn’t stop crying. Something inside me was broken.

     I walked into the Licensing Bureau in Ballard, a neighborhood in Seattle a little North of where I lived and there were several people in line in front of me. When it got down to one person in front of me, I blew my nose and tried to compose myself.

     I must have looked like a mess because when I got to the front of the line the woman behind the counter asked me if everything was ok.

     “No,” I said, “It’s not ok. I just found out my brother killed himself.” The woman offered her condolences but began to rush about as if to do everything as quickly as she could to remove me from her presence. As if somehow the notion of suicide was catchy and would infiltrate her or her loved ones if she helped me one more minute longer than she needed to.

     It was the start of my struggle with how much information to share with people: a struggle, while immensely better, is something I continue to struggle with to this day. 

     I returned home, license plates in hand and sat on the asphalt in the parking lot of my apartment building trying to attach the license plates to the car. It wasn’t going well. The screws were sorely rusted. I tried with the screwdriver to remove the screws holding the metal license plate but they weren’t budging. I had a small can of WD-40 in the apartment. I went and got it and sprayed the screws well. I figured if I could let them “sit a spell” as my grandmother used to say, maybe they would loosen. I checked my phone again. No calls. No messages. I decided to walk down into the village in Magnolia to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks. 

     On the way, I passed a church that I had ducked into the night of September 11, 2001, a few short months before. I had needed to walk that night too. Planes had hit the World Trade Center towers and everyone was on high alert and we were all trying to figure out what was going on. It didn’t feel safe that day either. I was walking in the neighborhood that night and the church had a sign on the door for people to come in as they needed to. I went inside for a few moments and sat in the dimly lit nave. It was peaceful there. There were a few others who had come to seek solace.

      On this day, on a whim, I checked the door to the church and it was locked. A national tragedy like 9/11 had open doors and lots of opportunity for people to talk about it and convene. A personal tragedy like the suicide of a loved one is an internal struggle, closed for public conversation.

The Starbucks in downtown Magnolia was open and there were people milling about. I ordered some coffee. It was about 3:30 p.m. and I wondered about the wisdom of ordering a caffeinated beverage at this time of day. Part of me, in that moment, didn’t really care.

I meandered back home and noticed the lives of the people around me appeared to go on as normal and yet I felt like everything in my world had changed. People were working in their yards and unloading groceries. Kids were home from school and playing in the yard. One girl was using sidewalk chalk to draw some kind of design on her driveway. It was difficult at the time to even comprehend how the rest of the world could go on as normal and my world could change so dramatically. All I knew is that it was forever changed. Forever changed. I knew it was true but at the time had no idea what that would mean.

I walked back and starred at the license plate project again. The lubricant had done some magic and the screws had loosened and the new plates went on my car. It felt so strange to be accomplishing something. In some ways, I didn’t want to accomplish anything. I wanted everything to stop. I wanted time to stop.

I went back into my apartment and sat in front of a chair that faced the West. 

The phone was buzzing. My friends who lived in the Central time zone would be getting home from work about now. I’d have to tell the story over and over with the scant details I knew. It seemed like applying and ripping off bandages over and over again. 

I watched the sun begin its decent in the Western sky. Night was coming and I realized that the clock kept ticking, literally and figuratively.

There was nothing I could do to stop it or change it. The only thing I knew was that I had to figure out some way in this moment to endure it. And I was unsure just how I was going to do that.

by Lee Erickson, MA, LPCC ©2024 All Rights Reserved.

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