To the stranger in the night

TW: suicide

It is a thing of beauty to be of service. To show up when someone is at their most vulnerable. You approach a stranger lying in the middle of the pavement surrounded by their own vomit. You begin by making jokes. You ask them how the view is from down there. They stare straight back.

“What are you doing on the floor then?” Still a jovial hint lingering on your tongue.

Eyes behind glasses respond calmly with a matter-of-fact calamity: “My mum killed herself.”

You begin to talk more seriously now. They become someone you soothe and tell nonsense stories to. Who you coax out of the dark hole they peer at you from. You ask them to wiggle their toes. To remember they have a body. Remind them to take deep breaths and rest and rest.

They tell you they want to die. You tell them there is a life after this. It will never be like it was, but they will find meaning again. They will never be who they were before that night or before that loss, but they will find peace, or something at least resembling it. You rub their back and the small of their neck. They cling tightly to your hand.

An adult transformed into a child before you. Such a small and scared and sacred creature feeling all alone in the world. A deer staring wildly into headlights. Eyes wide and uncertain, fingers searching for something solid to hold onto. I never thought I was particularly maternal, but in the loss of his mother that is who I became in that moment. Comforting, distracting when necessary, reminding them of the world outside their hurt. I only know his first name, age and what course his is studying. I want to reach out and help him. But I don’t want to overstep what vulnerability momentarily demanded.

There is something profoundly humbling in watching someone shake with tears, taking big gulps of air to slow their heartbeat. To feel their heart breaking in their chest in front of you and all you can do is just sit and keep them company. Staying quiet sometimes as he alternated between laborious breaths, vomiting and violently sobbing. I wanted to shield him, protect him. I talked quietly into his ear. I laid my coat and cardigan over his body to keep him warm until an ambulance appeared in the cold autumn night. He tells me he wants to kill himself again. He tells me over and over. I say “I know, I know, but you’ve just got to survive this next minute. And the next. And the next. Until eventually you’re watching hours pass.”

There is a light somewhere. He asks me should do now. What life is there after such a loss? Where does he go now? What can he do now? I tell him he just has to keep moving, keep trying. That she’d want him to continue. To persevere and create a new home for himself, even if she couldn’t. Even if she didn’t have the strength. He was slipping in and out of conscious, but I hope he remembers. Even just a little.

To have had this experience is strange. I woke up slightly disjointed. Worried for his heart and stomach and the state of university mental healthcare. But I was also reminded of the beauty in humans, of our raw and achy hearts. How fragile we all are, how tragic. How soft our features become when slipping into sleep: how childish and angelic. I realised how much our parents anchor us in our lives, holding us in place. They gift us with context and comfort: a place to call home.

I don’t know where he is but I am thankful to have met him. Thankful to have been of service. To have had the opportunity to transform every shit thing that has happened to me into a string of pearls. A collection of words that can momentarily lift a spirit or offer refuge to other wanderers in the night. We all hope we are the kind of people who can practice patience and compassion to a stranger. But isn’t that all being a human is? Loving and failing, and loving again anyway?

We must recognise the small child within each of us. The one that cries out for love and protection, the part of us who needs our family and longs to belong. When we cherish this part in ourselves it becomes easy to love and forgive others. To know that we are all slightly broken, all fucked up in our own unique ways but we’re trying, you know? We’re really trying. I want to live in a world that holds each of us gently. So I choose to be someone who shows up. Who moves with grace and understanding. Who walks with arms and heart open wide. I want to be a place of comfort and honesty. I want to give others permission to do the same. It’s a long road, but I am making my way.

Writer, artist and occasional poet. Lover of philosophy, folklore, history + curiosities. UX writer by day. Writing a book about death by night.

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