The holiday season is a trying time for most of us, for a whole variety of reasons. This year, many former coworkers of mine and friends had to deal with the suicide of Jon Vance, a guy that was as intelligent as he was sociable, and one who I never would have thought was capable of such a thing. That was back on November 23rd of 2010, and I’ve found myself thinking about him every day since. I think part of it is because I haven’t had the closure of a funeral, or even seeing a grave, I experienced all the tragedy with none of the healing that comes with moving on.
Even hearing that guilt is a normal mechanism for suicide survivors, it makes the burden no less onerous. The argument with myself is that I should’ve spoken to him more, let him know he had friends and we really do care and want to see him do well, and not hurt. The placating counterargument is that I’m all the way out here, and he’s so far away, how much would it have meant? How much good would it have done? It’s the pain of never having an answer to that, no matter what and no matter how much you want one. Justifiably or not, I think a lot of us share a sense of guilt.
I have had closer deaths to me, my mother nearly six years ago and my grandfather around the age of 9. But I’ve never had to deal with someone I know taking their own life. Why does it feel so different? I did have plenty of time to prepare for losing Mom, after two near-death scares and seeing her the night before she died, I knew exactly what the call was at 4:45 that morning even as I was waking up.
Perhaps it’s different because Jon was about my age, and every day I am faced with that inescapable memento mori, the reminder that I too will die; he was only 8 months older than myself. Perhaps its different because we had so many shared experiences; we were coworkers in the same department, we sought each other’s knowledge and insight on a near-daily basis. We’ve both fought drug problems. And all the stressors of life as a young teenager, with a sick mother, generally unpopular at school, no love interest to speak of, and a series of painful illnesses, led me to contemplate suicide for what had to have been a year or two, around age 14 or 15. Though I never acted on it, the knowledge that I had a plan and could end things myself whenever I desired was a macabre sort of comfort that I hope you never experience, reader.
But things eventually turned around, I’m older, wiser, and happier now than I was then. I’ve made peace with those demons of my past. I cannot help but feel like if I could find a way through those dark days, Jon could have as well; and there again is guilt, because who am I to say that? Jon was also fighting a smoking addiction and chronic pain well beyond what I dealt with. It is pain that has the most destructive effect on the psyche to me; it amplifies all those other negative emotions, and for anyone the thought of spending the rest of their life in pain can be spirit-breaking.
Did he want to be helped? In this I honestly could not say, he hid it from all of us so well that I think he felt like I once did, it was a source of comfort in the end and an attempt to discuss or intervene would be met with equal parts gratitude and derision, because they may mean well but to be honest, they have no idea. It too is unknowable, but that does precious little to quell the want for an answer.
I’m writing this in large part for myself, hoping to find some resolution, some revelation. I know I ultimately won’t be able to put it past me until I can get back to Kentucky and see his resting place. But I hope that if you knew Jon, you might get something out of this as well. If nothing else, you’re not alone in your guilt. We all feel as thought we should have done more. But these thoughts are only marginally useful and largely destructive. Now I am left more with regrets than guilt; I should have spent more time talking to him, not because it might have saved him, but because he was a friend and deserved it.
Perhaps a new year’s resolution should be to be a better friend, and make more time for those I hold dear.
In memory of Jon Michael Vance,
5/15/1987 – 11/23/2010