I found out my friend died on her Instagram story
Trigger warning: This essay has references of suicide. If you feel this is too heavy for you to read, please skip this post. Do what you need to take care of yourself - sip some tea or ride a bike. My next post will be lighter, I promise.
I’ve tried to write this essay for nearly a year. My attempts have failed because I couldn’t find the words to explain my feelings in a befitting manner. And I questioned whether this would be too personal to share out loud. But as I’m in this new season of unpacking stories on life, work and play, I felt it was necessary to do this. The more we strip away the giftwrap and packaging of life, the more we connect deeply with others. Once I finally released the grip a little bit, the dam began to break and the words began to flow.
In uncanny fashion, the universe decided to gift me the words at the wrongest time. I was running late to meet a friend, sprinting across town. And somehow, in that most inopportune moment, I heard something say “Just write the next sentence, and the rest will take care of itself”. I felt my body deeply asking me to trust myself.
So I paused by the nearest stop sign, risked the ire of my friend’s wrath and began to scribble furiously in Apple Notes. Every so often the pedestrian walk-sign would turn green, and I’d ignore it, desperately trying to jot down the words as they sprang from my soul. Several months later, I added some polish and this is the fruit.
I watched your Instagram story at least thirty times.
Each time, I looked at it hoping to see something that would indicate some kind of joke. Some sort of wry, sick humour that we could all laugh about later. You know how sometimes the funniest jokes are the sickest ones? The things you shouldn’t say, that cause you to wheeze and weep because they’re forbidden. This had to be one of those devious, morbid jokes, no?
Or maybe this was a skit. At the time, I didn’t have Instagram on my phone so I thought it was some silly social media challenge that you were doing. Some silly sarcastic play. That’s the issue with befriending creatives: sometimes they’re really good and convincing with their art, it’s difficult to know what’s real and what isn’t. What’s satire and what’s sad.
I imagined how I’d tell you off for playing with our feelings. And how you’d apologise, we’d laugh it off, and things would be alright again.
But then strange people started texting me.
People I hadn’t heard from in a long time. People who had gone to elementary school with us. Those who remember the day when we were six, how you laughed so hard you snorted blackberry Ribenna juice out of your nose. A visual I could never forget because it was so perfectly chaotic and hilarious.
Silly them! They must have made the same mistake I did. They too were fooled. Ha ha. This skit is really good. I guess it’s doing what it’s supposed to do. It’s deluding us to think something is real that isn’t. The perfect masquerade. The opposite of camouflage. I imagine they too rewatched the story and looked for the jokes. But they had missed them. Because you hid them so well.
A mutual friend messaged me on Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp all within thirty minutes. I thought that was a bit odd and chaotic. Why blow up my phone on a splendid evening? They asked me to check on you. Because they had moved back home and you and I both lived in the Bay Area. They wanted me to call you.
A creeping sense of worry started to build. It started small. Like a little bubble in a big stream. Like how you feel when you’re two minutes late to a Zoom call. Or when you temporarily think you’ve lost your phone, but find it in your very hand moments later.
I’d had to check on a friend or two before. Someone who had been unreachable by phone or text for a couple days. So this wasn’t new territory. It always worked the same way: I’d call or visit the friend and they’d be fine. One time, I had to make myself a nuisance, bugging the apartment security so they let me in. They took me to my friend’s apartment, stepped to the side and asked me to walk in.
Deep breath in, I walked in to find my so-called missing friend, furiously writing code on his laptop. His apartment was a mess and instantly, I totally understood. He had been underground, in the zone, working crazy hours and so his phone was far away. No biggie.
So I half-heartedly called your phone. Expecting a similar fate to follow here. I’d call and you’d be fine.
Not too surprising to be honest. It would be weird if the first call was picked up. Surely, our other friends had already tried calling. Why would my call be any different?
Then, a different friend texted me. One who knew you better than I did. They wanted to FaceTime with a couple other close friends. By itself, this wasn’t out of place. I knew these guys very well. We'd seen each other at our least glamorous, through the breakups and bust-ups. And through the peaks, the birthdays, promotions and tequila-fuelled trips to places we’ll never return. We were homies. Spontaneous FaceTime calls were par for the course here.
But given the timing, the truth threatened to sink into my body. This wasn't an ordinary phone call. Somehow, my body knew but my mind kept trying to find reasonable explanations that would calm everyone down. We had all seen your IG story. Some were bemused, others thought it was real. In true artistic fashion, your last creation was tragically up to the audience's interpretation.
I don't remember exactly how it unfolded. How I found out you were actually gone for good.
I mean, I know it happened at some point during that call. One of the three friends must have told me. But I don't recall the words or the phrasing. All I remember are the responses. I belched out a freakish howl that I could never recreate. A shriek of pure, unrestrained anguish. A sound so animalistic, gruesome and unfamiliar that my then-girlfriend came running over to hug and hold me. She could tell something was awfully wrong. People don't utter sounds like that in normal life. Or at least they shouldn't.
I recall the absurdity of it all - trying to comprehend that you were gone. Struggling to understand why you would take your own life.
A friend on the call collapsed into self-guilt. He had seen you recently and blamed himself for not checking on you more closely. We told him he could never have known. He could never have been with you 24/7 so if you wanted to do this, he had no way of stopping you. Slowly, he relented but I could see him replaying your last moments with him together. He went stark silent. I could see his face on the call, but his mind was distant, as if all his energy was spent rewatching your last trip together, flicking frame by frame looking for cues and signs. I begged him to be kind to himself. It wasn't his fault.
Tears drowned my face. My eyes sunken and pregnant with pain. The utter horror and bewilderment were too much to bear. My girlfriend at the time tried her utmost to comfort me. She sat with me tenderly through the hurt, bought me food and reminded me not to blame himself either. But how does one console someone feeling such pain? What could one possibly say?
I thought it was a fucking joke.
Those of us on the call promised that we’d take it easy on ourselves. We would check in on each other as we grieved. And there, that word starts to enter my vocabulary in a different way. I had lost people before, but none this close and none in this manner.
One moment we were texting about how we needed to catch up. And the next, I realised that day would never come.
We needed to catch up because we had been a bit distant for a month or two. We had a silly, alcohol-induced disagreement about nothing important. Another friend and I felt you got mad at us for no evident reason. Then, out of the blue, I see you post a GoFundMe because you needed help distancing yourself from your abusive partner. What the hell?? Anyway, I donated and reached out. We settled the squabble and I tried to set up a time for us to chat. But your phone was always so busy. Probably because everyone who loved you was trying to make sure you were safe. I texted you saying I'd try calling another time.
In the moments after I learnt you passed, I started re-playing the night of our “fight”. I wasn't ready to lose you so soon. I hoped we could have one more good day together before your second journey. Maybe your anger wasn't directed at me, but at something else entirely. I replayed the day to see if I could peek behind your eyes. Perhaps I could spot the silent pain that doesn’t show up on Instagram. The hurt hidden between the jokes, the laughter and the fun times. I looked but could not find it.
I remember you and your partner sitting on my couch. You were wearing purple matching socks. Everyone cooed and wooed about how cute you were together. Couple goals, they say. Then, I learned about the restraining orders. Sigh, it's incredible how much we think we know from the tiny snippets we see.
Flashbacks of our last game night come to my mind. That time you brought a cute teacher over who I flirted with. For some reason, we ignored the couches and sat in a circle on the wooden floors sipping Trader Joe's wine. Funny how a night rich in cackles and happy tears was fuelled by six dollar wine and cheap drinking cards. Again, I remember another silly misconception: your adamance that you knew my type in women. When you described the alleged type, I remember bursting into an endless belly-laugh. It couldn't have been further from the truth.
I remember how proud of you I was when you won awards for your animated short film. How I admired your talent: the visual art, the paintings, the clothes’ sketches, the cartoons and the short films. I marvelled at the creativity. The kind of person who makes things that the rest of us have no clue how to even begin.
Then, I recalled that you left us a bit short of your 27th year, like too many great artists do. I hated that so much. That your story became part of an awful pattern. I wish you could have gotten all your flowers while you could smell them.
Lord, I remember reading the social media commentary on your passing. The speculation and the gossip drove me crazy. Someone judged you for doing this to your parents. I seethed at the insensitivity. While I will never truly know why you chose to leave us, I can empathise. You must have felt utterly hopeless and unwilling to continue the race. You bore a load too heavy to carry. The subsequent revelations about years of silent abuse and hardship were tough to read, man.
How could so much pain be hidden behind so much radiant light? Who else is suffering behind gritted teeth?
I felt this unbearable, ridiculous pressure to capture your story perfectly. I can't bring you back but at least I can honour you with my words. If I see myself as a writer, isn’t it my duty to eulogise you? To use my art to extol the artist. I felt this bone-crushing guilt I hadn't written something yet. I kept procrastinating because it had to be perfect. And because publishing it would make this awful nightmare real. It would hammer home the finality. I needed to represent you as you were: the totality of your existence, your art, your light, your sense of humour. To make sure you were not defined by your final act.
If I close my eyes, I can still see your radiant smile and hear your laugh. But I can't remember your last IG story. I know the gist of it: you let us know you were leaving for good. And then you did. I have given up trying to make sense of the tragedy. There is no sense to be made of it. It was an awful thing that happened and left an indelible stain.
I didn’t know how to grieve you. When people die, well-wishers offer prayers, thoughts, pity and hugs. Some find comfort in their beliefs of reincarnation, everlasting paradise or eternal nothingness. But none of these gave me any solace. I just wanted the pain to stop.
It was nearly impossible to talk about your departure. When exactly do I bring up such a heavy topic? Can I ruin Sunday brunch by prying my insides open to parade my pain? A side of anguish to pair some French toast. Someone would ask how I was doing, and I’d do the courteous thing of saying I was fine. Digging deeper felt like twisting a knife further into my gut. Reopening a flesh wound and dousing it in rubbing alcohol. Talking about death is difficult enough, let alone one that was self-inflicted. I missed you on my birthday last year and finally opened up to a few close friends.
Two things come to mind, cliché as they might sound - we better hug our loved ones today while we can, and everyone is dealing with silent battles. We think we know what’s going on but we really don’t. Our eyes only give us glimpses, subtle snippets of the whole story. Because when you were sipping red wine on my couch recounting hilarious secondary school stories, I could never have known you were silently suffering.
All the meaningless squabbling and trivial disagreements wither in the face of death. Distance magnifies nonsense. The sting of words left unsaid can burn forever. Better to hug those friends while they’re breathing.
As I write this, I’m five hundred feet above the ground, sitting on a hill in Montjuic, basking in the majesty of nature’s canvas. I see her cobbled streets, curved coastline and rust-coloured roofs. Children kicking footballs amidst tourists sharing overpriced croquetas. And I’m reminded of the inherent contradiction of the human condition. In a single frame, life is beautiful and so wondrous, and yet it is tragic and laced with thorns. It’s a delicate dance between the beauty of bliss and ache of anguish.
I miss you dearly, my friend.
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I can tell how difficult this was. Your beautiful eulogy gives your friend a kind of life-extension. But also gives solace to those of us who have walked in similar shoes. My dad and I had a strange exchange one day at a store where he worked. He acted as if he barely recognized me. I was so angry when I walked out. Days later, he took his life. So much like you described, I've replayed that scene in my head for the last two decades. Is there something I could've done or said if I had truly looked that day? Or was his mind already made up? Along my journey, I chose to live a positive and creative life both despite his absence, but also because of that absence. We can live for the ones who fell. Thank you for mustering up the strength to share this with us. Another step toward light in the darkness, beauty amongst the thorns.
so, so beautifully written Tobi. i'm so sorry for your loss <3
really amazed by the way you so eloquently put into words so many truths and emotions that are impossibly hard to describe.
i often think about this sentence you wrote: "it's incredible how much we think we know from the tiny snippets we see." social media makes me feel so uneasy - it so easily creates a false sense of knowing about our closest friends without realizing it's been months since we've had a genuine, 1:1 conversation.
i also struggle with worrying about being "nosy" - feeling i should trust friends will share what they want when they're ready - but i've been thinking more and more about how a lot of people want/need the nosy questions as permission to share their darker struggles (captured so well with your question: "Can I ruin Sunday brunch by prying my insides open to parade my pain?"). starting to feel confident it's worth being nosy, even if it means overstepping every now and then.
thank you so much for sharing this <3