Here I am, death certificate in hand again.
Every once in a while I still need a certified copy of Sam’s death certificate to clear title, for example, or to get passports for my minor children. The professional me just grabs the appropriate file from its designated safehold and keeps moving. It’s paperwork and protocol, formality and accuracy.
The widow, however, stops in her tracks. It’s not the same as the initial shock, of course. But seeing the word “suicide” in black and white is still unbelievable, heartbreaking, nauseating.
One of the ironies in my widowed life is that in my former professional life, I practiced trusts and estates law. Drafting wills and trusts prior to a death, and handling probates and settling trusts afterwards are sensible practices. I was well-versed in death-related paperwork, technical terms and tax jargon. I didn’t know much about grieving, even though I had done a lot of hand-holding, often for elderly widows, several of whom had never written a check for the electric bill, let alone the property taxes.
For the most part, trusts and estates is a genteel area to practice law, although every now and again fifty-year-olds acting like children grew contentious over Uncle Mike’s toolbox. As a lawyer, it was surprising to me what grown people would pay their counsel thousands of dollars to bicker over. As a widow, I began to appreciate that it’s not so much about screwdrivers and tape measures, as it is about jealousies, insecurities, or guilt, the compensation for which does not correspond to a monetary sum. Or even a power tool. In any event, many of these “children” might be better off paying a family therapist than a good litigator, but that’s just my opinion.
People often ask me if I had any idea that Sam was suicidal, and the short, honest answer is No. But he did act very weird the night before he died. For example, he had our estate planning documents out on the kitchen counter that night. Maybe if I had been a corporate attorney or a public defender I might have reacted differently, but reading these documents was my bread and butter. It’s not morbid, it’s prudent to plan for the inevitable. The words “Last Will and Testament” didn’t make me queasy (not until 24 hours later, that is). In fact, when I noticed the binder out on the counter, I told Sam, “Oh hey — I’m glad you got those out. I’ve been meaning to make some changes to our estate plan.”
Evidently so did he, but not in the way I had envisioned.
He didn’t say a word when I mentioned the revisions I had in mind. In retrospect, I understood that the butt-head had been reading those documents to make sure the boys and I were covered in the event of his death. Believe me, I get a little knot in my stomach when I read that Will now.
One of the more clinical estate planning documents includes the directions on what to do with the dead body. Sam knew my feelings on the subject. When I am well and truly dead, if there are any pieces or parts that can benefit somebody else, they are welcome to them with my blessing. Whatever is left of me can be either cremated or buried, as my husband chooses. But I knew that Sam had different feelings on the subject. As a Jewish man, he felt strongly that each of us should remain intact and be buried, so I granted Sam the full discretion to do whatever he wanted after I was gone.
I thought that he had granted the same discretion to me.
After Sam’s death, there were many things I didn’t understand. Yes, I knew which boxes to check on the appropriate forms. As a practical matter, I understood how to sift through paperwork and which document to file with the County Recorder’s Office. I just couldn’t comprehend that I was, in fact, a widow. I could not wrap my mind around why.
In the midst of swirling uncertainty and confusion, I began to put one foot in front of the other. I started preparing funeral arrangements. Trusting that I had the full authority to get it done, I began to walk through the practical steps. I did not donate any parts or pieces to science or recipients. I purchased a small parcel of real estate on a grassy hill in Los Angeles where his parents and children and I could stop by to say Hi. I found a rabbi — a friend of Sam’s from college, in fact — to say some prayers and gather friends and family and colleagues and offer all of us, including Sam, a blessing. I did not once during this entire process consult the actual paperwork outlining Sam’s final wishes, because I knew exactly what he wanted.
At least I thought I did.
The Sam I knew and loved would never have jumped to his death. He would not have left me. He never would have left his sons. He would not have wanted to cause pain or suffering to family, or friends, or kids on his t-ball team, or even the young woman who worked in the shop on the ground floor (she never did return to work after watching him fall to his death). But he did. The death certificate says so, all summed up in one tidy and official, heartbreaking, embossed page. Suicide; jumped from structure; cause of death: multiple blunt force injuries. It’s so ugly.
After the funeral and burial, after sitting shiva for a week, after the out-of-town family flew back to the opposite coast, I reviewed the paperwork regarding funeral arrangements. I was horrified to see that Sam had not granted me full discretion. On the contrary, he had a detailed list of everything he had wanted me to do. Sick to my stomach that his family might now accuse me of subverting his wishes — or worse, I had neglected something he asked of me — I carefully reviewed the list.
No organ donation. Check.
No cremation. Check.
Jewish funeral service. Check.
I had done it all. Every last item on Sam’s list.
At a time when I was full of doubt, bursting with questions that couldn’t be answered, afraid that I did not, in fact, know my husband at all, this legal form gave me comfort. It was, oddly, a form of proof to me that I did know Sam. I knew exactly what he wanted, and that’s what I had done. Not because I had consulted his attorney or heeded the advice of well-intended family. I did it simply because I knew my husband.
I would yet grapple with many unanswerable questions, but in my heart I began to trust that somehow the man I knew had been overtaken by an illness that none of us understood. I’ve learned a bit about depression, mental illness and suicide since Sam’s death, and I believe he must have been fighting silent battle with depression. As I was reading the Harry Potter series to our sons, I encountered J.K. Rowling’s description of the vile Dementors. I think she portrays a remarkably accurate picture for those who suffer from depression: “Dementors are among the foulest creatures that walk this earth. They infest the darkest, filthiest places, they glory in decay and despair, they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you.” (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) Sometimes a well-written children’s book can shed light on a difficult subject in a way that treatises and reference materials cannot.
As the boys and I began to do our healing work — with therapy, prayer, heart and lots of dark chocolate — we began to see the whole of Sam again. We exercised our discretion not to define his life by the manner of his death, but to open our hearts and memory to the fullness of him, as a devoted father and husband, a loving and loyal friend, a caring and intelligent professional, as well as a man who suffered from depression.
The certified death certificate has accomplished its purpose. I think about removing it from the envelope and looking at it once more before filing it away, but I know what it says. The myopic version of Sam’s life: date of birth, address, profession, marital status, date of death, cause of death. Suicide has its own box. I tuck it safely in place for the next time. It has its usefulness, to be sure, but that embossed blue and pink page doesn’t even come close to describing the entirety of Sam’s life.
Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And discretion.