There is so much warmth in Amy’s book, Figuring Shit Out, about the first weeks and months after her husband’s suicide. And if you live in a part of the world where there are not neighbourhood bands and neighbours don’t respond to grief with an extensive rota of hot meals then you might want to start some new traditions.
AB: I found it nerve-wracking, exhilarating and ultimately rewarding. The Moth event was held in the Egg – a large Albany performance venue that resembles a giant space-faring oyster from below and, yep, an egg from above. I’d worked with the Moth folks for months, memorizing my story, though not word-for-word, and whittling it to around 11 or 12 minutes. Normally I’m fine with public speaking, but this time I was quaking with abject fear in the weeks heading up to it. I was afraid of memory lapses – which is strange, considering that I was telling my own story. But I spent all my nerves on the dress rehearsal, and by the time I stood up before 1,400 people the next night, I was fine. Being blinded by stage lights helped!
For the Albany TEDx talk, I had to speak longer, 18 minutes, with less time to prepare, so once again, I was nervous. But the space held deep personal meaning for me. The business that hosted had converted the building from my former parish church, which I’d attended for years with my kids and late husband. I actually have a chapter in my book, Figuring Shit Out, about dropping in on an open house there after I got laid off. I gave my TEDx talk in a room near the old altar, not far from the lectern where I used to read. Surreal to be there. But fitting and beautiful, in its way.
Q: Most bereaved people find others struggle to know what to say to them but people bereaved by suicide experience that tenfold. What have you learned about getting round or through to our tongue-tied friends?
AB: I don’t know that I’ve learned much that can be passed on as advice. Even now, five years on, I’ll occasionally encounter someone who failed to call me after my husband’s suicide, and there’s always this awkward bit where they utter something like: “. . . ahhhhh, I never phoned. . . errrrrmmm. . . didn’t know what to say. . . sorry.” And I reply, “Oh, it’s okay, don’t worry.”
Everyone has experienced some variation on this. The bereaved are always consoling those who attempt to console us. But honestly, I was grateful for anyone who tried, and I gave them a pass. It takes courage to pick up the phone, especially after a suicide, and I always urge people to make some attempt to say something when a friend or acquaintance has suffered a loss. The effort matters more than anything. I’ll always be eternally grateful to the young man – my daughters’ choir director – who called me at home as soon as he heard the news from a student. He was the first non-relative who reached out. Do I remember what he said, beyond, “Amy, I’m so sorry”? No. But bless him forever for calling.
Q: At one point you call yourself a shit magnet, which sounds so negative and yet you always celebrate life too. Can you tell us about that balancing act of not diminishing what has happened while still being open-hearted to the now and the future?
AB: Oh, I don’t know. I’m a stubborn broad. That’s what it amounts to. Every now and then someone accuses me of being an optimist or a Pollyanna, and I’m always a little baffled by this, because life has taught me to be a pessimist. Over and over, I’ve had this lesson drilled into me: that things can and do go horribly wrong. I’ve lost multiple loved ones to suicide, for one thing, and my parents and sister all died within two years of each other. So it’s hard for me to love people without believing that they’ll leave me. But I actively choose to have faith in love, faith in life, faith in the dumb impulses that get me through a day. This isn’t to say that I don’t wail and wallow in dark sinkholes of negativity now and then, but I always climb out and try to face the world with hope. I have to. I can’t let the shit win.
Q: Albany sounds like the friendliest place to be a widow and your neighbourhood band sounds like something every neighbourhood should have. Are they managing to adapt as you move into, widow moving on with life, mode?
AB: Oh, sure. They’re very non-judgmental and accepting people; Albany on the whole is a pretty non-judgmental and accepting place. And one of the truly wonderful aspects of the neighborhood itself is the way most residents move in and stay put through the years – having kids, watching them grow up, retiring, having grandkids, burying spouses. It’s a warm, tight dead-end block packed with single-family homes (with typically American peaked roofs and clapboard siding) jammed quite close together. So we follow one another’s lives. We know when someone lands in the hospital or graduates from college. We even know when someone’s having an argument with their teenager, especially when it’s summer and the windows are open! A lot of people might prefer living in a place with more privacy or anonymity, but for me, it’s been a gift.
Q: I think your slightly sweary wranglings with life, faith and grocery store queues, is exactly what we need in this harsh and complex world. Where can we find more of your work?
AB: “Sweary wranglings” – I like that! Well, I have a personal blog at figuringshitout.net (where I do swear on occasion, though nothing worse than “shit”), but I pay the bills with my full-time job as an arts journalist and columnist for the Times Union in Albany. In that mode I don’t issue profanities at all, sad to say. Readers would likely object (and the publisher, definitely.) My story for The Moth will be included in an upcoming collection from Crown, All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown, due to be published in March. And I’m hoping/planning/laboring to write another book, but these hopes/plans/labors are way too embryonic at this point to discuss.
First published in Widows & Widowers magazine, Issue 12