There is a certain type of person who, when he or she walks into a room, the atmosphere changes. It suddenly becomes more vibrant and exciting. It’s the type of person you know you can count on—the type of person who makes you feel deeply loved, and the type of person whose energy and laugh are contagious. That was Hannah.
She was one of my best friends and also my roommate. We met each other in south Florida and quickly connected, so moving into an apartment together was the perfect fit. Everyone’s initial response to seeing a picture of Hannah was how beautiful she was. She was incredibly beautiful, yes, but the most beautiful thing about her was her heart. She lived passionately, loved deeply, and had a lively spirit. We always had fun together, and I have precious memories of our many spontaneous adventures.
The deep authenticity in our friendship was what meant the most to me. We did life together. Neither of us had family in Florida, so we were each other’s family. Hannah was a truly loyal and supportive friend and made me feel so important and loved. She embodied confidence and joy.
What most people didn’t know, however, was how much Hannah struggled with insecurity over her potential, her personality, her worth, her relationships and her future. I never understood why she felt so self-conscious; she was such a lovable, smart, fun and valuable girl. I’ll never be able to understand exactly how it felt to be in her head but from talks we had, I knew Hannah was struggling to feel hopeful about her ability to overcome the internal battles in her mind and to succeed at all the dreams she had for her life. Hannah had been going through a particularly rough patch when she took her life. Her insecurities were affecting her relationships, she doubted her potential in pursuing a career in nursing, and she felt stressed out handling the responsibilities of life on top of her emotional battles.
A few days before her death, Hannah came home crying and told me she had been fired from the job she loved. Other events that weekend had been extremely tough as well. On the evening of May 5, I was sitting at a restaurant when I got a call from her mother, who lives out of state. She was concerned about Hannah’s well-being and asked if I had talked to Hannah that day. I hadn’t been home and hadn’t talked to her, so when I got off the phone with her mom, I called her. Hannah was crying and obviously in distress when she answered, so I told her I would meet up with her and help her figure out how to get through whatever was going on. I needed to close my check at the restaurant, so I told Hannah I would call her right back to figure out where we should meet. But when I called back shortly after, she didn’t answer. You know that bad gut feeling you sometimes get in a certain situation? I felt that, so I went looking for her. I drove around for hours, looking everywhere I could think of where Hannah might be, but had no luck. When it got late and I ran out of ideas, I finally had to return to our apartment for the night. I hoped maybe Hannah had fallen asleep at a coworker’s house or somewhere similar.
The next morning, her mother called me at 8 a.m. to tell me that Hannah had taken her life shortly after I’d spoken to her. She was at her boyfriend’s apartment and was found that night by his roommate. The police contacted Hannah’s parents shortly after. I’ll never forget that phone call from her mother. I’ll never forget the way my phone slipped out of my hand as I leaned on a chair for support, shaking and struggling to breathe. My thoughts were racing, yet the only thought that was clear was, “This isn’t real. This can’t be happening.” I remember laying on the floor at one point, because the solidity of the floor was the only sense of stability I could find in that moment. I remember the gut-wrenching sobs, sometimes so deep that there were moments no sound even came out of my mouth.
Losing someone to suicide forever alters your life and who you are. Hannah’s death has changed my perspective on life, my priorities, my relationships, my routine, and my heart. Some changes are good, while some have felt damaging. I have hope that the changes that currently feel negative will be redeemed and healed as my journey continues. Because Hannah was part of my daily life and one of my best friends, I think I took too many moments with her for granted, because I assumed we had a lifetime of moments ahead of us. I didn’t realize just how deeply my life was intertwined with hers until she was ripped away from it, and I found myself left with the sharp, jagged edges around a crater where her presence once was.
I was forced to start a new chapter in life, even though I hadn’t finished writing the one before. I’ve stood on wobbly feet the past year, looking at a new chapter I wasn’t prepared for and didn’t want, trying to figure out exactly how it has changed me and how to find solid ground again. I’ve grappled with the concept of closure and wondered if it’s even possible.
Experiencing this level of grief itself has changed me forever. I’ve learned that grief isn’t a coat you put on and then take off once you feel warm again. In a way, you have to absorb grief. It’s been a process of acceptance and a process of change and adjustment for me. It has become a part of me, not in the sense that it is my identity, but in the sense that it has redefined the person I am.
I ask myself exactly how Hannah’s death has changed me, but I honestly don’t think I fully know yet. I know that time will reveal more, but for now there are a few things I do know. I know that since Hannah died, I have a deeper level of compassion, love, and concern over the well-being of others than I ever did before. I’ve become more sensitive and educated in how to support people in ways that will be most helpful to them. I’ve found a deep desire to make a difference, to stand up for those who suffer silently and could too easily slip under the radar. I’ve found a voice to advocate for those who suffer from mental illness. I want to be a light in the darkness. And although Hannah’s death itself will never be something I view as “good,” I do know that the qualities I’ve gained are good gifts, because they make me a stronger, more loving and more dependable person. And I am grateful for that.
Written by Emily Barnhardt. Emily’s best friend and roommate, Hannah, died in 2014 at age 20. Emily’s full story is available in Grief Diaries: Surviving Loss by Suicide