The death of a loved one can have a devastating effect on our well-being. Grief can be overwhelming and draining for months, or even years. In her narrative essay, Shadow Man, Food For Mzansi journalist Nicole Ludolph pens the reality of braving the storm following the suicide of a friend. Ludolph says the story is for those who struggle to pick up the pieces after the unthinkable has happened and to know that a new day will dawn, even if it does not feel like it today.
A week before he abandoned his body at the bottom of the bathtub we had an argument.
My friends and I have a man-shaped shadow between us.
The shadow does not respect the boundaries of physics. It constantly stretches and distends into uncomfortable silences and awkward but-anyway-how-are-yous.
When we are alone it engulfs us. Not as often as before, but often enough. It waits in the corners of a familiar song, a funny incident at work, or a silly story about a man. It whispers our loss to us in harsh tones. Mundane things like the taxi ride home or buying lunch, take on the shadow’s weight sometimes. Every so often we smile in pain as we relive drunken nights at our favourite after-work bar, or easy going Sundays under the winelands sun.
The shadow is present in our quick glances at each other, an unspoken acknowledgement of secrets we all know but can never discuss. It tells us jokes sometimes, prompting us to look at old pictures and laugh for who we lost until our bellies ache.
We laughed at the random code names bestowed on each new flavour of the month: Dr Bae, the beloved medicine student; Avo Bae, so called because he hailed from Limpopo and always had avocados; and One-Shirt Bae, who always wore the same striped shirt every time we met him.
At the official memorial service, organised by our employer, we were invited to say something to a crowd of his loved ones as well as our co-workers. In life, our Shadow Man was popular; the line of people who wanted to commemorate him was long. At least six of his co-workers stood up to express their grief, although of his family members only his sister spoke.
After I left the stage, his family nodded politely. Their eyes were invisible behind their sunglasses. I don’t remember what they look like.
A week before he abandoned his body at the bottom of the bathtub we had an argument while laughing into our wine glasses. We often argued over wine, throwing ugly cuss words at each other and then laughing until every little thing became hilarious, even the topic of depression. As long as we ended up laughing, there was no harm done. The laughter made me feel as if everything was going to work out and that maybe, laughing provided the healing I was otherwise powerless to engineer.
He had been discharged from hospital on that day — at his insistence — after promising me, the doctor, the nurse and everyone he wouldn’t be foolish enough to take that medication again.
“It was an accident,” he had said to me. The medication made him feel numb. He could not shake the compulsion to take much more of it than he was prescribed.
We sat on the floor of his lounge talking about men and sex and Frank Ocean. We continued the dance we had been doing for two weeks preceding that date, where I kept bringing up therapy, and he kept changing the subject. We both knew he needed to see a psychologist. I resolved to find a good one for him. His illness was a riddle to me, something that had to be approached logically so it could be “resolved”. As long as he went to therapy, I told myself, he’d be fine.
I treated our last night together like I treated all our other nights: with commonplace fondness. It did not occur to me our time together was limited. The indications were there — I should have seen them.
Later that evening he texted me: Thank you for keeping me sane.
Shadows are heavy.
The therapy we talked about never happened. We had talked about the possibility of him needing a black therapist. Someone who understood how he had to move around in life as a black man, someone who was not going to be dismissive or try and provide him with tools that he could not implement because of his social identity. I sent him a list of black therapists and psychologists I found in a now-defunct feminism group on Facebook. But I knew I had to make the appointment. I planned to do so later that week but I never got the chance.
The following Sunday Shadow Man was gone.
The signs had been there for months.
He skipped work more often. There were times when he took so much medication he could barely keep his head up. Work chats turned into intense talks about the dark thoughts that overtook him.
I recommended that he write them down. Maybe if he put them on paper it would be the catharsis he needed.
His first writings were about men he loved. Bad poetry about feelings that burnt intensely for a few months or weeks and then petered out as if they never existed. Soon, his writing turned to the deeper issues he was facing and became darker. He wrote goodbye letters to each of his cherished friends, assuring me all the while they were just expressions of how he was feeling.
He said he had no intention of actually following through.
He seemed happier for a while.
We went on with our days.
A warm night.
Some minutes before midnight: a phone call which has changed me in ways I am still unable to fully articulate.
I remember my reaction: Surely people don’t just die at 29?
There must have been a mistake.
He was probably ill or someone else was being mistaken for him.
The drive to the hospital: a hole in my memory.
The walk to the emergency room: a fever dream.
His other friends had already arrived. A look at their faces confirmed my denials were in vain.
I learned dead bodies hold onto warmth for hours.
Three days after the call, my friends and I were on the beach. Given the purpose of our gathering, the Cape Town weather seemed almost inappropriate. It was a perfect summer afternoon; it set the tone for our ceremony: we were there to say our final goodbyes — to honour our loved one in a place he loved. His body was going home to Zimbabwe after the police concluded their investigation.
None of us could afford to travel for the funeral.
There was something almost religious about the way we gathered at the water’s edge. Each of us cradled a rose in our hands, the symbol we chose to represent our heartache. We spoke our grief into the petals and watched them float away on the ocean. Letting them go felt like a provisional suspension of grief.
There was an unspoken agreement that we were going to celebrate. Our happiness at having known Shadow Man overcame our anguish at losing him. We drank his favourite wine and told each other funny stories about him. Our tears and our laughter carried us into the night and we talked about him as if he was still alive.
The funeral took place about a month later.
His sister told us he looked at peace.
The road to healing
A year is not a long time to heal.
The passing time forced me to acclimatise. I no longer reach for my phone to text him random nonsense and I am able to enjoy the music we both loved without feeling too melancholy. His voice is still a distinct sound resounding my mind. There are phrases and exclamations which only make sense when said in his voice with his particular cadence.
Recently, I have found the shadow retreating more often. I breathe easier now, and it whispers to me mostly on my worst days. My grief at my friend’s passing will never really go away. But the longer I live with it, the more I find it changes.
I am no longer suffocating under it.
I am starting to look forward to what the future holds.
I am hopeful.
• Need help? The South African Depression and Anxiety Group has counsellors available 24 hours every day. Should you ever feel overwhelmed, please do not hesitate to reach out and seek help. Call 0800 21 22 23 or 0800 12 13 14 (day or night).