The Bird of Death on My Shoulders: To the Side – part two –


This essay is dark, filled with triggers, and hopefully some light and love.

I shudder, hearing every log that falls;
No scaffold could be built with hollower sounds.
My spirit is like a tower whose crumbling walls
The tireless battering-ram brings to the ground.

It seems to me, lulled by monotonous shocks,
As if they were hastily nailing a coffin today.
For whom? – Yesterday was summer. Now autumn knocks.
That mysterious sound is like someone’s going away.

from “Song of Autumn” by Charles Baudelaire
trans. by C. F. MacIntyre

I try to find meaning in all events. It is a foolish thing at times, I know. Our brains were molded to find meaning and, in the absence of clarity, imagine patterns in the chaos. A wonderful man died a year ago. I write in 2016, a year filled with events I wish he was still here to experience. I’ve been picking at the emotional scabs formed over the hole his death left in my psyche. What has come oozing out is a painful mixture of love and loss.

Kristin was getting Oliver ready for bed around 7:30 in the evening early last October. I received a call from my friend Mike. He usually called me on the weekends to discuss church business or plans regarding work projects. It was strange to receive a call in the middle of the week. A generally business-like, matter-of-fact person I was shocked to hear him struggling through sobs when I answered.

“Jeff is dead. He killed himself.”

Insert the name of someone you love in that first sentence. Now imagine getting that call. It felt like falling while sleeping. Unreal and horrifying.

I remember half-laughing in disbelief as I asked him to clarify. “What? Which Jeff? When?”

Kristin could hear the emotion in my voice and asked from Oliver’s room what had happened. I told her. She was the first of many I would tell that night. I received a few more details. A brief note was left. No full explanation was given. No warning visible to anyone.

I had been with him only a few days before at the baptism of our friends’ daughter. No one saw this coming. Not even those closest to him in the last months of his life. On Sunday people were making plans with him for the following weekend.

Jeff Dodson was in our wedding. He was a close friend whom, in the busy rush of life, we hadn’t seen in almost a year. Jeff had helped paint our kitchen cabinets white. He had helped us move to our home in Vermont in 2007 and again to our home in Grand Rapids in 2013. He was one of a handful of friends who kept me stable during some emotionally and intellectually troubling college years. He had a kind heart and a quick wit. He also had secrets. He played his emotions close to the chest. He let a few people get close enough to see a little of his inner life. I was not one of them.

His was the first close, non-family tragic death in my life.

The past year has been a long, emotional uncoiling and recoiling of grief. Jeff left behind dozens of close friends and hundreds of acquaintances. None of us, not one, saw any warning signs.  His death felt like a cruel joke. “This can’t be true. Not Jeff. We saw him four days ago. This can’t be, Oh My God…”

Kristin and I opened our home to the grieving the night after we all heard the news. Friends packed our house two nights in a row. People laughed, cried, and drank too much.

Jeff was beloved. The shock was amplified by our love. Drunken rants of the disbelieving echoed through our home. Mutual messy tears and runny noses of people filled our chairs and sofa. Stories were shared. A few toasts given. One usually verbose, grieving friend, whom I hugged, could only say the words, “You smell nice.”

As usual, I was not in the middle of things. I made sure people were OK and that the drinks didn’t run out. The first night I waited until the last wobbly person departed and only two close friends were left. Then, and only then, did I begin to grieve.

Later the news came Jeff would be buried in Indiana. The thought sent many of us into deeper sadness. Jeff had chosen Grand Rapids, Michigan as his home. He refused promotions at work that would’ve sent him to other states. His body would not be laid to rest here and a stranger would officiate over his body.

A decision was made to hold a service in Grand Rapids. I volunteered to organize the order of service and oversee the creation of the liturgy. Jeff always valued the tradition of a liturgy. I wrote it with help from members of our church. I didn’t include the usual tropes like, “he’s in a better place.” I didn’t want to cheapen his loss with cliche. The service was oriented loosely around a narrative he still enjoyed, the Christian ideas of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

Don’t worry. We weren’t there to be preachy. There was no alter call. The movements between creation, fall, redemption and restoration were hooks to emotion and moments. Each movement was a space where the mourners could share a memory, their pain, a song, or a piece of writing.

Creation began with stories of how we all had first come to know Jeff. Some songs were shared. Light laughter sprinkled through the room.

The fall came next. It spiraled around the pain of losing our friend. The Eastern Orthodox funeral liturgy was shared. Our mutual friend, Jason England, sang a bittersweet version of “Amen, Omen.” Time was given to grieve and a mournful silence was observed.

Redemption was sharing communion together, an act many of us had done with Jeff a few weeks before the service. It was open and welcome to all, regardless of faith or non-faith. Just how Jeff believed it ought to be.

Finally, we wrestled with the idea of restoration in the face of loss. Stories were spoken of how we would carry Jeff with us in our lives and share those stories with others. Many in the audience shared their deepest respect and love for Jeff. It felt, for a moment, that Jeff was there in our midst.

I led the service. I played banjo and guitar. While I was the master of ceremonies, it was like every other instance of leadership in my life. An act. A mask put on to cover my desire to be in a corner, alone.

The service kept my mind on duty rather than the reality of death or the image of his dead body. When it was over, I was completely drained.

A few weeks before the service an open casket viewing was held before Jeff’s body would be taken to Indiana. His twin brother was there, whom I had met before, and the rest of his immediate family whom I had not.

As Kristin and I made our way into the funeral home we were greeted by the tall, former Dean of Students at Cornerstone University, a man I hadn’t spoken to in eight years. He hugged me and said with a heavy heart, “There’s a lot of love in that room. A lot of love.” He was right. The viewing was held in a double-sized room, and it was packed wall to wall with mourners. People I hadn’t seen since college. People I had never seen before.

On my way into the room I saw Jeff’s twin, Joe. He hugged me and told me how good it was that Kristin and I could come. He reminded me that I had drawn a Christmas gift for him at Jeff’s request. It was a hand drawing of a photo of the two of them at Halloween. Joe was a Ninja Turtle and Jeff was a pink bunny. The drawing held a special place in his home, he told me. I had forgotten all about the drawing. I am glad I was able to provide Joe with an artifact from his brother.


The infamous photo of Joe and Jeff; and, my drawing of it.

While Joe spoke with me I could see Jeff in my peripheral. Joe and Jeff are identical twins. Even their voices were closely related. I could barely keep it together seeing Jeff’s body cold in a casket while…it seemed like he was alive and speaking to me in the same moment. I thanked Joe for all the work he did setting up the viewing and told him we loved him. Then I made my way to Jeff.

Open caskets are a bizarre experience. The dead seem unreal, like heavy dolls or poorly costumed props. Jeff, on the other hand, seemed like he was holding his breath. I cried hard. I needed to be held up. I don’t remember talking much for several minutes after I had turned away. In that moment I knew how deeply I loved him and how terribly I missed him.

I would later learn that Jeff’s family had been overwhelmed by how many people came to show love and respect for him. The room was truly “filled with love.”

In the weeks and months following his death many of us tried to find a reason for Jeff’s departure. Was it undiagnosed chronic depression? Was it something sudden and tragic? Was it a personal crisis of faith or identity? Little evidence was left for people to try and make sense of it. I have half-baked theories, but it would be unjust toward family and friends for me to begin to publicly speculate. Closer friends than I who had seen him the day before he died didn’t notice anything wrong.

I craved meaning. I wanted there to be some reason.

The night I got the call I immediately associated his suicide with my depression. Years before the phone call, I had wanted to die. There were some nights it had gotten so dark I almost took my life. In those moments reason left me, I could only feel deep self-loathing and pain I believed I was causing everyone around me. Kristin was there during one of the darkest of these episodes and helped me. I was diagnosed with acute chronic depression. I got help from drugs and therapy. Maybe, I speculated, Jeff suffered the same thing.

Kristin, irritated, told me I was making Jeff’s tragedy about myself. And I had no way of knowing if what I had experienced in Vermont was in any way similar to him. She was right, of course. I can’t equate my experience with Jeff’s, but his passing deeply troubled me.

Jeff was an emotional oyster. Not many could see inside. Sometimes, if he was under the influence, peeks were given to those near him, or during late night discussions he would reveal some of his heart to trusted friends. I can relate.

I have a tendency to be untruthful in my social life. Even with people I am closest to I don’t share my heart. My to-the-side-ness includes emotional interactions. I feel foolish when I expose my deepest fears and desires. Even though I am a very outwardly emotional person, I don’t tell the truth about why I feel the way I do. I’m afraid to let people inside.

Writing forces me to be more honest. It scares the hell out of me. I have drafts of essays and articles I am working on that expose parts of me few people know. Yet, to write well is to be courageous, and there is no greater courage in writing than being honest about one’s self.

Jeff’s death, in part, drove me to write. It forced me to face my own struggles and shortcomings and understand them with words.

Jeff never reached out to any of us regarding his final days. He kept his struggle private through death. We will never have a meaningful answer of why he ended his life.

He was and is passionately loved by dozens of people. Sometimes love isn’t enough to save a life and we will never be satisfied that it wasn’t. He will live on in our stories and the love we shared. Until the last of us passes away, the name of Jeff Dodson will still be spoken on this earth with love and joy.

In the wake of Jeff’s passing, Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie and Lowell” helped me grieve. The album doesn’t seek to find easy answers for death. It doesn’t allow for resolution (Bon Iver’s “22, A Million” does the same). My Blue Bucket of Gold especially helped as it ends in a repetitive echo, what a beautiful image for a life that continues to beat in the hearts of all who knew him.

I love you, Jeff Dodson.

This will not be the last I write of Jeff. He was a powerful influence on me. We traveled Greece together in college with a group of fellow friends and students. We got sloppy drunk in the years after college. We laughed. We saw movies together and argued about philosophy. I needed to write this article to begin processing in a public, honest way how I experienced the loss. If I ever come into money, I want to dedicate a scholarship in his name. He was one of the brightest and most intellectually hospitable people I have encountered. 

An Aside About My Experience With Depression

I do not want to suggest Jeff’s death is related to depression. We cannot know. I do, however, have experience with suicidal thoughts and actions. I hope the following can be a testament for others who may be experiencing similar struggles as mine. Healing is possible. It may suck, it may hurt. But, things will get better.

Depression, to me, feels like I am being stalked by a big bird of death. It clings to me like a wet garment. The drugs give it distance. Therapy helps me give it shape and understanding.

Most of my teens and twenties I hated myself. Some of it was due to poisonous theology. Some of it was moralistic cultural narratives. A lot of it, I’ve come to believe, was chemical. An eleven-year-old shouldn’t hate their life. Nor should someone in their thirties.

I tried, and failed, to explain my own experience with depression to Mike, the man who called with the news of Jeff. He doesn’t suffer from it and can’t get his head around it. He couldn’t even imagine the feeling. I said, for me, it was like a constant feeling that everything was wrong. I was going to fail at everything, no matter what. Everything was my fault in all my relationships. I was incredibly selfish and acted on that selfishness, then I would use that as continual fuel for self-hatred. I was tired a lot. I thought often about how happy everyone I knew would be if I was gone (if I dwelt there too long it became dangerous). I fantasized about a world without me to mess it all up.

Depression was the Bird of Death to me, roosting on my shoulders, weighing me down, and whispering lies in my ear. It made me hurt and manipulate people. It made me dishonest with my feelings and actions. It ruined many relationships.

Yes, I understand how this sounds. I shouldn’t blame my actions and behavior on something other than myself. I own my destructive behavior. That was on me. All the arguments, self harm, and ghosting on friends was due to me and my unhealthy brain.

My experience isn’t universal. Others suffer different forms of depression.  Symptoms don’t have to be exactly the same as mine. It’s hard with mental illness to easily diagnose what is happening, which is why going to a doctor and having therapy helped me. Our brains are complex things and neuroscience is still learning about all the complexity contained in that amazing organ. My experiences, my brain chemistry, and my choices all played a role in how my depression formed and manifested.

If I didn’t have friends I trusted share their own experience with antidepressants and therapy, I can’t tell you if I would be writing these words today. I was in a dark place. Suicide felt like the moral thing to do. It wasn’t.

No matter who you are reading this article, no matter how dark life seems to be, trust that there are people who will love you and support you.

Help is available.

No matter what it is you struggle with, I guarantee you there is another human who has been there and overcome it. I also promise you other humans will be with you on the path of healing.

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