It was almost Christmas. Less than an hour away in fact, as I sat in silent unease looking down at my phone with tear glazed eyes. I had just received the most difficult and damning phone call of my life.
It was Mike. The father of one of my dearest friends, Ryan Grassel. Mike called to tell me that Ryan had decided to author his own earthly finale. On Christmas Eve of 2016, at the age of 27, Ryan took his own life.
Ryan and I grew up in The Ozark Mountains of Southwest Missouri. Back in 2006 I co-founded my power metal band, Death May Die, with other high school aged musicians from a neighboring rural community. This is when I first met Ryan. From day one he was our biggest fan and best friend to the band. The Ozarks, a highly conservative and religious region, were often unkind to Ryan and myself. We were judged for having long hair, eccentric interests, and an anti-authoritarian attitude. Yet our tendencies to find ourselves submersed in subterranean counter cultures was only one chain in our shared kindred fence. Perhaps our strongest bond was our mutual struggle with depression.
I’ve always worn my propensity towards melancholia on my sleeve. Or at least I think I do. It is hard to know how other people perceive what you feel to be wholly evident. With Ryan, unless you were close with him, you probably had no idea. At least not until towards the end. It was something we would talk about in private, during breaks in between classes at college or online while planning road trips to go see our favorite bands. Depression and ill feelings were never the focal point of the conversations. They were more like segues into nihilistic reaffirmations. We would find solace in the pointlessness of it all. Looking back I wish those conversations would have focused more on the underpinnings of our discontentment. I had an outlet for my pain and confusion. I was a musician and writer. I wish more than anything I could have helped Ryan find an outlet like I had. But these are now little more than wasted thoughts.
After Ryan passed, my band and I organized a memorial service and concert. Ryan was a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and wore his personalized colander on his head everywhere he went. It didn’t matter if it was to the DMV to have his picture taken for his driving license or at college graduation. Come hell or high water, the colander was staying on his head. Starting with the night of the memorial concert we have put Ryan’s colander on top of an amplifier on stage during our performances to honor him. Still, I wanted a way to honor him further.
Ryan’s mother, Lynette, sent me a box with some of Ryan’s ashes. In addition to the ashes she also sent a few personal belongings of Ryan’s: a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles necklace and a LEGO figure of Raphael. Ryan was a massive TMNT fan, bordering on the obsessive. While displaying his necklace on my graphic novel shelf the perfect idea struck.
Every year I attend Planet Comicon in Kansas City. For 2017’s show, Kevin Eastman, the co-creator of TMNT, was going to be a guest. I got in contact with Eastman’s agent/wife while writing for a few other publications and explained what had happened to Ryan and how much Eastman’s creation meant to my fallen friend. In the email I asked if he could do a quick sketch of a Turtle that I could later color with a mixture of green embossing powder and Ryan’s ashes. Eastman agreed and was touched by my request.
When I finally met Eastman he was surrounded by hundreds of fans who were waiting in line to meet him and get his autograph. He was so busy during the three day show that his line was almost always capped. Despite this he still took his time to talk with me as he fulfilled my request. As I explained how much this meant to myself and Ryan’s family I was overcome with emotion. I began to cry and excused myself from his booth, so as not to become a bother to the fans in line. But based on the talks I had with some of these fans, it would have been impossible for me to bother those beautiful and understanding souls.
Today the sketch proudly hangs in my band room.
Needless to say Christmas has taken on a new meaning for me in the past two years. It is impossible for me not to associate it with tragedy. It’s as if I live in an alternate version of It’s a Wonderful Life, where George Bailey never met his angel. Yet even amidst the most sorrowful of desolate surroundings I now see the brilliant beauty of life’s fleeting nature. I see a rural community who came together in our collective darkest hour to become one in remembrance. I see the empathy of strangers. I see the generosity of people giving me time, though they’ve none to spare. Still, there remains the one thing I shall never see again: My friend.
If you feel the darkness in your life becoming insurmountable, please reach out. Reach out to a friend, a family member or even a stranger. Reach out to anyone who is willing to listen. There are more good people than bad in the world and no one has to be alone. There are friends you have yet to meet, help you have yet to discover, beauty you have yet to observe and purpose you have yet to define. I’ve skated the precarious edges of sanity and manged to fall relatively unscathed. I haven’t beaten depression and I don’t really plan to. As long as my purpose is well defined then I will prevail. We must help those who are struggling to find their own suitable existential purpose.
If you have lost someone to suicide, know you too are not alone. It took losing a friend to suicide for me to realize that one should not aspire to “move on”. Some things are too important. They become a part of us and we carry these haunting experiences with us for the rest of our days. These feelings are not burdens; they are motivators to make the world a brighter and less lonely place.
The national suicide hotline can be reached 24/7. 1-800-273-8255
If you lost a loved one to suicide and would like to find a support group or get involved with suicide prevention please check out SAVE.org.