The Chilling Way I Felt Like I Was Sitting Next To My Past On A Recent Flight

by Michelle Leigh
Originally Published: 
Alberto Coppola / EyeEm/Getty

Trigger warning: suicide

Recently, I was on a flight and my seat was changed at the last moment. It was no biggie, not really where I wanted to sit but it was a short flight. For some reason, when I am on a plane I write. This day in particular, I was writing about my son’s struggles with apraxia and the new findings in his educational report that I was struggling to digest.

As I was feverishly writing, I noticed the man I was sitting next to reading a brochure about children with different needs and their home life. “Hmmm, interesting,” I thought, then I continued with my writing. A few moments later he tapped me on the shoulder. I removed my headphones and put down my pen. He asked what I was writing and for whom. I summarized apraxia briefly and explained that it can be very hard on a family to have a child with additional needs. He replied, “I understand.”

A moment later, a young girl (we will call her Katie) seated next to the window leaned forward. She introduced herself and told me she was on the way home from Minnesota, where she’d been in treatment for a while. Not knowing what type of treatment she had just completed, I could only think to ask, “Do you feel better?” She replied that she did and that she’s working on it every day. I reassured her that’s all you can do—focus on today.

Katie’s eyes became sad. She said, “My boyfriend killed himself.” My heart sank, my eyes filled with tears, and I told her, “So did mine. I was 16, and it was devastating.” Katie and I sat there in disbelief for a few moments and then she said, “I am 16.” Her father, slightly stunned, said, “I think you were meant to sit next to us.” I nodded and struggled to maintain my composure. Mentally, I was flashing back to all those years before of the immense hurt, despair, loneliness, and guilt you are left with when you are the collateral damage of suicide.

I am generally a fairly private person who rarely speaks of things from my past. I prefer to keep them pushed down inside as far as I possibly can; it’s much more comfortable than vulnerability to me. However, I knew immediately that I had to tell Katie my story. I genuinely felt as if the universe had put us together, and this wasn’t about what was comfortable for me. This was about Katie. I could feel her fragility and sorrow, and it was hauntingly familiar. I know that despair all too well. I could see myself sitting at 16 with the heaviest of hearts, struggling to understand what the world meant and how it could be so cruel. And why? Just why?

I said, “I know you aren’t asking, but I feel compelled to tell you … in December of 1987, I was 8 years old when my father died by suicide.” I shared with her my deep grief, abandonment, confusion, and what was basically the end of my childhood innocence. I told her how I kept everything inside; it was simply too much to process, too much to understand, and it led to years of poor choices, self-destructive behavior, and a lack of self-love.

My father’s suicide became the dismantling of what little family I had and left his children with the stigma associated with being the child of a parent who died by suicide. I spent years not knowing how to process it, and I had never met anyone who could relate. Then when I was 16 years old, I dated a guy who understood. He, too, had lost a family member to suicide to whom he was very close. It may seem like an odd thing over which to bond, but I assure you it’s comforting, soothing even, that another person understands your pain without needing all the details.

In June of 1995, it all came crashing down. I had received multiple messages on my answering machine. Before I could return them, my phone rang. It was my dear friend Kristie hysterically crying. I could barely understand her, but I did manage to make out, “Richard is dead; he killed himself.” Moments like this you never forget; they are etched in your brain for eternity. I kept thinking to myself, “This innocent 16-year-old girl is living the hell I remember so vividly, and no one was there when I was struggling to throw me the life preserver I so desperately needed.” I forced myself to continue as I wiped away tears.

I told Katie that one of my biggest mistakes was that I did not talk about my feelings. I left home, retreated inside of myself, made lots of bad decisions, and had no love for life. Everything felt pointless and lacked meaning. Katie was also wiping away tears. This was the first time I felt as if sharing my story had purpose. I wanted her to know—I needed her to know—it was not her fault, and that her entire life was in front of her. I told her she should be so proud of going away for treatment and that she should never be afraid to ask for help.

I begged her, “If you remember nothing else I’ve said, please remember you are not defined by this. This tragedy is something that occurred in your life, but it is not your life.” I gave her and her father my contact information, and I let her know I’d be there to listen any time of the day or night. As the plane landed, Katie and I hugged, and I promised her that one day she will be at peace. I couldn’t lie and tell her it would come soon or easily, but that it would come.

It’s been a few weeks since this flight, and I am still struggling to process all that was discussed. My heart has been aching for this young girl whose life is forever marked by someone else’s decision, and I am astounded by the unbelievable coincidence that this chance meeting coincided with the anniversary of my father’s death. When I finally did sit down to write about this experience, I realized it would have been my late boyfriend’s birthday on this day. Instead of celebrating, I am sharing the pain of his suicide as well as the devastation it leaves in its path.

I can only hope this story of Katie’s and my chance encounter eases the pain of someone else who is suffering. Suicide is devastating and life-altering for those left behind. The hole in your heart is an indescribable wound filled with sadness, anger, resentment, and enough “what-ifs” to last a lifetime.

If you are or have considered hurting yourself, please know that you are loved, you are worthy, and you are not replaceable. If you need help, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Together, we survive.

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