Note: This piece contains sensitive content about mental health. Originally published on 18 May 2021.
It was ten years ago today that my friend Sofia took her own life. Ten years is a long time, and at the time when it happened I hadn’t even turned 21 yet. I would like to say that in those years her death has become easier to deal with, but in reality, while it may no longer be a constant presence in my mind every day like it was for the first couple of years, even now, when I think of her I become totally overwhelmed. Her passing was so sudden, so brutal and so unexplained, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to truly move on. Particularly as in this last decade, I have seen countless friends and acquaintances suffer the same fate, or come close to it, such that it becomes impossible to see these as isolated incidents.
It feels like a cliche but Sofia was one of the brightest people I had ever met, in every sense of the word. Her presence, and her smile, really did light up the room. Aside from being supremely academically gifted and hard-working, she also had a certain gentleness about her that is extremely hard to find. I’ll always remember the time in our second year when I was the only one home in my shared house and she cycled over close to midnight. It was the night when I genuinely realised that in her I had found a kindred spirit. The memories of that night are blurry by now but I remember us reading each other our favourite poems and I sang Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat, something she always asked me to sing whenever the guitars came out after that night. That was also the song I sang for her during her memorial service.
Her parents, in particular her father who I had spoken to many times by then, rushed over to give me a hug when I saw them for the first time in person. Her father also sang that evening, which is also why I’ll never be able to listen to Wild World by Cat Stevens again. He gave me her acoustic guitar that night.
We had a very close group of friends at university which had largely convened around a student sustainability organisation which worked out of the largest squat and cultural centre in the quiet Dutch town of Maastricht. We all had big dreams and big ideas, and despite many clashes of egos and romantic fallouts along the way, we ended up starting various initiatives throughout Maastricht, many of which lasted for many years after we left. We really thought we had harnessed some magical collective power in this group, and in some ways we had, but things were never going to be that simple.
One of these projects was an annual festival we began the year prior with our org, and fully embracing this vision, we called it The WE Festival. The first year was a resounding success, an assortment of political panels, workshops, food and music across most of the squatted spaces in town, culminating in a legendary illegal party which we snuck right under the noses of the police. There was no doubt, then, that we would be going for it again the following year. Sofia was a core part of the organising team for both years.
Around a week before the second edition of the festival began, while on campus for classes, one of our mutual friends asked if any of us had seen Sofia. Apparently she had not turned up to any of her meetings or classes the day before, and this was definitely not like her. We all began making phone calls and asking around and we soon got news from her housemates that her room was empty, but pretty much all her stuff, including her laptop and bike, was all there. We began to worry. I had seen her the day before that, and I remember walking down to our festival organiser’s meeting together, and while she did seem a little down perhaps and was missing that characteristic twinkle from her eye, I didn’t think there was any reason to be alarmed. That evening, however, we got news that she had flown to Italy to her parents, but was OK.
The story we heard was disturbing. On the day before, Sofia had totally dissociated and began walking by foot, not realising where she was going. Maastricht is a small town right on the border to Belgium, and by the time she came round she was already in the next town over across the border. When she found out she panicked and used her father’s card to book a flight to Milan to her parents’ place, where she was due to go a few days later anyway. She wrote back to each of us the next day. She told me that she was working through some stuff but that she was OK and that she was looking forward to us cooking a meal together when she came back.
Sofia was supposed to come back to Maastricht the day before the festival began the following week. That day, while on campus, I asked around if she had come back and people didn’t know. So I headed back after my classes and was sat at home alone listening to music in the afternoon when I saw a message request pop up on Facebook from someone who shared the same last name as her. It was her father, who had messaged me and another friend of hers whom he knew she was close to, saying that Sofia had been in a terrible accident and was in hospital. He had attached his phone number in case we wanted to call him.
I immediately felt a pit in my stomach as I dialled his number. When I got through to him he was inconsolable. Just before heading out to the airport she had taken a chair to the window and jumped from their 4th floor flat. She didn’t leave a note. He told me that they were in hospital and that the doctors had said they don’t know if she’ll make it. I was then left with the task of calling up our closest friends and letting them know what had happened and eventually everyone gathered at our place and for the rest of the evening, we just waited for news and cried together. Finally, several hours later, we got through to her father again and he told us that they were on their way back from the hospital because the doctors said that they couldn’t save her any more.
That night, as per tradition from the year prior, the core organisers of the festival were due to meet up in the town centre at midnight to wish each other luck for the coming days. As the rest of the people showed up, we had to tell them that Sofia was about to die. The next morning we woke up to an email from her father saying that she had died overnight.
We made the decision to go ahead with the festival, even though we knew it would be drastically different to how we had originally imagined it, and so that opening day, which was set to be a day of celebration, was instead marked by us writing and reading out statements about Sofia’s death to the public. Especially in such a small university town where everyone knows each other, there was a profound sense of shock that set in. It was a beautiful sunny day in mid-May and what ought to have been a loud and rambunctious affair was instead marked by hushed tones. Now that I think about it, the amount of things we did after Sofia died was actually quite an enormous responsibility for what was essentially a bunch of kids at the time, and I’m still not quite sure how we managed to do it all. That evening, in the midst of all those people, was the first time I properly broke down. I had to run inside and bury my head in the couch and howl and cry.
Those next few days were beautiful in a way, as the festival became a space where all the people who knew Sofia could also gather and share in our grief and loss. At the same time, questions began arising. We heard from her housemates that apparently she could be heard crying in her room by herself at night sometimes but no one had considered it anything too serious. It also made me question exactly what this great collective spirit was that we were so proud of supposedly having harnessed, if we were too busy with our own individual shit to even be there for one of our own? Despite the times you, and others, tell yourself that you couldn’t have done more, that feeling of regret never fully left, even to this day.
Over time those questions became even more difficult. Was I in love with her? What if I had told her? Or am I now thinking that I was because she’s dead? When someone you feel so close to gets ripped away so abruptly your mind begins to grasp at whatever it can think of. And the worst part of it was knowing that I would never have answers to these questions.
As the years have gone by I have known far too many others who committed suicide or have attempted it, while my own chronic depression and anxiety have worsened. Zum was a family friend and like a little cousin to me who I knew since he was a baby in his mother’s arms. We lost him just a little over 2 years ago. He was also 22, the same age as Sofia.
I often think of how lonely and scared Sofia must have felt in her final moments, and how so many people feel like they just can’t make it in this world. I often wonder the same about me. How can anyone seriously put themselves through the grind of a daily 9–5 and not lose their minds? How is it possible to care about any of this when we see the whole world burning around us in real time? I’ve never been able to hold down a proper job for a significant amount of time before becoming physically ill, much of which is almost certainly a manifestation of my psychological condition. And while I have never attempted or even contemplated suicide, my days are often marked by memories of deep regret from my past immediately followed by violent imagery of me either blowing the roof off my mouth with a gun or slitting my ankles so I bleed out or smashing my head through a pane of glass. I feel like because of Sofia, knowing how suicide impacts people around you has made me resolve to never do it myself, but it’s also why I tend to be particularly sensitive about it.
Yesterday of all days, while I was out to meet a friend, I saw an older gentleman collapse on the street right next to me. I rushed over to help, as did nearly all bystanders, but he was not responsive. I called the ambulance and it was raining, so people tried to bring things to cover him in. He was rapidly draining of colour and we couldn’t feel him breathing. There were a couple of nurses on the scene who began giving him chest compressions while the ambulance arrived, but he was already turning blue in the face. By the time the paramedics did arrive he did not look in a good shape at all. His neighbour was walking past and asked me what happened and started weeping. I had to rush off from the scene and I’ll never know what happened to that man and whether or not he made it.
Death is everywhere and all around us. Especially after a year in which countless people around the world have lost their lives to this pandemic, it is impossible to avoid. However, as a society we have a habit of locking it away, storing it as statistics and numbers on a table. People talk a lot about the mental health epidemic, and how so many young people are taking their own lives. Lots of people pay lip service to #mentalhealthawarenessweek or whatever new Instagram trend, but what the fuck is anyone doing about it?
Where is the funding for mental health services? Why have so many people I know, even those who have attempted suicide multiple times, been put on years long waiting lists, or even been outright rejected for therapy? Why was Zum told by the NHS, days before he committed suicide, that he should be inside but that they didn’t have enough beds? And who is doing anything to address the fundamental problems with the way we have structured our values and priorities in this consumer capitalist hellscape which is becoming increasingly untenable for more and more people?
I miss Sofia terribly, but the truth is she never left me. She’s the one who always saw something in my writing and encouraged me to write. I always looked up to her writing — she wrote so beautifully. This is a story I have told countless times, but actually writing it all down was much harder than I could have imagined. Ten years is a long time, and who knows, maybe if she were still alive we might have drifted apart by now. I am somehow sure that we would have grown old as friends together. Or at least I would like to think so. For now all I have is memories, but they are memories I cherish deeply.
I smile at life.
Despite all the gray of hearts and skies,
I believe it.
I smile because I don’t know if I believe in God but I believe in US.
I smile because love exists, it is lurking in small things...
And living is beautiful, dense, exciting, intense…
18 March 1989 — 18 May 2011