In German there are two ways to speak of suicide. First is the reflexive verb “sich umbringen:” to kill oneself. To be used most naturally in the past tense: er hat sich umgebracht, he killed himself. Another is the more clinical noun, “der Selbstmord.” Again, having already happened: “Er hat Selbstmord begangen,” he committed suicide.
A few weeks ago my friend Demi sat on the floor of my dorm room. She was the first person I had seen from my time studying abroad in Switzerland since I had come back to the U.S. almost two years ago. She hadn’t changed much, though I had, and when she said in the rough Swiss German I had missed so strongly, “er het sich verhängt,”—he had hanged himself— I thought to myself in a language I hadn’t spoken in years — “jetzt gibt’s zwei.” Now there are two.
Demi was talking about Yuanxiang Hu, my classmate, but he was not the first Swiss suicide I knew. That was Loris Birbaumer, on March 14th, 2011; some shadowed part of my worried nervousness murmurs that it might not be the last. Loris, the first death, was also a boy from my school there, and hearing of the second jerked me back to the spring day where I walked through the five story atrium as a fifteen-year-old jumped from the concrete spiral staircase.
What strikes me even now is the disjoint clarity of the images I associate with that day. I remember precisely the light, how it filtered icily through the high glass windows, and the small green poster that caught my eye moments before his body hit the ground. How the flutter of papers he dropped stuttered quietly to the floor. The moment when I saw him only as a fallen backpack. But then, all too suddenly, he was a boy, crumpled and rolling onto his back, which arched painfully and then fell again as the blood began to pool around his head. Acutely, I am reminded of the feel of the cobblestones in the concrete, sensed even through my shoes. I remember; too much of that day, those minutes, are clasped too tightly to my memory.
Which, one would think, would be counter-productive. I want to forget, would rather never have seen— but instead the memory is at once rich beyond imagining and charged beyond fantasy. How could I forget the timbre of the voice of the girl standing a few yards away from me, frantically calling “911,” fumbling at the words? “He’s bleeding, oh he’s bleeding, hurry.” The too-long time before anything was truly said. How his moans sounded. Loris, perhaps no longer Loris, cried out against his dying, or maybe he cried with it, as he bled out, brained, on the floor. All of these things are now held to my recollection of this day, wreckage from a sinking ship. I drown in them, and in drowning, forget to forget, and can only clutch to these sensations more tightly.
Though I never knew Loris Birbaumer, I knew his death. His most base and ungraced moment was also mine. In his suicide, I became i
ntimately connected to him. He never knew. Never will it cease to be strange to me that fate or chance let me watch a complete stranger’s death, that I was initiated into the hermetic knowledge of how his last breaths shuddered, the feel of his final gaze. I have no picture in my mind of his face except how it was in those raw seconds. This boy was nothing to me in life, and I wonder at how his death made him become something to me.
I did know Yuanxiang. We were in the same class for a year, together for eight hours a day, five days a week. Often we had sat together at lunch, mutually abandoned by our better friends, sharing silence and small words over cafeteria trays. I knew him as a quiet person, studious yet underscored by some anxiety that exposed itself in biting moments of humor. I remember him making jokes about suicide. They were never serious but I can recall thinking that they were always too far from the apparent gravity of the situation for me. Nor could I have ever predicted that less than twelve months later he would die at his own hand. Demi, my visiting friend, told me that no one had seen it coming. A hanging, that I did not see but can imagine: Yuanxiang would have carefully researched and practiced the knots that would end his life, determined to the end, a perfectionist even in this.
At least I imagine that I can imagine it. Though I did know Yuanxiang, I know too little of the circumstances to frame the event as evenly as Loris’ death. I knew Yuanxiang’s face but I never saw it as plainly as I saw Loris’. Critically there stand before me two boys’
deaths, one who I saw but did not know, the other that in knowing will remain unseen. How can I say if Yuanxiang’s death was as I imagine it? Maybe he was rushed and sloppy, maybe it wasn’t planned at all. Those ticking darknesses I noticed in him a year before could have been entirely unrelated, or perhaps I only have created them now to soothe the dissonance in my heart and head. I knew him, I thought I did, but I cannot know his death. It is entirely possible that one day I will forget him. That, like hot sand, my memories of him will pass through my cupped hands, leaving gritty burns. I wish I had known him better, but maybe it’s better that I didn’t. Then it only would have shocked me all the more when Demi said those four simple words so casually, “er het sich verhängt,” and I forgot everything else I knew about him.
Instead, I have my searing memories of Loris. Beforehand I hadn’t known what trauma was, how it can hurt to look at a place or hear a word because of what it had once done to you. When Loris killed himself, he drenched the onlookers in a frigid horror. Our pain at his death was different from the way those who knew him suffered. My personal grief will forever be attached not to him, but to that moment and his blood on the cold cobblestones. It could have been anyone, and Loris is now my synonym for death. I build his story in words, and bury Yuanxiang’s in them.
In words: which of my two killed himself, and which committed suicide? Is there really a difference? There was so much more violence in Loris’ death that it seems only fit to be called killing. To kill oneself—sich umzubringen—implies to me an energetic
action that only the experienced can possess. Whereas Selbstmord, how Yuanxiang committed suicide, is a literal response to the crime of self-murder and only that: a murder, with malice aforethought to the self.
I didn’t cry when I heard that Yuanxiang had died, but I did when Loris jumped. These dichotomies now build up in my memory like liquid mercury. In their shining, I see poison, and I see myself, and I write myself a way to take it all back to a peace when suicide only had one meaning, and none at all to me.
My personal grief will forever be attached not to Rachel Wilson, but to that moment and his Nassau Weekly on the cold cobblestones.