I never imagined I’d speak at a friend’s funeral before the age of 21.
Her death caught me off guard, though maybe it shouldn’t have. I stood behind the podium in that small Lutheran church, staring into a sea of faces who had gathered to celebrate Melissa’s life. With smiling eyes, I reminisced on the day that she—in typical Melissa fashion—dragged me to the local rec center for a water aerobics class. (We skewed the average age of the pool by at least half a century.) I talked about how much she loved teaching her little tap dancers, how she strove for excellence in all things, how beautiful our friendship truly was. But part of me didn’t feel worthy of standing on that stage.
I wasn’t there when she needed me most.
Melissa and I became friends our freshman year of high school. We had a dance class together—just me and her—every Monday at 3:30 pm. In our sixty-minute break between classes, we’d often walk to Vitamin Cottage just west of the studio for a snack. This was really where our friendship began—me making fun of her indecisiveness while shyly admiring her vibrant, loud, head-turning personality.
“Melissa, you get the same thing every week.” I’d smile. “I feel like this shouldn’t be so hard.”
“Not true! Remember when I bought that terrible gluten free mac and cheese two weeks ago? I will never make that mistake again.”
Our friendship continued after high school, as we’d decided upon Skype as our means of staying in touch. I transitioned easily into college—becoming fast friends with my roommates, enjoying my classes. While I stayed close to home, Melissa found herself on the East Coast. Between the loneliness, homesickness, and stress, she wasn’t doing well—not to mention the dance-related injuries that had carried over from high school, stubbornly refusing to heal. “My body hates me” commonly escaped her mouth. Things went from bad to worse when two concussions left her with a debilitating headache, forcing her to go on medical leave from school.
Half a semester at home turned into a year. With only a 45-minute commute between us, I wish I could recall all sorts of good moments we shared. But I can’t. I mostly remember the bad.
I remember the night we met up at Starbucks, two blocks from the Vitamin Cottage where our friendship began. But this day made it clear how much she’d changed since high school. We’d always seen life differently—our running joke was that she couldn’t quite relate to my glass-half-full approach. But ever since her concussions, she was different—more easily agitated, consistently angry, unwilling to consider or even hope that things would get better. And she was constantly in pain. We sat inside for maybe thirty minutes before Melissa couldn’t bear it any longer. The music wafting from the coffee shop’s speakers only aggravated the throbbing pulse in her head. Her eyes shut tight in an attempt to block out the pain, she voiced her frustration over forgetting her Advil in the car.
“Melissa, I’m worried about how many pain relievers you take.”
She assured me she had completely given up on the state of her liver.
I remember answering a call from her a month or so later to hear that our friend, Ellie, had been temporarily admitted to the psych ward. Melissa had spent a month there our freshman year of high school. She never talked about it and tried not to think about it, but her memories of her time there came flooding back, knowing that someone she loved was in this place she hated with every fiber of her being. I drove home that weekend so she wouldn’t be alone with those thoughts. I should have realized that Ellie wasn’t the only one who needed long-term help.
I remember attending a ballet competition with Melissa to support Ellie about a month after she was released from the hospital. What I thought would be a nice evening with friends turned out to be anything but that. If I’m honest, I didn’t know how to interact with Melissa any more. I know I shouldn’t have tried so hard to be optimistic; she didn’t need cheap positivity. She needed her head to stop throbbing. She needed clearance from the doctor to look at a screen and go back to school. She needed the depression to lift, the pain to stop. I couldn’t give her any of those things. I can’t remember anything specific from our conversation that night—I only know it mostly consisted of her recounting all the reasons life sucked. I barely recall her facial expressions, her mannerisms. At the time, I guess the conversation didn’t feel worth remembering. We said our goodbyes.
That was March, the last time we ever spoke.
After that night downtown, I thought she needed space. She was barely willing to talk to me, and I didn’t have words to fill the silence. I should’ve known that silence was enough, if only I was present. But I wasn’t. All through April, I put this note in my weekly planner: “Send Melissa a package in the mail—she needs to know you love her.” I was still at a loss for how to be her friend. I can’t imagine that one package would’ve stopped her from taking her life. But why didn’t I send it? Why didn’t I call? Why didn’t I carve out time to go and be by her side?
I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I got a call on May 5. Ellie received a concerning text from Melissa. Ellie contacted Melissa’s parents who got the authorities involved. No one knew where Melissa was, but based on the text, it couldn’t be good. Ellie and I talked late that morning, and she promised to keep me updated.
At 10:40 pm, Ellie’s name appeared on my screen. I answered the phone.
“Sam, they found her. She’s gone.”
Samantha Swanson is an Executive Assistant by day and a writer by night. She loves following winding mountain trails, finding cozy spots to read and write, listening to and making music, and learning about health.