I am still wearing my best black wool dress. I am drained from crying, and from staying awake late last night reading tributes online. I am thinking about what it means to be a suicide survivor. I have just been to Aaron Swartz’s funeral.
I have known Aaron’s partner, Taren, for 12 years. We share a mutual best friend – mine from high school, hers from college. In the time I’ve known Taren we have been bridesmaids together in two different weddings. We have traveled together, confided in one another and offered one another advice. I know that in losing Aaron Swartz the world lost a great visionary, a public intellectual, and a technological pioneer. I know his death and the controversy surrounding it have become an international news story. But ever since I learned of Aaron’s death I have been looking at this tragedy through the lens of my friend’s deep personal loss.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention some 34,000 people die by suicide every year in the U.S. But that number is dwarfed by the number of “survivors,” the devastated friends, family and loved ones suicide leaves behind.
In their grief, survivors experience shock and depression, understandably, but also anger, sometimes even anger towards the deceased. There is also guilt: the sense they could or should have done more before it was too late.
I saw those emotions unfurled at Aaron’s funeral. The service took place in a small synagogue in Highland Park, Ill., a suburb north of Chicago. There were no flowers, but no protestors either, despite earlier threats from the Westboro Baptist Church. Aaron’s body lay in a wooden casket outside the sanctuary. Jewish law dictates that the body of the deceased not be alone for an instant before he is buried, so a dedicated mourner sat in a folding chair beside the coffin and prayed over Aaron while mourners filed into the hall.
Taren delivered the first eulogy, staring from the podium into a sea of dark suits. She looked spent and wan; her large eyes were ringed with dark circles and her hair hung down in a curtain beside her face. But she laughed as she recounted how she and Aaron had shared a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of mac n’ cheese – his favorites – at a happy hour in New York the night before his death. How he had promised to reward the diligent cleaning of her inbox with one cuddle for every email deleted, how he had woken her up one Saturday morning, imploring, “I need to talk to you about Bayesian statistics.”
OK, she had said that day, but could she wake up a little bit first? No, he insisted. This was very important. They spent the next several hours working out a complex mathematical equation, “trying to remember how to do multivariable calculus,” and, it seemed from her account, feeling very lucky to have one another.
“That is what Aaron meant to me,” Taren said. “These simple moments of joy.”
But Taren shared other memories, too: how tired Aaron seemed in recent weeks, how overwhelmed and helpless he felt. She and Aaron’s other friends and mentors – including Tim Berners-Lee, the godfather of the World Wide Web, and copyright activist Lawrence Lessig – painted a picture of a remarkable young man, but also a very vulnerable one. In their memorials, Aaron did not come across as depressed – just backed into a corner. Aaron, it seems, was surrounded by people who adored him, and yet he felt alone. Even the people closest to him did not realize just how alone he felt.
Aaron’s father, Robert, has already been quoted today saying that his son “didn’t commit suicide,” that MIT and the government were responsible for his death. But Mr. Swartz also said he blamed himself for not doing enough to protect his son.
Aaron’s defense attorney, Elliot Peters, admitted to feeling “disappointed” in Aaron. But he also seemed angry that he wouldn’t have the chance to defend Aaron in court, and spun out his never-to-be-realized fantasy: that day when a jury would have found Aaron not guilty, and they would have been able to “get the last word.”
Lessig, Aaron’s long-time friend and mentor, prepared a memorial slideshow that “only [he] and Aaron would ever get to see,” and told mourners they had “lost an elder” this week, someone wise beyond his years. But Lessig followed that by saying they had also “lost a child,” one who desperately needed to be protected.
They are all survivors now, searching for answers and casting blame, whether on themselves or on others. Let us be kind to them, and comfort them, and protect them however we can -- just as they have asked us to do a better job of protecting other people in pain. Let us offer the advice given here: Be kind to yourself. When you feel ready, begin to go on with your life. Eventually starting to enjoy life again is not a betrayal of your loved one, but rather a sign that you've begun to heal.
Towards the end of the service, a young girl walked up to Taren and put her arms around her neck. It was Ada, the daughter of Aaron’s ex-girlfriend Quinn Norton. Norton wrote about her relationship with Aaron, and of his love for Ada, the day after his death. “In his darkest moments, when I couldn’t reach him, Ada could still touch him, even if only for a moment,” she wrote.
Taren must have known, because she too seemed immensely grateful for the girl’s affection. She crisscrossed her arms around Ada. She rested her forehead on the girl’s. And her body shook with sobs as the rabbi delivered his closing prayer.
If you’re having thoughts of suicide please speak to someone. In the U.S. call 1-800-273-8255.