My friend James died by gun suicide on January 11, 2002. James was a close high-school friend of my boyfriend at the time, who is now my husband. I started getting to know James in 1997, when Chris and I were home on breaks from college and would spend lots of time with his group of friends, mostly hiking in the woods and listening to music together — two things that James loved.
He once memorably told us that, if he were ever stopped at the border and asked if he had anything to declare, he would say, “I declare I love hard rock.” James also loved hunting and guns, and he owned a lot of them. He was studying engineering with a focus on optics in college, and he struck me as absolutely brilliant. I was surprised to learn later that he had struggled with a long history of mental health issues.
On the night he died, James had been at a fraternity party — his fraternity, where he was the president, and where I can imagine him lighting up the room with his charm and wit. What I cannot imagine is what awful switch got flipped in his mind and convinced him to take his own life.
James left behind a loving family and many friends, all devastated and bewildered by his sudden death. I hesitated for many years to tell James’s story, because it didn’t feel like MY story. I felt on the periphery of this particular tragedy, like his death impacted his family and close friends so much more than me, like my own grief was less consequential than theirs. I think I also probably felt silenced by the horror and stigma of suicide. But it’s my hope that telling my story of knowing and losing James will help lessen that stigma and help others speak out about the tragic and all-too-common reality of gun suicide.