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"If love is so powerful it can kill you, then that is also the sort of love worth living for."

It’s a sunny Autumn day and I am standing at the foot of my best friend’s grave, watching as his dark brown mahogany casket is lowered into the ground.

In my hands I am clutching a bouquet of bright yellow roses. As the priest nods, I lean towards the abyss and throw the flowers one by one, watching as they cover the casket with their luminous colour.

It is important the flowers are yellow because like the sunflowers Van Gogh painted in 1888, I believe they shine out hope amidst a hopeless reality. The first time I saw Van Gogh’s famous sunflower painting, I had been swept up in it’s wonder, overcome by the brilliance and vibrancy of swirling and captivating colour and in awe of the man who had painted flowers so bright and radiant they literally burst with life from the canvas.

losing a loved one
Van Gough

It was heartbreaking then, to discover Van Gogh had died a short time later, alone and desperate, frustrated by his lack of success and inability to overcome his chronic depression. Here was a man, who despite his own bleak circumstances had poured his heart out onto the canvas – a defiant act of courage in the face of darkness. But here was also a man whose artistic disposition and subsequent sensitivity was his Achilles heel, tripping him up when he should have kept going because quite simply, he was too loving, talented and beautiful to die.

Like, Van Gogh, Robert was also a supremely gifted artist and in possession of a prodigal musical talent, with still so much to live for. And like Van Gogh, Robert also decided the burden of life was too much to bear, tragically dying by his own hand.

*****

We were twelve when we met. It was sports day at school and we were sitting together on the side lines of the oval, feigning only mild interest. Robert was in a different class to me and it was the first time I had set eyes on the tall, lanky brown haired boy.

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Two years later we were still talking and finally I had someone with who I belonged. As we sat in English reading Shakespeare and Browning I was convinced we were characters from a John Donne poem.

When we were sixteen, Robert made me a paper ring he had decorated with texta and inscribed with the words “Friendship Forever”. I immediately discarded my gold signet ring and replaced it with my new paper jewel, which I proudly wore until it was so old and tattered it required layers of clear Sellotape to hold it together.

Finally, we left high school and I enrolled into university whilst Robert gained entrance at the prestigious Conservatorium of Music. Every afternoon after classes I bolted through the subway tunnel and up the stairs, eager to catch sight of my kindred spirit who would be waiting for me at the station.

It was mid term when I received a late night phone call from Robert asking me to keep him company. I was swamped with the demands of university and promised I would accompany him to one of his gigs in two nights time.

The following evening, the phone rang again, only this time it was to inform me of the incomprehensible – that my soul mate and constant companion had taken his own life.

Inexplicably, one week after Robert and I speak on the phone I am standing at the foot of his grave, bearing the bright yellow flowers in an act of defiance and certain if I can shine out enough love then Robert will somehow magically return. But no matter how hard I pray for God to bring him back, Robert remains lifeless and I watch in desperation as his mahogany casket is lowered into the ground. I am crushed with futility, realising the only person in the world who understands me is now gone.

In my dreams at night I believe. In those precious night time hours Robert and I are reunited – he tells me how much I mean to him, we embrace and he promises he will never leave me again. Waking up becomes too painful and cruel when I realise there is no second chance at life and Robert is still gone.

A few months after the funeral I collapse. Weighed down with grief, my empty bony body refuses to go on. I am taken to a doctor’s surgery and instructed to stand as the doctor examines my skeletal frame, poking and prodding me in the process.

He takes the palm of my hand places it on my stomach, then pushes in hard. “You feel that?” he asks sternly, then pushes my hand in again. I nod silently, yes I can feel the bump. “That is your backbone” he says, sitting back in his chair.

I expect him to give me a lecture on nutrition or write a script to ease the pain but instead he looks at me intently then asks if I have heard of old married couples who have been together their whole adult lives, only to have one die then the other follow a short time later.

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I nod – yes, I have heard of that happening. “It is possible to die from a broken heart” he says. “You are letting yourself die.” Suddenly I want to cry. He understands the pain of loss is so great I don’t want to be around anymore.

But at that moment I have an epiphany – I realise my love for Robert is killing me, and if love is so powerful it can kill you, then that is also the sort of love worth living for. As I rise from my chair in the doctor’s surgery, I resolve to turn my face to the sun, and try and carry on.

I discover the walk through grief is a faith journey. Some days it feels like I could drown in my own well of sorrow, whilst others are easier. It is the unswerving support of those closest that props me up on the difficult days, until eventually the ache becomes less and life becomes more bearable.

My mother quotes prophet Khalil Gibran’s words, counseling me “Your sorrow is your joy unmasked… How else can it be? The deeper the sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” I realise great sadness also provides an opportunity for greater happiness, and one is simply the flip side of the other.

I continue my trek, navigating my way towards the things I know will make me better. I devote myself to the creative life; I draw, I write, I travel.

I read ‘Walden’, leave my corporate job, purchase an around the world air ticket, and then another. I reside in Paris, New York, LA and Prague.

I display my art in Manhattan, have my writing published and move into the woods. Like Thoreau, I live deeply and deliberately, sucking the marrow out of life.

Many years have passed since my goodbye to Robert. Throughout that time there have been torrents of tears and the repeated question ‘why?’

But also, I learned Gibran’s words were true, and loss makes way for a deeper appreciation of life’s blessings. I discovered whilst Robert’s passing remains tragic, there have been many gifts along with it including the steadfast supply of love from my family and friends.

Since standing at the foot of Robert’s grave I have travelled the world, chased my dreams and taken flight. I now have two shining children; these days life is full and bright.

And yet, still, when I see the first yellow flowers of spring bursting with their brilliant colour, I silently pay homage to my friend, grateful for their reminder of how tenuous life can be. I thank God for the miracle of love, for it’s fragility and the importance of celebrating each and every day.

Vanessa Waters is a writer. She lives by the beach in Sydney with her husband, daughter and son.

If you or a loved one need to talk to someone, please consider calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.

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