I had been having a conversation in my head with David Schwimmer, who played Ross on the TV show “Friends,” for more than 10 years. When I found out he was going to be speaking at a conference I could plausibly convince my boss to send me to, I wondered if this might finally be my chance to have that conversation in real life.
Without giving it enough thought, I registered for the conference and booked my flight from Boston to New York. It wasn’t until I found myself there several weeks later that the panic set in. In my head, David Schwimmer always said exactly the right thing. What if a real-life conversation didn’t measure up? Was it worth the risk? As strange as it sounds, there was a lot at stake.
My father’s younger sister Gail was a comedy division manager at NBC, where she worked with the casts of “Friends,” “Will and Grace,” “Blossom” and other shows. When she died by suicide at 39 in November 1999, an episode of “Friends” was dedicated to her. Because she died before the internet was a part of our daily lives, this dedication is one of the first things that comes up when you search for her name, her whole life distilled into one question: “Who was Gail Joseph on ‘Friends’?”
The answer is almost always wrong.
The episode is called “The One With Ross’s Teeth,” in which Ross over-whitens his teeth and ends up on a date with a woman who has a black light. When the lights go out and the black light comes on, his teeth practically illuminate the room.
I always thought it would have made my aunt laugh. Though she worked with many celebrities, her friends told me she had a special affinity for David Schwimmer. She even named one of her cats Rupert because apparently David would use that first name when checking into hotels. Hence my yearslong inner dialogue with a famous actor I had never met.
As a child growing up in eastern Pennsylvania, I considered my aunt to be the coolest adult I knew. When we visited her in Hollywood, everything we did together was brighter and sillier than anything else in my childhood. She was simply larger than life and, in her presence, I felt bigger and more important too.
My aunt loved purple and had an apartment full of purple things. When Wayne Newton visited her office at NBC, he would wear a purple jacket. Gail anticipated stardom for George Clooney after seeing him play a plastics factory foreman on “Roseanne.”
In her last few years, she began to distance herself from my otherwise tightknit family, angry about something I didn’t understand. About 18 months before she died, I called her and begged her to be part of our family again. She said she couldn’t. It was the last time we ever spoke.
From my vantage point, at 16, everything in her life seemed so exciting and glamorous. How could suicide feel like her only option?
Because it was too hard to understand the complicated factors that led to her death, the only “why” that made sense to me — as someone who adored her and felt adored in return — was that I must not have been good enough, that she must not have loved me enough. I replayed our last conversation over and over, trying to write a different ending. But no matter what I said, she still died. Believing that I was bad and unworthy of love shaped the next two decades of my life.
I searched for answers everywhere. I was the only college freshman I knew with a private investigator. I got access to the police file from the day she died and then spent years trying to forget what I saw in it. I took a trip to California to meet her friends. I look so much like her that for them it was like seeing a ghost.
A few years ago, I even tried “past-life regression” led by a close friend, Elana, who is a practitioner. The idea is that in a state of hypnosis, you can connect with former lives and visit the world in-between lives. Some people believe that world is like heaven, where lost loved ones can be found.
I was skeptical of the idea that our souls have lived past lives, but my friend explained that I didn’t have to believe in it to have a meaningful experience. I could think of it as connecting with my own inner wisdom.
I closed my eyes and tried to relax as she quietly counted down. Much to my surprise, I was soon seeing myself in a body I didn’t recognize, in a place I had never been, speaking a language I didn’t know. I watched that person (me?) die, and my soul made its way to the in-between world. And there Gail was, exactly like I remembered her.
“Why?” I asked.
She looked at me for a long time. “There is no why,” she eventually replied.
And that was it. I was back in my living room, listening to Elana’s gentle voice as she welcomed me back into consciousness. I still don’t know what happened in that room, but it left me with a profound piece of wisdom.
There is no why.
Having thought a lot about what that means, I now believe the lesson is not that there is no why but that there is no why that would ever be a good enough reason for her death. So my only choice was to stop asking. My aunt, or maybe just my subconscious, was offering me a lifeline, a way out of the prison I had built out of guilt and shame. All I had to do was take it.
One of the saddest things for suicide loss survivors is that their loved one’s life is often defined by their death — that one moment overshadows everything else. Once I stopped asking why, I had room for other questions. Who was she? What impact did she have? Who still remembered her?
This is where David Schwimmer came in. In my head, this is how our conversation always went:
I say, “Hi David, you worked with my aunt, Gail Joseph, a long time ago.”
David says, “I remember Gail, she did such a great job and we all really loved her.”
Even though it wasn’t real, his words meant so much to me because I needed to believe that she was loved and good at the job she cared so much about.
What if I worked up the nerve to talk to David and he said, “I don’t remember,” or what if I didn’t get to talk to him at all?
These fears had left me a sobbing mess in my hotel room. I called my best friend, Sarah, and told her I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t risk the dream. After a few deep breaths, we agreed that I was going to put on my big girl pants and go downstairs, because not trying would be the worst outcome.
I stood in the back while he spoke, hoping to catch him when he exited, but after his speech, he sat down to listen to the next speaker. When that ended, I made a beeline for David before I could lose my nerve, but some man got there first. When they finally stopped talking, David tried to sit back down, and that’s when I stepped up and said, “Hi David, I’m Samantha. You worked with my aunt, Gail Joseph, a long time ago.”
He smiled and said, “Of course, I remember Gail. She was great. We really loved her.” Putting his hand to his heart, he added, “She felt like family. Thank you for giving me the chance to think about her.”
I did a lot more crying later that evening.
My aunt did not to live to see her 40th birthday. Over the past year, this thought has been with me as I approached 40, having to find a way to survive the surreal and painful experience of living longer than she ever would.
I spent the last 20 years asking why she took her life, trying to heal the part of myself that broke when she died. Then I searched to understand who she was.
Now it’s time to find out who I am. To make the most of each new day I have. To bring purpose to my loss and grief. To love other people and to know they love me back. To love myself. To live, for both of us.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.