A Private Loss

Every morning this week there was a reason to weep. Of course, every week, every day, somewhere, there are a million reasons to weep. But this week we saw the deaths of David Bowie and Alan Rickman, and a tragic, personal loss in my circle of friends.

I cried a lot for Bowie, for his boldness and thoughtfulness, recklessness and wisdom — such a rare combination. And for his music: more than a dozen of his songs are in the soundtrack of my life. I pored over videos of his performances and interviews, read articles, looked at photos from his remarkable career. I even dreamed about him. I shared eulogies, sad emojis, and videos on Facebook. Heroes and Let’s Dance shuffled on my inner radio, the one I can’t turn off.

Two days after Bowie there was news of actor Alan Rickman’s death. Another artist gone. Everyone was saying that both were “taken from us.” But as I became aware that a friend’s daughter had died on the same day as Rickman, all public mourning was eclipsed by a private tragedy.

Charlotte was the fifteen year-old daughter of my friend Barney Miller, a musician and film editor in NYC. Reading Barney’s initial Facebook posts, I didn’t immediately understand that her death was by suicide. It sent me, and all of Barney’s cyber friends, into despair.

There is a photo portrait of Charlotte that her mother, Caitlin, took last summer. She is dressed in a navy blue English riding show coat, a white show shirt, and a Charles Owen helmet. She is holding a red ribbon in her black-gloved right hand, in front of what I imagine is a happy smile. Maybe she is squeezing her smile behind her lips. Her dark eyes snap directly at the camera. I love this photo, I relate to it. I was that girl once. I’ve known many girls like that since, girls who bloom in the company of horses and become strong and sensitive like them.

Charlotte Miller

When Barney first posted the photo I commented, “Well she certainly has the equine ‘virus’. Good to see her wearing the Charles Owen. PS she may never recover!” I was confident in my long-held opinion that horses can teach us to cope, help us grow up, even save us. But now I want to take back my comment. Instead of never recovering from a love for horses, a love so much like a virus that stays in the blood for life, Charlotte will not recover at all. She will never bloom in that way, or maybe she never found enough solace in a horse’s warm breath, tempered strength and generosity, in anything, to spare herself. I see no hint in the photo of the distress that drove her but it seems no one could save her.

Public and private loss. I know that private loss happens all the time, everywhere. All the time. Every day there is a reason to weep. Death reaches in, overwhelms. No one escapes, no one is immune. My own losses compound as I age and I have to find a way to balance them with beauty, memory, and hope. It’s hard.

Years ago I had a personal loss in the midst of a public tragedy. On April 18, 1995, my father died one day after the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. He succumbed ten days after being hospitalized for a head injury due to a fall. His health had been compromised from radiation and chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer metastasized to the brain. Like Bowie and Rickman, he was just sixty-nine years old. Meanwhile, the airwaves were flooded with video, photos, and interviews expressing outrage, grief, and analysis. One hundred sixty-eight died in the explosion in Oklahoma City, including nineteen children, and more than more than six hundred eighty were injured. This pre-9/11 tragedy, a homegrown terrorist attack, was inescapable and distracting, forcing my grieving family into a silent, altered universe of private grief set apart from the rest of our culture. I looked for connection and meaning everywhere, anywhere.

I found it in the hot summer of 2000 when I visited the memorial at the site of the Oklahoma City bombing while I was playing gigs nearby. In some ways this was the most important event of that tour. As always, while I sang and played my songs, I felt the familiar longing for connection, and its partner, skepticism about ever finding it. But it wasn’t until I visited the memorial site that I made the connection. I spoke with one of the uniformed docents, who stood respectfully nearby as visitors walked the grounds. She was dark haired and trim, in her 20s, hands loosely clasped behind her back in a show of deference. I told her my story. We walked together a bit and stopped to look at the empty chairs. I wrote Sunny Day in Terre Haute after that experience.

Charlotte’s death only touches me on an angle, but it is so harsh, so loud, much louder than Bowie’s and Rickman’s, louder than whatever personal drama I was playing in the days before it. It stirs up the deaths of my husband Eric, my father, my cousin Billy (suicide), my beloved horse, Shady. I look at Charlotte in her show clothes, proudly holding her red ribbon. I grieve for Barney, Caitlin, and Charlotte’s sister, for Charlotte’s friends. I grieve for families who have lost teenaged children to suicide, children who were truly and unspeakably taken from them. I will admit that I grieve for myself. And for Charlotte, because inside me, what hurts the most is that nothing could save her. Not even horses.


Charlotte’s family have created a Suicide Prevention charity in her name.

Photo © Caitlin Felton