Twenty years ago, not only Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died. A few days before, my childhood friend Nathalie had been killed in a car accident. I remember watching endless reports about Diana and Dodi’s fatal crash thinking about Nathalie. She was the first to go…the first one of my generation.
Since 1997, a lot of others have followed her. A brain tumor, a mysterious death, a heart attack and a couple of suicides and accidents. The first cut is the deepest. I am an only child and Nathalie was the closest I ever had to a sister. The circumstances of her death are still haunting me. I was working in Brazil when she was killed. Before moving to Rio de Janeiro, we went out with some other people. She told me about a friend of hers who had organized a huge party, apparently without reason and died in an accident a few days afterwards. Nathalie said: “I think she knew she was leaving somehow and this was her farewell.” I remember answering that I expected her to say goodbye to me, too. She smilingly replied: “Of course, I will.” Those were the last words we ever exchanged, in a discotheque in Vienna. We lost each other in the crowd right afterwards. She was supposed to travel to Brazil and meet me there, but it never happened. One night, she was bar-hopping with friends and tried to call someone from a public call box (mobiles were not so common in 1997) to discuss the next stop. She was hit by a car when she crossed the street. The driver was speeding. Her purse got caught and…well, you can imagine. Nathalie died right there and then. She was 24 years old.
Six years ago, another friend of mine died. S. committed suicide. I had known her for nearly twenty years. Life had not been easy for her. S. was ambitious and intelligent. Although she accomplished a lot, she was afflicted by crippling self-doubt. S. experienced difficult times in her mid-twenties. Nevertheless, she finished her studies, found a job she could identify with, she was politically active and fell in love. Regrettably she remained emotionally unstable. The question whether S. could have been saved is still nagging me.
Why? I will try to explain. I haven’t changed my sentences about Nathalie once ever since I wrote them. But I am re-writing the paragraph about S. all the time. I used her full name in the beginning. I hesitated and decided to write “emotionally unstable” instead of “mentally unstable”. I wondered how her former boyfriend would feel if he read the sentences. S. was an incredible person. Would she have committed suicide if mental illness had not been such a taboo?
Statistics show that admitting to a mental health condition is extremely difficult. People are more reluctant to talk about it than about being gay, for example. And unfortunately, they are right: our society is not as understanding (and informed) as it should be. Diana’s sons William and Harry have started the “Heads Together” campaign to end this stigma. I think it is great that they are raising awareness! It is too late for S., but I hope it will make life easier for others.
Their mother Diana’s death has had an incredible impact on her sons’ lives. Has the death of someone you loved or cared for ever inspired positive change in your life? I know that Nathalie’s death was a turning point for me in many ways. What about you?
By the way, my friend was a medicine student when she died. At the same time, she managed a small coffee house in Vienna. If you want to see photos of Nathalie or meet her French-Belgian mother, visit the Café Freud close to the Sigmund Freud Museum.