Essay by Valerie Bunce, “Denial”, Art by A.J. Springer 



He jumped off the terrace of his condo in Washington, DC and fell twelve stories to the pavement below. He died instantly–or so I was told.  “He” was my husband, John. We were not living together at the time.  I had left him for another man. A divorce was on the horizon.

While the death of someone you love is always painful, suicide is in a category by itself.  Like many deaths, suicide feels sudden.  But this is where the resemblance ends. Most deaths are easy to explain.  They have causes and effects.  They result from bad luck, whether in the form of disease, old age, an accident or a murder. When in doubt, an autopsy can be conducted. Most deaths, in short, make sense.

Suicide doesn’t.  It is a senseless act that muddies the distinction between culprit and victim.  This kind of death does not “happen” to people for reasons everyone can readily identify.  Instead, the causes of suicide are shrouded in mystery, and the only person in a good position to solve that mystery has made a choice to remain forever silent.  

Those close to the person who committed suicide—and even those more distant—are driven to come up with theories about why it happened.  It is their way of trying to close the uncomfortable gap between a death that makes sense and a death that does not. It is their way of “normalizing” suicide.  It is a way to remove the fear that they or others might kill themselves. Normalization also helps them move on. 

Fashioning an explanation for suicide does not work for all people.  It never worked for me, no matter how many stories I told myself about why John ended his life. No theory was up to the task of making the inexplicable “explicable.” 

As with most deaths, there is the shock of subtraction.  What we all thought was a constant presence in our lives has vanished. What remains is loneliness, sadness and often regret. But these feelings capture only a part of suicide’s aftermath. There is also rage. I kept asking: how could John do such a terrible thing to himself? More selfishly—how could he do such a terrible thing to me? 

Then there is guilt—about being angry at John for killing himself and about feeling responsible for his death. My closest friends rushed in to reassure me that it was John’s choice, not my actions, that ended his life. I did not believe them, but I loved them for saying that.  I was so lucky to have such people around me—and I still am. Relationships forged through tragedy are special.  They are unlike any other. 

But some people who knew John did blame me for his death. They coded me as the culprit and John as the victim. I wanted to disagree, I wanted to embrace a line from a Latin American novel that a friend had sent me after John died.  “You must have the courage to be misunderstood.” But most of the time I agreed with their allegations. Their logic was inescapable: John was alive (and appeared quite happy) when we were together, but he killed himself after I left him. Ergo…

Many of these people never spoke to me again.  Sometimes they confided their “position” to me, and that was that.  Our relationship was over. Other times, they relied on actions to signal their theories of what happened.  They would pretend not to see me, even if we were in the same room or, if I were walking their way, they would switch directions or cross the street.

Then there was the man who confided to me years after the suicide that he had struggled hard to find a way to forgive me and he had finally succeeded. I think he wanted me to congratulate him on his remarkable achievement. After all, not everyone can forgive a murderess. But I could not respond the way he expected.  I did not nod, summon a look of empathy in my eyes, reach out to touch him or say thank-you. I might have been able to play that role, if he had approached me with the same sentiments right after John died. At that time, I was walking around in a trance.  I was desperate to hold on to whatever friends I had, and I was also desperate to be forgiven. In addition, I was terrified of doing anything that upset people. I had gotten it in my head that, when you hurt people, they kill themselves. 

But when he boasted (the best description for his tone) all those years later that he had at last forgiven me, I just stared at him, said nothing and walked away. The responsibility he had long attributed to me I had also, sometimes more and sometimes less, attributed to myself. I did not need to be reminded. He could keep his personal struggles and his half-baked theories to himself. 


John killed himself more than forty years ago. I never got over his suicide, but I also never wrote about it—until now.  Why now? The simple answer: I am moving.  I recently sold my sprawling, nineteenth century house, which presides over a forest, lush gardens my husband, son and I built and several waterfalls, and moved into a postwar, nondescript, cramped house situated on a flat lot that boasts a lot of grass but little else. I have traded down—a stately Queen Anne for a house best described as neo-Levittown. 

What possessed me to go down-market?  It wasn’t a lack of money.  Rather, much to my shock, I have arrived at the downsizing stage of life.  I have no idea where all the years went.  But I also never believed I would get too old for a house I loved. I have said for years—I am getting old.  The reality is: I am old. It is like the distinction between saying you feel guilty and saying you are guilty. The first creates some reassuring distance, and the second takes it away. You own the fact and the feeling.

I thought aging out of a house and a lifestyle was something that happened to other people. I have become one of those “other people.”  I lived big for many decades, with a big career and a big house to go with it.  I am now retired, living a much smaller life in a much smaller house. I don’t travel as much as I used to.  I am less likely to make new acquaintances. My life has started to shrink–as has my body. I am almost two inches shorter than I used to be.

Preparation of my Queen Anne for sale was no joke.  A house that is 175 years old, no matter how well- kept-up, needs a lot of work if it is to succeed in luring some naïve, suburban-raised couple into believing they want to take it on. The other challenge was that my husband and I had lived in this house for 32 years—the longest we had ever lived in one house, either separately or together.  Our son grew up there. We did an excellent job during those three decades of filling up the entire house, with its three floors, six bedrooms, three and one-half baths, assorted extra rooms and six walk-in closets. By “filling up,” I am referring to an abundance of both stuff and memories.

After being on the market for several weeks, our house sold. Then we had to confront a much more daunting project.  We could no longer dabble in downsizing; we had to get serious about it and rid ourselves of about two-thirds of everything we owned.  

Moving is always a challenging experience, both physically and psychologically.  It requires obsessive attention to detail, punctuated by unanticipated trips to the past and equally unexpected worries and flights of fantasy about the future. But the difficulties of past moves have usually been offset by some decided positives—bigger and better houses, discovery of long misplaced and treasured items, and the prospect of exciting changes in my personal and professional life. 

This move has been different.  I am moving from more to less. Contrary to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s comment about modern architecture, in the case of my move, less is, well, just that–less.  I have less house, less stuff in that house, less land, and less career. My world is shrinking in anticipation of what is likely to be my final move. 

Death, in short, is very much on my mind.  The new house feels like a bridge connecting my past to the one aspect of my future that I can safely predict.  Because the house is small and the transition to living in it has been so fraught, I feel unusually close to my immediate surroundings.  When my son was a young child, he was obsessed with crawling insects.  I was amazed at the details he noticed about them, but then I realized.  He is small; he is much closer to the ground than I am.  He sees things I don’t see.

My ground is the life I have lived. While sorting through all my belongings, I kept unearthing the physical record of John’s suicide, our life together and my struggle to reconstruct my life after his death.  To use a cliché of our time: downsizing forced me to “own” my past.   If only I could have hired someone to remove all the “john stuff” from my house, place it in a storage locker, and wait for me to ask for the key!  Of course, this is pure fantasy.  John took up a lot more of my house (and my life) than I wanted to remember. As I excavated my belongings, John kept popping up, usually unexpectedly, in all kinds of places—on bookshelves and in boxes and drawers. He ambushed me by sprinkling pictures, letters and keepsakes throughout my house.  He may have died, but he did not disappear.

But it is not just the memories of John, our life together and his death that this move has uncovered.  Downsizing at this stage of life is a relentless assault on the past.  It has forced me to take stock of my life.  I am at peace with most of it, but I was repeatedly reminded of some unfinished business.  I still didn’t know why John committed suicide and, therefore, how responsible I was for his death.

After the Move   

Once I moved, however, I began to realize that the unfinished business of my life was more finished than I had thought. The months of immersing myself in painful memories, writing about what happened all those decades ago and holding long-delayed, difficult conversations with friends who were then and still are by my side had an unexpected consequence. By avoiding going back to the past, I was stuck in it.  I didn’t realize—until the move—that my feelings about John’s suicide had evolved over the decades.  

I will never know why John killed himself or how responsible I am for what happened.  The key word in that sentence is never.  





Until she retired from Cornell University four years ago, Valerie Bunce was a political scientist, specializing  in the rise and fall of authoritarianism and democracy in Europe’s eastern half. She is now experimenting with other topics and types of writing. She is engaged in three projects: American fascination with the Soviet experiment in its early years (“Communist Curious”); a memoir of serving, much to her shock, as her sister’s caregiver (“Weird Sister”); and a personal essay about downsizing and moving late in life as an unplanned confrontation with life’s unfinished business (“A Moving Story”). 



A.J. Springer (b.1993, New York) is a multimedia artist who combines drawing, collage, painting, and printmaking to create immersive complex collages. Her work has been shown both nationally and internationally in exhibitions and fairs such as Galeria Taller La Maquina, Oaxaca, Mexico (2023), The Other Art Fair, NY (2021-2023) Miami Art Basel (2019, 2018, 2017, 2014), Monmouth Museum, NJ (2018), 21 Gallery in Cologne, Germany (2017), Seoul Museum of Art, South Korea (2017) and IPCNA Cultural Museum in Lima, Peru (2016). She currently resides and continues her practice as an artist in Brooklyn, NY.