Ten years ago, my best friend Matt Wildbore died.
I first met him when I interviewed him for a TV show I was working on called Queer Nation. He was a doctor based in central Auckland and had many patients in the gay community. Being gay himself, he was able to understand the needs of those within our community.
We got on very well, and our friendship developed over a number of years. The apartment he lived in at the time was 50 metres down the road from my place. It had huge picture windows that looked down on Myers Park, and we would often sit by them talking about personal things or the latest tech or world issues. Our conversations were always punctuated with laughter and silliness.
The thing I loved most about him is that he could talk about anything, be it serious or frivolous. We could confide to one another things we wouldn’t share with other people. There was never any judgement on either side – we might challenge or question one another but it was always done in a loving way that never involved making each other feel bad or wrong.
Everyone who knew Matt thought he was wonderful. He had a wicked and sharp sense of humour and a towering intellect. He was incredibly kind and generous. He was also obsessed with technology and gadgets and was an early adopter of electronic devices. His apartment was full of both useful and decorative pieces of tech and he had a childlike delight in turning on various electronic ornaments that would glow, light up and spin
Unfortunately, despite all the positive sides to his life, Matt was often crippled by depression. It was something he had battled most of his life. He had been sent to boarding school as a young man and suffered horrendous bullying. He had therapy for many years, and though at times he would gain great insight and clarity about his demons he would often relapse into darker feelings.
As time went on, he would often withdraw from all of us. He wouldn’t answer his phone and even though I lived just 50 metres from him, he would ignore my knocking when he was at his worst. Sometimes the next day I’d get an apologetic text and when he was feeling better we’d talk it through.
Although depression can have many causes, Matt’s work environment was not helping him. He was under huge stress and, as we found out later was also being bullied and undermined by a staff member.
In the few weeks leading up to his death, Matt had made some big life decisions. He’d quit his job and was looking forward to a new chapter. I am still not one hundred per cent sure of the details of his final day, but while he was at work that day, an incident occurred between him and the staff member who had been giving him grief. He left the office in a hurry, drove home, and took his own life.
Later that day my husband and I decided to go for a walk. As we were passing the car park in front of Matt’s place we noticed police cars and officers standing about. The door to his apartment was open, and we assumed he had been robbed. I approached a cop and said I knew the occupant, he replied by telling me Matt was dead.
I felt as though I’d been punched in the stomach. I don’t really remember the conversation after that. My husband carried on talking to the cop but I excused myself and walked home gasping for breath.
Our flatmate was home and had heard me as I arrived at the house. He sat with me for an hour as I slowly calmed down and began talking. That day seems blurred now. I remember calling a couple of people and in particular Margaret and Sandy, two of his and our closest friends in Spain. It was the hardest conversation I have ever had. The cop had said not to tell anyone about Matt’s death. They initially thought it had been a homicide, but I had to call Sandy and Margaret as they too had a deep connection to Matt.
Over the following days, Matt’s body lay in an open casket at the home of his good friend and fellow doctor Mike Pohl. We visited every day and met so many people whose lives had been touched by Matt. They ranged from ex-patients to friends and family. It was an extraordinary time and very emotional.
What seems odd looking back is that though I was feeling the most intense grief I had ever felt, I also had never felt so alive. Every moment seemed significant and I was keenly aware of everything around me. There were one or two people I saw over that time who I really didn’t like, yet I felt incredible compassion towards them.
My husband Te Miha was incredibly supportive during this time, and it deepened my love of him. He and I took Matt’s coffin down to Rotorua in the back of Te Miha’s ute. Matt had been into leather so we both dressed in leather pants and jackets as a kind of honour guard. On the road we passed a safety billboard that read: “Grieving for your dead passenger? Slow down.” For the first time in days, we laughed out loud.
His funeral in Rotorua was incredibly sad. His family was devastated, and his elderly parents seemed to be overwhelmed by it all. Many people got up to speak, and I really wanted to as well, but I just couldn’t. There were too many things I wanted to say but couldn’t form them into a cohesive whole. I also felt that I didn’t want to share my personal grief with a room full of strangers.
The next six months were not so good. Once the intensity of grief subsided I felt flat and miserable. I was working with some nice people, but the work I was doing didn’t excite me at all and I felt completely disconnected from it. Day to day office dramas and outside happenings no longer seemed important.
Slowly though things got better.
Losing Matt was the worst day of my life. To me, he was a brother and friend in a deep and intimate way, and to this day, I have never been able to replace him. I did, however, come to terms with it. My grief process proved to me that I can love and that I do have deep and intense feelings. That may seem an odd thing to write, but it is something I have wondered all my life – am I truly capable of loving someone?
Grief is awful, but it is also incredibly selfless. It showed me the value of Matt’s life, and even though I was the one feeling the emotions, they were about someone else. It showed me that his life had incredible value and meaning.
I have never been angry with him about taking his own life. As a witness to his long battle with depression, I understood the pain he was in.
In grieving for him, it brought me closer to my husband and my friends. I learned the importance of admitting when things are getting too much.
The tragedy of Matt’s depression and his death was that he could not acknowledge what an incredible person he was, how talented he was, and how loved he was. I once told him how much I valued and loved him. He replied by saying he didn’t believe me because he couldn’t see how anyone could.
In some ways, it is hard to fathom how he could feel this way when so many people loved him and were in awe of him. But that is the nature of depression, and it is something that many of us grapple with in our own lives.
In losing someone who I valued so highly, I have been reminded of the importance of being grateful, of asking for help when I need it, and of connecting deeply with those I love. To be honest though, that is not an easy thing to do.
Ten years after his death, I am grateful I had the privilege of being able to spend time with one of the most beautiful human beings I have ever known.
If in reading this, you feel the need to reach out to someone, you may find the following agencies helpful.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP)
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Healthline – 0800 611 116
Samaritans – 0800 726 666
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 (to talk to a trained counsellor about how you are feeling or to ask any questions)
www.depression.org.nz – includes The Journal online help service
SPARX.org.nz – online e-therapy tool provided by the University of Auckland that helps young people learn skills to deal with feeling down, depressed or stressed
Sexuality or gender identity helpline
OUTLine NZ – 0800 688 5463 (OUTLINE) provides confidential telephone support