(Back in September, the world lost a social media giant and I lost a dear friend. This was the public eulogy read around the world. -Ed.)
UPDATED: I live in Wales atop the Glamorgan Heritage Coast’s sand and limestone cliffs. It sits alongside the widest part of the Severn River dividing Southern England and Wales opening into the Irish Sea. Along with the world’s 2nd highest tidal swing it is home to incredible cliff and rocky beach walks. My friend Trey Pennington and I excitedly planned to walk this rugged terrain together during his planned return visit in November. Alas, on Sunday, Trey shocked the social media world by taking his life beneath a tree in Greenville, SC.
From Southerndown Beach, I headed out on a 3-mile hike that afternoon. Unbeknownst to me, my friend and teacher was also outdoors, sitting with a gun in his hand in front of his church 4,000 miles away in Greenville, South Carolina. I know the exact moment he ended his life, because although there had been a light steady rain throughout the hike, a super cell’s dark as night cloud quickly formed off my right shoulder and raced ashore over my head dumping a torrent of rain and 50 mph winds that caused me to cling to the cliff’s face for shelter.
A look later at the UK Met Office radar loop showed one tiny bright red super cell in an otherwise normal line of steady showers, passing over the coast I’d just hiked a few hours earlier. It appeared and disappeared in an instant drenching me. Later, when I received word of Trey’s passing and calculated the time, it was the moment of his turbulent farewell made manifest.
His suicide hit me especially hard because, 13-years earlier, I tried to utilise the same exit strategy when the then love of my life left me. I sat in my SUV with exhaust coming into the cab through a garden hose. I don’t know how I survived, but I did. And this storm of Trey’s passing was yet another reminder.
I put my journalist’s hat on that evening looking for clues as to why? Trey was the nicest, seemingly most centred and normal guy you would ever want to meet. He was a true listener. Having known President Clinton as a campaigner he and Trey possessed the same gift, an ability to listen to another person with one’s entire being to make you feel as if you are the only other person in the room. Trey never politely waited for his turn to talk, he took it in… ALL OF IT. He was genuinely curious of everything and everyone around him and that search for ALL the answers even the unexplainable, may have been what ultimately ended him.
Sadly, my search did not take long. As meticulously as Trey worked to make everyone feel comfortable, he left a trail of commentary and clues on photos that showed him quietly dying a little bit each day, all alone, in the front of many a crowded room. Simply, this I know clearly, when the love of your life leaves you, there is NO consolation. Sadly, too few knew his plight. As he spent 11-weeks trying to make sense of it, he was despairing and dying long before finally pulling the trigger.
I was talking with a colleague who’d met Trey in Cardiff and he asked how the people around him could not have known. When I said quietly, “Chris, we’re in business together but what do I really know about you and your family? I know nothing about your home life despite having been in your home. We are essentially strangers. We practice social media for part of our living, yet do precious little to reveal ourselves to one another.” I was stunned to read about our mutual friend Nick Tadd’s blog on his fight with depression. And then with so many going through profound personal and professional difficulties in this economy? I’m surprised we don’t read of more incidents like Trey’s.
Who knows? I know I blamed myself yesterday for not checking in and seeing his posts that day. Maybe I could have raised an alarm. But then isn’t that the height of ego? Don’t we all feel “if only we’d had a few more moments, we could have jumped in and saved him.” Or… “He would have listened to me.”
In Trey’s case would a little more revealing have helped? His self-portrait photo the night before in Starbucks revealed a shocking, almost skeletal looking ‘man already dead’ before he pulled the trigger, staring off into space, yet dutifully Tweeting and posting updates to us all until the very end.
Most looked at a 50 lbs weight loss and marvelled at his regimen and discipline. But it’s now clear he just stopped eating and caring for himself once the love of his life was gone. Love is so powerful. It’s loss devastating.
As the great Persian poet Rumi wrote:
“The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they’re given wings.”
Before being given his wings, Trey dutifully left many forensic clues in his photo album and postings. After six children and a grandchild, a hugely successful career, he just did not know how to react to losing a marriage of 28-years to another so close by. And none of us, his ‘friends,’ knew of his pain either.
My Australians mates call depression the ‘black dog.’ It is an appropriate term. But in Trey’s case it was so much more. He was trying to mend a broken heart and live again. And when he couldn’t, the downward spiral was too deep and quick for even this most experienced of pilots to pull out of. This too, I know.
I woke this morning with this Bee Gees tune repeating in my head. Nothing would make it leave until now, finishing this article… because… a writer writes.
“I can think of younger days
when living for my life
was everything a man could want to do.
I could never see tomorrow,
but I was never told about the sorrow.
Please help me mend my broken heart and let me live again.”
-The Bee Gees
Dear Trey, always teaching us, even in the end. You have shown us the importance of making sure when we ask someone “how they are doing,” that we really check to be sure we know the answer. It could be that critical.
Rest now, friend.
07/09/11, following Trey Pennington’s Memorial Service in Greenville, WYFF Channel 4 reposted a story with video here. They had initially posted and removed an earlier story because their policy is not to do stories about suicide. The global reaction to Pennington’s death caused them to waive this policy in this instance.
(Coincidence this was also recorded 13 years ago and two members of the group are also gone? As coincidental as that super cell’s sudden appearance, as in no… none.)