Since more than ten years, I've been talking to David Schwimmer who plays Ross in the TV series "Friends." I was excited to learn that he would be speaking at an event I could convince my boss to send to me. I thought this might be the chance for us to finally meet in person.
I booked my flight to New York from Boston without giving it much thought. The panic didn't set in until several weeks after I arrived. In my mind, David Schwimmer said the exact right thing. What if the real-life conversations didn't match up? Was the risk worth it? It was not as easy as it may sound.
Gail, the younger sister of my father, was a manager in NBC's comedy division, working with casts from NBC's 'Friends', 'Will and Grace', 'Blossom,' and others. In November 1999, when she committed suicide at the age of 39, an episode was dedicated to her. This dedication, which was made before the internet became a regular part of our lives, is the first thing that appears when you search her name. Her whole life can be summed up in one question: "Who was Gail Joseph from 'Friends?'
Answers are almost always incorrect.
The episode, titled "The One With Ross’s Teeth," is about Ross who over-whitens and goes on a date to meet a woman with a blacklight. When the lights are turned off and the blacklight is switched on, Ross's teeth almost illuminate the room.
I thought that it would make my aunt laugh. She worked with many celebrities but her friends said she had a particular affinity for David Schwimmer. She named one of her kittens Rupert, because David used that name to check into hotels. My inner dialogue for years with an actor I'd never met was the result.
When I was a kid growing up in eastern Pennsylvania I thought my aunt was the coolest person I knew. Everything we did in Hollywood was more colorful and silly than I remember from my childhood. In her presence, she was larger than life, and I felt even bigger.
My aunt was a huge fan of purple. Her apartment was full of purple items. Wayne Newton would always wear a jacket of purple when he visited her at NBC. Gail predicted George Clooney's stardom after watching him play the plastics factory manager on "Roseanne."
She began to isolate herself from our otherwise close-knit family in her final years. I don't know what she was angry about. Around 18 months before her death, I called and begged for her to join our family once again. She refused. This was the last conversation we had.
I was 16 when she started her journey and everything seemed exciting and glamorous. How could she feel that suicide was her only option at 16?
As someone who loved her and was adored by her, I could not understand all the factors that led up to her death. The only "why" that made any sense to me was that I was not good enough. She must not love me enough. I replayed the last conversation we had, trying to imagine a different conclusion. No matter what I told her, she died. The next 20 years of my life were shaped by the belief that I was unlovable and bad.
I looked for answers in every direction. I was the only freshman in college I knew who had a private investigator. I was able to access the police file the day after she died, and I spent many years trying to forget the contents. I went to California to see her friends. They thought I looked so much alike that it was like they were seeing a ghost.
I tried past-life regression a few years back, led by my friend Elana who is a professional. In a state hypnosis you can visit the world between lives. Some people think that this world is heaven where you can find lost loved ones.
My friend told me that I did not have to believe it in order to have an impactful experience. I thought of it as a way to connect with my inner wisdom.
As she counted quietly down, I tried to relax and close my eyes. To my great surprise, I found myself in a new body, in a foreign place, and speaking a different language. I saw that person (me?) die. My soul made its journey to the world in between. Gail looked exactly as I remembered.
She stared at me for quite some time. She finally replied, "There is no reason."
That's it. Elana's voice welcomed me back to consciousness as I sat in my living-room. I don't remember what happened, but the experience left me with some profound wisdom.
After much thought, I believe that the lesson here is not that she died for no reason but rather that her death was never justified. My only option was to stop questioning. My aunt or perhaps just my subconscious was offering me a chance to escape the prison of guilt and shame I had created. It was up to me to take it.
The suicide of a loved one is often the defining moment in their life. This is sad for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. After I stopped asking "why", I was able to ask other questions. Who was she exactly? What was her impact? Who is still remembering her?
David Schwimmer is the man who can help. This is what I always imagined our conversations to be.
I say: "Hello David, you used to work with my aunt Gail Joseph a long time back."
David says: "I remember Gail. She did a wonderful job, and we all loved her."
It was important to me that I believed she was good and loved for the job she so passionately cared about.
What if David said 'I can't remember', or if he didn't answer my call at all?
I was a mess of tears in my hotel. Sarah, my best friend, was called and I told her that I could not do it. I could not risk losing the dream. We decided that after a few deep breathes I would put on my big girl clothes and go downstairs because the worst thing to do was not try.
After his speech he sat to listen to the speaker next. After the speaker finished, I ran to David, before I lost my nerve. But a man was there first. After they stopped talking, David sat down again. I then stepped in and said "Hello David, I am Samantha." Gail Joseph was my aunt. You must have worked with her a long time back.
He said: "Of course I remember Gail." She was amazing. We loved her. He added, "She felt like family." He placed his hand on his heart. You gave me the opportunity to think of her.
Later that evening, I cried a lot.
My aunt didn't live to celebrate her 40th. This thought has been with my as I approached the age of 40 over the last year. I had to find a surreal way to live longer than she would.
I spent the past 20 years trying to understand why she killed herself, and healing the part of me that was broken when she died. Then I tried to find out who she was.
It's time to discover who I am. Make the most of every day. To give my grief and loss a purpose. To live for us both.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call or text 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.
Samantha Joseph is a senior advisor in the Biden Administration and board chair at Samaritans a non-profit dedicated to suicide prevention.
You can contact Modern Love at EMAIL.
Visit our archive to find older Modern Love essays and Tiny Love Stories, as well as podcast episodes.
Want more Modern Love? Sign up for our newsletter, or listen to our podcasts on iTunes or Spotify. The NYT Store also has swag and two books, titled 'Modern Love: True Stories of Love, Loss, and Redemption' and.