I would like to tell you a little about our son David. Eight years ago, we sent him off to college—Harvard, to be exact. Three years later he came back in a coffin, a victim of suicide. It was a shocking, violent, unspeakable tragedy. The pain was unbearable. I do not know why David chose to die and I don't know if there was anything I could have done to stop him, but I do know that he was so much more than that last desperate act he took.
I remember him at 2, toddling around the house with one eye shut and a plastic coffee scoop sticking out of the corner of his mouth, speaking perfect Popeye. By 3 he had totally transformed himself into Superman and flew around town in a set of special underwear with my old red slip slung across his shoulders for a cape. Everything he did made me and my husband and his two big sisters happy and proud. We celebrated each Little League base hit, Pop Warner tackle, trumpet solo, good deed, good grade and new superhero disguise. He was the coolest kid—extremely smart, exceptionally kind and exceedingly quirky. I think his favorite day in all of high school was when he decided one morning to comb out the long dreadlocks he had been wearing for a year and stroll through the halls of Evanston High with the biggest Afro anyone of any race had ever seen. He had unforgettable hair.
From the time he was little, he was admired and respected by everyone who knew him. They were awed by his big brain but comforted by his laid-back attitude and easy smile. By his junior year at Harvard, however, he was very down on himself. He had already taken some time off and felt he had lost his focus. He must have been struggling with a major depression, which he masked all too well. He still attended all his classes, got good grades and socialized. We encouraged him to see a counselor at school, go easy on himself and hang in there. Things would get better. It seemed that they were. Then early Sunday morning, March 15, 1998, we got a call from a Massachusetts organ-donation organization asking for permission to use his organs. That is how we found out David was dead. No one from the school had contacted us.
By his junior year at Harvard, however, he was very down on himself. He must have been struggling with a major depression, which he masked all too well."
We knew if we ever wanted to heal, we needed to forgive David and forgive ourselves. We have had a more difficult time forgiving Harvard. We know that ultimately David was responsible for his death, but we believe school administrators could have done more to prevent it. When David returned to school that final semester, my husband contacted his resident adviser and told him that we were concerned about our son. But we were never made aware of any system to help us monitor David in conjunction with his counselor or the RA. Like most parents, we had no experience dealing with these serious emotional issues. We needed school officials, who had surely dealt with other troubled students, to guide us.
The process of educating parents and students about depression could start even before the first day of class. You know those packets that students receive before they leave for school? The ones filled with information sheets on where to go and what to do on campus? I would like schools to include two refrigerator magnets in these packets. One would be for the family at home and one for the student at school. Listed on the magnets would be some signs of depression, as well as a few names and numbers you could call for help. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, some of these symptoms are sadness, hopelessness, fatigue, irritability, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, feelings of worthlessness and lack of concentration. Why use something as ordinary as a refrigerator magnet? I believe that there is such a stigma about mental illness that we need to do whatever we can to educate people about this issue.
We have all experienced periods of sadness or depression. No student should feel ashamed of not being able to cope with these feelings. No parent should be unaware of the emotional perils in this stage of a young person's life.
The families of those who die by suicide have a tough road. We have to learn to live with broken hearts. Waves of guilt and sadness will wash over us for the rest of our lives. We have so many questions that will never be answered. We need to do everything we can to help ourselves carry on. We gather together in support groups. We study the literature of suffering and loss. Ultimately, we have no choice but to accept an unacceptable outcome.
Schools do have a choice. They can reach out to students and families and offer them options and hope. Suicide is such a catastrophe, and leaves so much suffering in its wake, that anything is worth trying. If only they will.
Okrent lives in Evanston, Ill. She is a member of AFSP and L.O.S.S. and is a survivor support group facilitator.
From Newsweek magazine, 5/26/03. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.