They should have been getting ready to head down to Soldier Field. The Bears and Panthers would kick off the preseason at 7:30 and Chan Stowell, 21, and his dad, Channing, would take their usual seats among tens of thousands of others — all of them eager to flush the memories of the previous year’s humiliations.
It was 5 p.m. and it was a hot day — it felt like almost 90 outside and the rain had just stopped and the phone rang at the top of the basement stairs and Ronnie Walker, Chan’s stepmom, answered.
“Chan’s really done it this time,” her husband said. “He hanged himself.”
Walker thought her husband was speaking in metaphor. “OK, but what did he do?”
“He hanged himself.”
“Yes. But what did he do?”
Her husband explained where Chan’s body was found, and she put down the phone and went into her office and started calling family, and the house filled with people and low conversation and the smell of cold cuts and, in one corner, a muted TV showing the Bears game to a man who could not fathom the day. None of them could.
Ronnie Walker was a licensed clinical therapist when Chan died; she was intimately familiar with his bipolar disorder and his treatment and his symptoms, and yet. “I never in my wildest dreams would have envisioned the outcome,” she said.
People often consider suicide a preventable phenomenon and that’s of course sometimes true: A parent or spouse nudges a gun or pill bottle out of sight at a portentous moment; a loved one or a therapist makes a perfectly timed call after noticing something unusual.
And then there are the more familiar cases — cases in which survivors are left to endlessly retrace the last hours and days and weeks, looking for clues they had missed, collecting them like stones and worrying them smooth.
Even mental health experts are not immune to second-guessing, and they know what most survivors do not: If they were asked which of their clients might attempt suicide, their predictions would barely be more accurate than a stranger’s.
Suicide is a medical anomaly in the U.S. It is the only leading cause of death for which mortality rates have risen since 2005. These days, researchers routinely discover evidence of biomarkers for any number of conditions, characteristics that may help better indicate a patient’s level of risk.
But suicide has so far defied such approaches.
Researchers armed with machine-learning algorithms are sifting through troves of electronic health records, looking for patterns among those who ultimately killed themselves. They’ve found promising signals that could one day alert clinicians to high-risk patients.
Implicit in that possibility, however, is the suggestion that family and friends of those who killed themselves could have done something about it. For Walker, now 22 years removed from Chan’s death, that still stings.
“You couldn’t have been surprised,” one person close to her said after Chan was gone. “You knew he was depressed.”
She knew, too, that he was brilliant and kind and well-loved by friends; he was a fierce skier for Stanford’s team with a boyish smile and curly blond hair; and he could talk philosophy with her endlessly. She also knew he was working with a psychiatrist to get better.
Walker started an online forum for suicide loss survivors after Chan’s death, and found that many face guilt and stigma “from family and friends looking at them and saying, ‘Why didn’t you do what you were supposed to do?’”
Some understand that survivors have enough weight to carry.
Chan had been in Ronnie Walker’s life since he was 10, and he was known to those on the cul de sac where they lived because it was the kind of neighborhood that bordered on extended family.
People strung extension cords across the street during a partial power outage; waves of kids babysat for the younger generation; Betty and Bert Lutton, who lived there for 60 years, and who some of the kids on the block thought of like surrogate grandparents, would walk their beagle in matching clothes.
On the day Chan died, after people finally left, Walker and her husband lay in bed. He wept and she shivered all night. The next morning their doorbell rang at 9 o’clock sharp and it was Betty Lutton, with Bert close behind. She stood with a broom angled in front of her.
“You’re going to have a lot of company,” she said. “I’m here to clean your house.”
He’s “really done it this time”? I don’t think a parent would say something so callous if the kid smoked for twenty years and died of small cell sarcoma. Maybe they weren’t to blame for his illness, but I’m betting the husband viewed it as an embarrassment and a weakness and made it that much more difficult to just be alive. Hope I’m wrong.
Its the neighborhood support comments at the end that caught my attention.
No matter how tough it is, these folks will be there for you, almost like family. Well now, these are the kind of people I would have pleny of time for….
The biggest lie ever told by mental health professionals is that it gets easier with time.
It’s been 12 years since my son chose to stop breathing. I can assure you, it does not get easier.
I have had to relearn to smile, to laugh at the appropriate time, to make others feel at ease. I do this out of obligation for others. I have to hold a job.
My obligations are almost fulfilled.
Why is it humane to put a dog to sleep but keep a person alive?
Hi Phoenix, I do know what you are feeling. Lost my son to suicide 2 years ago. I think the biggest lie mental health professionals propagate is that they can help.
We need to find out how we can diagnose and treat our Son’s. and actually help them. Maybe our obligation is to move toward that goal.
I am so sorry for all who have lost a love one to suicide. I often feel like I am so alone in all of it. Losing my son Shea almost six years ago changed my life. Whenever I see a young man who looks like my son I try to show them compassion and love and tell them to be greatful for their life. The pain hasn’t really gotten better for me. As time passes and I get older I know exactly what I am missing and it’s so sad. I try to be strong for my other son Derek, but at times the whole experience just floods back My son left no note and that left me even more lost. Thank you for this forum to share.
I understand. I empathize. I’m so very sorry for your loss.
It’s been 40 years since my aunt committed suicde. It is still so very painful. I think about her everyday. It’s been 6 years since my brother shot hisself. This s one of the worse pain there is. My 36 year old daughter passed away July 15 of this year. She told me she wanted to die, and wanted me to raise her 2 girls. Now I’m in the position that I will have to help their father raise them. My mother has an anuryism in her abdomin. At 81 years old, the is serious. I know I’m not supposed to question God, but what did I do for him to put all this pain on me. I have to go though the motions for the girls. But when I’m alone can’t do anything but cry and grieve. I will never get over this. I don’t know how long I can keep going. I’m still in shock. Trying to do the best I can.
The world needs more people like Betty and Burt Lutton.
Well written, but of course, sad. Please continue to report on progress on biomarkers.
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