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.”