THOMAS: After the fall

I did not know John Miller. Judging by the accounts I’ve read, he was extremely talented. Given the work he did in New Haven schools, I imagine he was also funny, fun, full of life and self-giving to a fault. My son, Seth Alan Peterson, was like that, too. He was also like John in another way. He committed suicide, dying at age 24, two years and seven months ago. Finishing up his theater studies at NYU and living in Brooklyn, he had a bright future ahead of him. In the summer of 2008, he was chosen as one of Broadway’s Rising Stars and performed on stage at Broadway’s Town Hall, demonstrating his extraordinary voice and acting talent. Seven months later, he was dead.

Suicide brings on a very particular and peculiar kind of grief. The guilt and second-guessing and pure horror that someone could end one’s own life cause excruciating pain for family and friends. I have learned more about this than I care to know in the time since Seth died. Although we still know very little about John Miller’s tragic passing, I thought it might be helpful to share some of that hard-earned knowledge.

You could not have prevented it. Even if you think that you could have on that particular occasion, there is no guarantee that it would not have happened some other time. If you are wondering why you didn’t go with John or ask him to come over if he seemed out of sorts, don’t blame yourself. Seth’s roommate was in an adjoining room when he died. Having someone nearby made no difference at all.

If you’re trying to make rational sense of how something like this could happen to someone with such talent and such a bright future, you really can’t think about it rationally — there is no rational explanation. Normal people, those who are not sick in some way, do not kill themselves. Our most basic human instinct is for survival, so to cause one’s own demise subverts that in ways our healthy intellects can’t imagine.

If you’re thinking that John made a choice to end his life, I can’t agree. Whatever was tormenting him — depression, mental illness, some event that threw his mental wiring off kilter — that is what took him. As I said before, it isn’t a rational choice. Suicides are committed by people driven by a distorted mental and emotional reality. It isn’t really a choice.

The best way to come to terms with the death of someone who simply did not wish to live any more is to talk with others who have lived through it. I could not have survived my son’s death without the support of family and friends, my church community and the care of others who have lost loved ones to suicide. It won’t make the pain go away, but it does help to know that you’re not the only one asking crazy questions and having morbid thoughts and trying to figure out the inexplicable.

I knew that Seth had contemplated suicide. I knew that he already decided how he would carry it out. At the time of his death, however, he was on an upswing: according to his therapist, he was not a danger to himself. So even though he had a plan, the act itself was impulsive. In that moment, I don’t think the thought of those he would leave behind in broken grief even occurred to him. Nor did my making a pact with him to call me if he reached that point. This is the nasty reality of suicide prevention. People have to be reached before they get to that point of no return. There is help available here on campus, through your own health care professional or through organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness or the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Raise your awareness. Talk to someone. And know that those worst moments do pass.

When I heard the news of John Miller’s death, I was taken back to the interminable car ride my husband and I made to Brooklyn in the wee hours of the morning, hoping that Seth was still alive up to the moment we received a phone call from a police detective telling us he didn’t make it. John’s parents made a similar car ride from Poughkeepsie. That horror, that unimaginable grief, however, was not the end of the story. There is life after death. While I still don’t fully understand how I am supposed to make some good out of the tragedy of my son’s death, at the least I can bear witness that, even in its worst times, life is good and worth living.

Elaine Ellis Thomas is a second-year student at the Yale Divinity School.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    My brother, who died of AIDS eight years ago at age 57, called me in Vermont when he was 55 from Seattle where he lived, to tell me he was having suicidal thoughts.

    He knew I had experienced the same thoughts after the Kent State shootings which I witnessed in 1970, years before the diagnosis PTSD had been thought of.

    I told him, “Chris, you do not HAVE to have these thoughts. They can be INTERRUPTED: by therapy, by medication, by practice. This is a chemical problem as much as an emotional one.”

    He sought therapy and medication and resisted the temptation to end his life, an end which came with much pain and courage and dignity later.

    I share this realizing that some readers will trivialize and violate my family recollection here as part of the Yale posting game. I am willing to endure that with the hope that ONE person reading these words might see light in an otherwise dark world.

    The darkness is a chemical imbalance. It can be reduced if not eliminated. Seek help. There is no shame in having a medical condition It can be relieved.

    The darkness is not reality.

    Paul D. Keane

    M.Div. ’80

    M.A., M.Ed.

    • erikalin

      Dear Elaine, Thank you for giving what it took to write this.

      Dear Paul, I am sorry for the struggles endured both by you and by your brother. I have a list of responses that your reply brings to mind, but I will distill that to one point of clarification reguarding your sentence near the end, that “The darkness is a chemical imbalance.”

      The “darkness” can be a chemical imbalance, I suppose, but to assert that a chemical imbalance underlies the process that can tragically end in suicide is quite the leap. Medication is the first line of treatment for major depression, although not all suicides are preceded with major depression. Further, there is no quantitative indication that medication (the remedy for your “chemical imbalance”, I believe) mitigates risk of suicide for those diagnosed with major depression. If you know otherwise regarding the latter, please point to the source.

      This is all to say that “the darkness is a chemical imbalance” is far, very far, from appropriately generalized. Personally, I find such statements hurtful, oversimplified, and lacking of dignity for those who are no longer living, to suggest that they and presumably those who love them have overlooked something so simple. For them, Paul, no matter your intentions in signing off that “the darkness is not reality”, it certainly is.

      I am not a Yale student, just a reader.
      Erika, M.A., M.Div

    • River_Tam

      Paul,

      I hardly seek to trivialize or violate your recollection, but you need to see that your words are pop-psychology, not expert advice. Some need therapy and medication. And others do not. Not all suicidal tendencies have psychiatric (that is to say, medical) etiologies.

      A close friend of mine committed suicide in the not-too-distant past, and the memory of him is still raw in my mind. I have no doubt that he fought inner demons, and I am beginning to realize what some of them were, but the existential abyss cannot always be treated with drugs. Sometimes, it is just a terrible thought, niggling away at a brain.

      The way forward may involve professional help, but it might just as easily involve devoted love and attention of the kind you gave your brother.

      With love,
      River Tam.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Dear Erika,

    May I say respectfully that it is my experience that reality is absolutely NEUTRAL. “for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (*Hamlet*, II, 2)

    *Weltschmerz* and “the existential abyss” are created by the mind and have been romanticized by literature, opera, and philosophy as somehow the “burden” one must accept for having an artistic temperment.

    The mind, paralyzed by panic attacks and “free floating anxiety,” can be restored to its pliable state by various types of interventions to short-circuit the repeated messages of doom and despair.

    One age-old intervention is prayer, not because there is a Listener and an Answerer to such petitions, but because the intervention of the ritualized words INTERRUPTS the repeated negative ideation which is flooding the system with adrenalyn. (Forgive the lay analysis).

    I speak from personal experience, not hypothesis.

    I wish to honor different perpectives, but not those which lead to unnecessary suffering.

    Respectfully,

    PK

    • erikalin

      Dear Paul,

      I do not understand your second reply re: neutral reality and Hamlet.

      My response is to your first reply and to your saying things like “This is a chemical problem… The darkness is a chemical problem… the darkness is not reality.” As the writer of this story has shared, and as in the story referenced therein, this is a reflection for people who have lost a dear one to suicide. The chemical business is not only inaccurate (pop psychology as another noted) but inappropriate as well, to post here to people who find hope through their faith and alongside those who bear witness to the profound pain of such a loss.

      If you would, reread your first reply as a mom whose son committed suicide two years and seven months ago. My purpose in replying here is to honor that story shared here bravely, and to thwart implications that interventions were chosen to not be taken advantage of, chemicals were left to run awry… Yours doesn’t seem the right reply to such a sacred story of loss and hope and death and life as what is shared here.

      Respectfully as well,
      Erika

  • The Anti-Yale

    *Yours doesn’t seem the right reply to such a sacred story of loss and hope and death and life as what is shared here.*

    It is what I have to offer, pop-psychology or not. I did not know there were “right and wrong” in gifts.

    Respectfully,

    PK

  • Yale12

    PK has yet to learn the art of “not responding at all.” Sometimes a respectful silence is the best gift, and I mean that honestly.

  • The Anti-Yale

    *I am willing to endure that with the hope that ONE person reading these words might see light in an otherwise dark world.*

    For me, and not for others, it would be irresponsible to be silent for that “one” person. There have been at least two suicides at Yale in the last year and six at Cornell.

    Mine here is not to debate or eulogize. It is to throw a lifeline out onto a dark sea.

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