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.