Losing two Langley High School students to suicide: Unthinkable until it happened

Petula Dvorak
Columnist February 6

A couple of dozen teenage boys stood on the stage, hands crammed into pockets, looking down at their shuffling feet, nervous.

“I loved [him],” one of them said into the microphone, before he burst into tears in an auditorium at McLean Bible Church filled with hundreds of people.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

And his friends hugged him. Not the slapping bro-hugs of that age, but long, hard embraces that absorb heaving sobs. They were grieving. But more important, they were also teaching everyone else how to grieve and how to love.

Two of their friends at Langley High School in Fairfax County killed themselves this week, one on Monday and the other on Tuesday — deaths that officials believe were unconnected and that left their families, classmates and friends reeling.

These two 17-year-olds were athletes and students at one of the finest, most affluent high schools in our region. They had families, friends, a future. Losing them to suicide — seeing them become two of about 4,600 teens who kill themselves in the United States every year — seemed unthinkable.

When people slip through our fingers and die in plain sight, right before our eyes, answers can be elusive. And it’s a different, more acute kind of pain and guilt that comes when we can’t rescue someone we love.

The same searing reckoning came when Philip Seymour Hoffman sacrificed his fame, work, fortune and three small children for a batch of heroin. How could that have happened to someone with so much talent and so many people who cared about him?

Sometimes the love that surrounds people isn’t enough to save them from the demons of despair or addiction or mental illness.

Hoffman had battled addiction for decades. Sometimes — about 105 times each day, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — addiction wins.

Gus Deeds sparred with his mental illness for a long time. His father, Virginia state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (D-Bath) and his family surrounded him with love, understanding and the best care they could find.

It wasn’t enough to keep him from attacking his father and killing himself a few months ago. That’s a horrible thing to accept for those left behind.

At Langley High, the kids wore black to school and tweeted about their hallways being eerily silent.

When they showed up for an informal memorial service at McLean Bible Church on Wednesday night, they overwhelmed organizers, who had to move the gathering from a smaller room into one of the huge auditoriums because so many people had come.

In the hallway, a group of four moms hugged and cried. It took a long time for them to let go of one another. Dads held each other and took off their glasses to wipe away tears.

“So many of us have known these kids for years, even since preschool,” one mother told me. “It’s just so hard to understand.”

Two pastors took the stage and offered comforting words about dealing with grief and guilt, and then they asked everyone to write down a favorite memory they had of the teens to pass on to their families.

Then all those boys came up on the stage, and everyone waited for them to say something.

They composed themselves and then passed the microphone around and talked about how great their friends were, how much fun they’d had, the scrapes and bruises they gave one another, the things they learned, the way they loved them.

“He was an amazing person. He had everything going for him.”

“We did some crazy stuff together.”

“We lost two of the most caring, loving people.”

Then one of the boys looked ahead. “We have to pull ourselves out of this pit now,” he said.

The crowd applauded, but even the teens knew how daunting that would be.

Twitter: @petulad

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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