The death of a friend is always difficult to accept.

It is even more difficult when the friend is a 33-year-old lawyer, a private woman advancing her career who commits suicide in a very public manner.

No one will know what caused Susan Steward to fling herself from the roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey federal building here last Tuesday. But those who knew her best knew she had never been the same since the run-in with other members of the board of directors of the Washington chapter of American Civil Liberties Union last winter.

The event was newsworthy -- I wrote a column about it after consulting with editors to make sure that my friendship with one of the participants was not affecting my judgment -- but it obviously should not have had the lasting effect on anyone that it had on Steward. She had stood up to the board in what she perceived as an unfair firing of a staff attorney for the civil libertarian group and had been shocked when the group did not respond in the way she felt a group with its principles should have responded.

To know why anyone would react so strongly to an internal personnel dispute at an agency where she was a volunteer requires knowledge of Steward's background.

She was a true believer; someone who believed that people were basically as good and unselfish as she was.

Steward joined the Peace Corps in 1968. In 1970, she entered Georgetown University Law School because she felf law was the path toward implementing the changes in society that she would have liked to have seen.

While some of her classmates might have been aiming at future partnerships in top law firms, Steward was plugging away quietly in clinical programs while working full time at the Labor Department. Nothing she did was flashy, but everything she did was intense, said friends who knew her at the time.

While others might argue their causes brilliantly, Steward would become frustrated when those arguments omitted any concept of humanity, friends said. She would seem to be saying, what good is the law if it isn't used to help people?

She became a lawyer with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, where she grew frustrated when factors like cost and politics stopped the implementation of policies that were to her clearly needed and right. She committed herself to her job with the intensity used by persons who inwardly feel -- accurately or not -- their intellectual or academic credentials might be lacking.

"Nothing Susan was interested in was a casual interest," recalls one classmate and friend. He remembered that when Steward felt she did not have a broad-based cultural background, she immersed herself in movies, plays and concerts to the extent that she attended one or the other every night.

Last fall, she was involved in plans to set up the new Department of Education, involved in an intense personal relationship and invoved in her ACLU work.Then in her view, the ACLU failed her.

It was as if a child had discovered a father was an ax murderer. The disillusionment was so intense that she was physcially ill for weeks, unable to rise from her bed to greet friends at her apartment. It was an overreaction, her friends told her repeatedly. Her response to those statements varied from agreement to anger.

She wrote reams of stream-of-consciousness memos about the conflict between herself and the ACLU, and could not understand when others did nto share the intensity of her emotions.

By the spring, she seemed to be pulling out of it. But job conflicts began to rise. She felt inadequate in her work and attempted to quit, but then would be convinced to stay in the general counsel's office by supervisors clearly pleased with her performance for the agency. Their praise of her work continued unabated after her death with personal statements issued by official including Education Secretary Shirley Hufstedler.

Steward did not jump from the building were she worked. She jumped from the building where she was used to work and where she felt she had been slighted, and those who knew her believe she must have been making some sort of personal statement.

For the past several months, Steward had talked little with friends about her problems, but we were all concerned. We missed the vibrancy with which she could talk about new restaurants and new movies. She had become quieter than ever, almost lethargic at times.

There are the personal memories: The way she used to be the first to break out the good champagne or wine to celebrate a friend's accomplishment; the care with which she planned a surprise birthday party for a friend; the way she danced with that special friend -- David Pike, legal editor for U.S. News and World Report -- as I tried to play "As Time Goes By" on the piano; the way she urged a talented friend to keep trying to sell a yet unpublished novel.

The good times she shared with us; her personal disillusionments she hid well for the most part until the last few months.

Those disillusionments are hidden no more. "It's tough being an idealist in Washington, especially for a lawyer," one friend remembered the other night in talking about Steward's suicide. "You're constantly disillusioned and disappointed."

No institution or group can or should be blamed for Steward's suicide. Her psychological makeup obviously was more complex than any of us might have imagined, and no one could have predicted her death.

Let us hope for others, though, for others who believe with the intensity of Susan Steward, that the disillusionments are less painful for them.

Those of us who are left behind cannot bear the loss of any more idealists. There aren't enough of them anymore.