Last year, two weeks after celebrating his 21st birthday, Steve Laker wrote a check to his parents, closing out his account. As he left the house, he called out to his younger brother, "I'm going for a ride into the country."
"Want some company?"
"I'd really like to be alone."
It took Fairfax police nine days to find Steve in the family's old station wagon parked in the middle of a Virginia cornfield. A rubber hose, connected to the tailpipe, was hooked over the driver's mostly rolled-up, rag-stuffed window. Steve lay on the front seat, dead from carbon monoxide poisoning.
"I'm sorry," a note on the dashbord said. "I love you, but I just feel useless. It isn't your fault."
Like Steve, Phil Donner's 78-year-old father, Ralph, reached for his checkbook shortly before taking his life. After planning a Florida vacation during a relaxed lunch with his wife, Donner methodically paid bills. Then, while his wife shopped, he gulped down almost an entire bottle of Seconal, a strong sedative, took an elevator to the roof of his Gaithersburg condo and, with some of the pills still in his mouth, jumped to his death.
Every 19 minutes someone in this country commits suicide.
The survivors--spouse, parents, children, siblings, friends and co-workers--grapple with shame, bewilderment or guilt. And while friends try to help, "there are limits," says Phil Donner, "to how many times you can expect them to listen."
For some, suicide is a taboo topic. "If I mention Steve's name at work," says Sue Laker, "they change the subject. While I'm able to talk about my son, a lot of people aren't able to listen."
As requested by the families, the suicides' names above have been changed.
To provide a comfortable setting for survivor-victims to discuss the death's impact on their lives, two mental-health professionals, Doug Tipperman, whose father committed suicide, and Ellen Zinner, a death educator, started a local chapter of Seasons. Unlike other support groups, which typically start small, Seasons began with 35 members. Two families have had more than one child commit suicide.
Many of the participants speak with professionals regularly, but the group fills another need. "When I hear what the others are going through," says Laker, "I know I'm not crazy. These are normal feelings."
To start each monthly meeting, members introduce themselves, reveal who died, and when. New members rarely use the word "suicide." Instead, they say, "My brother died," or "It was my mother."
When it was her turn, one woman said quietly, "I don't know how I'm going to get through this."
During a refreshment break, older members seek out new ones to discuss the commonality of their loss. ("My daughter killed herself three years ago, the same way yours did last month.") Afterwards, the group divides by self-selection into two circles to facilitate conversation.
Some frequent questions: "Is there a time when you feel good again?" "How do you tell your friends?" "Are you crying a lot?" "Do you feel so depressed that you can't get out of bed some days?" "Are you worried about your other children?" "Are you sticking close to them?"
"I don't think anybody realizes what pain they are leaving behind," Laker has told the group. "I hurt more than I ever thought I could and I pray that I give my other sons the right answers."
All the members wonder if there were some way they could have prevented the death, some clue they missed. Just like the seven warning signs of cancer, explains Zinner, there are alerts that can indicate tragedy or benign change. Although she has been teaching a death education class at Towson (Md.) State University for the past 10 years, she admits, "Even I am not sure I would recognize all the signs."
When a teen-age girl wishes she were dead, lends treasured clothing to a friend or gives away record albums, is this part of the growing process or suicidal behavior? A RIFfed adult becomes depressed, but will his job loss lead to suicide?
"The signs," Zinner adds, "are usually clear retrospectively. They're hard to recognize while you're going through it." Although statistics state tendencies and probabilities, there are always exceptions.
The pervasive theme behind a suicide, however, is a sense of loss, says Dr. Calvin Frederick, chief of psychiatry, Veterans Administration Medical School, Los Angeles. That loss can be internal, loss of self-esteem, confidence or face, resulting in humiliation; or external, such as the loss of a loved friend or relative, a job, standing in school.
Many losses that seem insignificant to adults, says Zinner, are considered monstrous by a young person. She gives the example of a student who, shaking, approached her for help. "My boyfriend wants to date other girls. I've invested a whole year of my life in this relationship!"
"This girl didn't seem suicidal," says Zinner, "just desperate. And she found someone to speak with, a good coping mechanism."
But another student is high risk. Blatant signs: previously attempting suicide (a red flag), drinking, living alone, giving up counseling, grieving about her father's death as though he died last month, although it was 15 months ago.
"Are you suicidal?" Zinner asked directly.
"How did you know?"
Zinner arranged for counseling and elicited a promise -- which she says can be effective -- that the young woman would return whenever she felt self-destructive.
Steve Laker's changes were subtle. "For the past year," says his mother, "he worked the 'dead-man's shift' at a factory. I was getting ready to ask him to change shifts because we saw very little of him." Although Sue Laker noticed Steve slept more, "The flu was going around and I thought he just needed extra rest."
Months after his death, the family learned Steve had been battling with two problems. His girlfriend confessed she was dating him to make another youth jealous. He had been using cocaine for a year.
Suicidal action, say the experts, is the result of a relentless internal debate. Cocaine and other drugs, including alcohol, cloud a person's consciousness, lessening the ambivalence, says Dr. Seymour Perlin, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University School of Medicine.
The strong sedative Donner ingested immediately before leaping to his death had been prescribed for insomnia. The elderly man, anxious about finances since the Depression, had watched inflation erode his savings. Either he had to drastically change his life style or tell his favorite son, 36, he couldn't continue putting him through law school.
Ralph Donner disliked discussing personal matters, was impulsive and suffered from low self-esteem.
"My father," says Phil Donner, "felt he was not a likable person and felt only his immediate family would care for him. He must have decided talking things over with my brother would sever their relationship."
Did the young man and the old man really want to die? "Most suicidal people," says Zinner, "want to stop the pressure, the deadlines, the sense of failure. It is not as though they want to be dead. It is just that they are not so sure they want to be alive."
Seasons meets the second Wednesday evening of each month from 7:30 to 9:30 at Cedar Lane Unitarian Church, 9601 Cedar Lane, Bethesda. For further information, call Doug Tipperman, (301) 788-9377 (Baltimore).