‘Did you hear about Frank?’
As I showed a hometown friend around my university’s library one November Sunday afternoon in my sophomore year, a classmate saw me and said, “Did you hear about Frank?”. I had last seen my roommate on Friday afternoon when we both headed to our respective hometowns for the weekend. I returned to the campus on Sunday. Frank did not. He had died by suicide.
I feel the need to write about Frank, not just to honor the friendship we had since the first day of our freshman year, but because his suicide was not that of an apparently depressed person who felt that life was no longer worth living. I was puzzled then and I still am today, for Frank was a 19-year-old with aspirations to become a physician working with those in poverty. He worked diligently to achieve this goal, and I have no doubt he would have achieved it. He spent long evenings in the library, resulting in grades that earned him an invitation to join the university’s Honors program. He turned down the invitation. He was not into recognition, just achieving his goal.
In retrospect, there were signs, of course. As a college freshman and then a sophomore, Frank would calmly tell those in the dormitory during casual conversation that 19 was a dangerous age because more males died by suicide at that age than any other. From his freshman year, he also spoke to others in the manner that one would describe a well-planned trip, of his detailed plan for suicide in November of his sophomore year. This was all said, as he continued to spend many hours in the library to receive A’s as a pre-med major. Long conversations into the night were common as we talked about the meaning of life. His life’s meaning appeared to emanate from his plan to help others.
The best explanation may center around relationships
In trying to sort out why Frank died by suicide, I read a lot. The best explanation I found was from the work of the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, and his concept of “anomie.” Written about in his 1897 study “Suicide,” this theory, simply put, is that unless one has sustaining relationships in life, then one is left unanchored and without a purpose to live. Frank was estranged from his biological family, whom he seldom visited. He briefly dated in college but did not find that fulfilling. Instead, he ended up completing his plan for suicide, a plan that he had been forming for years.
The best explanation I found was from the work of the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, and his concept of “anomie.” Written about in his 1897 study “Suicide,” this theory, simply put, is that unless one has sustaining relationships in life, then one is left unanchored and without a purpose to live.
As a teenager myself at the time, I had no reference points for the signs of suicide that are now widely disseminated. It was a different time. No one from the university even approached me about the fact that my roommate had planned his own death. The only communication I received was a letter from Frank that came to my parents’ mailbox a few days after his death. He asked me to light a candle for him when I visit St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, which I do.
I realize now, and want to share with others, that one person’s thoughts and plans about suicide can look very different than another person’s thoughts and plans. I learned, too, that we need to listen closely to others – to understand, not just to reply. People try to tell us important messages in many ways. Thankfully, the Zero Suicide initiative that Beacon is embarking on provides the training and tools that were not available to me back then.