Talking Suicide Blues Could one young man’s words have pushed four others to kill themselves?

Five deaths, one young man at their center. At least, that is where he seems to be—and is it by coincidence or intention?

Between August 2016 and April 2017, four young men in Kirksville, Missouri, die by suicide—all by the same method, hanging. It is their mutual friend, Brandon Grossheim, who finds the first two bodies. Told of the third friend’s suicide, he startles police by asking to see the body. When officers inform him of the fourth, they find him unusually curious about who found the body and where.

They divulge no details, but they do inform Grossheim that his name and email were written on a scrap of paper found so close to the body, it could have dropped from the young man’s hand.

In July 2017, there is a fifth death. An unhappy young woman, her health already compromised by excessive drinking, binges until her liver hemorrhages. Not suicide this time—not directly at least. But she dies in the apartment across the hall from Grossheim’s, just ninety minutes after he offered to listen to her troubles.

Nineteen years old, a psychology major at Truman State University until he withdrew in December 2016, Grossheim suffers from depression himself, yet he is eager to counsel others. Friends notice that he is unusually sensitive to people’s dark moods. He calls himself the Peacemaker, liking the notion of himself as a superhero who heals others’ pain. He tells police and friends that he sees suicide as a free choice. He seems fascinated by death and the relief it might bring.

There is no suggestion of foul play. The young men had a history of suicidal depression, and they had made their desperate unhappiness known to many. But could Grossheim’s counsel have pushed them over the edge?

The question haunts me, just as the suicides of several people I adored haunt me. Could I have said something to stop them? Here, the question reverses itself: could he have said something that encouraged them? Words wield power, but that much?

Friends notice that he is unusually sensitive to people’s dark moods. He calls himself the Peacemaker, liking the notion of himself as a superhero who heals others’ pain. He tells police and friends that he sees suicide as a free choice. He seems fascinated by death and the relief it might bring.

A wrongful death civil suit has been filed against Grossheim by the parents of two of the young men who died. (Also named were Truman State University, where he and three of the young men were enrolled, and Alpha Kappa Lambda, their fraternity. The university has been dismissed from the suit.)

This case is an unusual one and likely to grind on for quite some time, keeping those involved strategically silent. Impatient, I wonder how I could dig deeper—doorstep former fraternity brothers and piece together their recollections? Find classmates, girlfriends, neighbors? I already know I would fail. No one will ever know what Grossheim said to his friends in the weeks, sometimes the hours, before they killed themselves. And no one will ever know what drove him—his desire to ease their suffering, his own fascination with death, or some weird commingling of the two.

In that vacuum swirl larger questions. If Grossheim’s acceptance of suicide as a free and sometimes reasonable choice lowered his friends’ inhibitions in any way, is he to blame for the consequences? How much responsibility do we bear—morally, if not legally—in the presence of someone who is emotionally vulnerable?

 

•  •  •

 

A sociable, fun-loving twenty-one-year-old with a high-school record of straight As and varsity baseball, Alex Mullins came undone in his sophomore year at Truman State. Depression and poor performance landed him on academic probation; nightmares eroded his resilience. By June, he had stopped going to counseling. Then he stopped taking a prescribed antidepressant.

He seems great, though, cheerful and eager for a fresh start, when he returns to campus in early August to prepare for junior year. One Saturday evening, he goes to a bar and runs into a young woman he was once involved with. They hug and catch up. Later that evening, he texts a group of his fraternity brothers: “If anyone has drugs in Kirksville that is here, please hit me up, I don’t care the price, not having a good night, just need to forget.”

There is no immediate response. He texts his stepfather, asks if he is still up. No immediate response. The seconds drag across his skin like a lit match. Pain like this stops time from moving, traps you in a place with no future.

By the time his stepfather and a frat brother reply, it is too late.

Another frat brother will tell a police officer that he tried to reach Mullins the next day, got no answer, and asked Grossheim to check on him. A different officer will report that Grossheim said “he needed a key to the building and knew that Alex may have one since he was the caretaker of the property.” Maybe something is garbled here, because Grossheim took over from Mullins as AKL house manager? But the contradiction is jarring.

The seconds drag across his skin like a lit match. Pain like this stops time from moving, traps you in a place with no future.

What we know is that Grossheim cannot get into Mullins’s room with the house key (Mullins recently changed the lock), so goes outside and looks through the window. “Somebody call the police!” he yells.

And then he waits for them to arrive (which also seems odd, given what he has just seen). He leads an officer to Mullins’s window, then flies into action, pushing the window open and jumping through before the officer can stop him. Alone in the room, Grossheim tries to lift Mullins’ body to relieve the stress on his neck. Then he unlocks the door.

 

•  •  •

 

Grossheim and Mullins used to get high together, play video games. But a frat brother who was far closer to Mullins is Jacob Hughes. “Alex’s death hit Jake really hard,” Grossheim will tell a writer from The New Yorker. “We started hanging out almost every day.”

Three weeks after Mullins’ death, Hughes fights with his girlfriend during a frat party. Grossheim offers to drive her home and tells Hughes, who has been sobbing in the parking lot, that he will be back soon, if Hughes needs to talk. In the car, the girlfriend urges Grossheim to keep an eye on Hughes: he might have seemed to be in good spirits at the party that evening, but in private, he told her he wanted to die.

Grossheim makes a few more designated-driver runs for other fraternity brothers, returns to the party, socializes for a while, then remembers to check on Hughes. He is, just barely, too late. While Hughes’s suitemate calls 911, Grossheim does CPR. Frat brothers watch in shock from the doorway. Logan Hunt will later tell a reporter that Grossheim was “kind of like caressing Jake” as he lowered his body.

 

•  •  •

 

Grossheim stops going to classes and blurs the weeks with drugs and alcohol. His AKL brothers trade looks when they see him walking around in Hughes’s Popsicle-printed shirt or wearing Hughes’s trademark, gold and silver chains. He only became close to Hughes a few weeks earlier, they reason, so either this is melodrama, or there is some deeper disturbance. Grossheim’s worried parents contact the university, but he refuses to allow his counselor to discuss his mental health with them. Fraternity officers tell police that he is acting strangely and they think he needs a mental-health intervention. (He is furious.)

By December, the frat’s officers are blunt: they want Grossheim out. Before leaving, he takes three tabs of acid, tears apart his room, and reportedly delivers a soliloquy about death and the nothingness that follows.

Then he withdraws from the university and moves to a cheap apartment.

One of his new neighbors, Alex Vogt, works at The Wooden Nickel, where Grossheim just got a job. Vogt, who has been diagnosed with bipolar depression and has tried in the past to kill himself, is going through another rough spell. He and Grossheim start getting together to drink and talk.

By December, the frat’s officers are blunt: they want Grossheim out. Before leaving, he takes three tabs of acid, tears apart his room, and reportedly delivers a soliloquy about death and the nothingness that follows.

On January 27, 2017, Grossheim comes home from work sometime after midnight and says “hi” to Vogt in the hallway. Later that morning, police knock on Grossheim’s door. Vogt’s girlfriend is sitting on the floor in the hallway, sobbing. She woke to find his body, lifeless, next to their bed.

Grossheim asks if he can see Vogt’s body before it is removed from the apartment. “Grossheim advised that he had seen Vogt in the loft but was unsure if he was dead,” an officer reports, adding, “He made his request to me after he was told that Vogt was dead.”

Meanwhile, Grossheim is comforting Vogt’s girlfriend. She is grateful, and a few months later—after the next suicide—posts, “I love and support you Brandon! Fb/snapchat/text me any time for any thing” with a blown kiss emoji.

 

•  •  •

 

When Grossheim meets Josh Thomas—who, like Mullins, had straight As in high school and a ton of friends but is finding college tough—he advises Thomas not to join Alpha Kappa Lambda. “I understand you want friends,” Grossheim says, “but these may not be the right friends.” Thomas is gay, and Grossheim warns him that the initiation process can be cruel.

Thomas joins anyway, but does not feel fully accepted. His closest friends remain two young women. During spring break 2017, after a romantic breakup, he makes his misery public, attempting suicide in front of his fraternity brothers. A month later, one of them wakes early for a shift at Home Depot, and his sleepy girlfriend notices a folded napkin shoved under the door. Wrapped around $48, the napkin bears a message, scrawled in pink highlighter: “Smoke a bowl in my memory.”

Panicked, they search. In the library, they find his laptop, playing music. “Read me” says another note in pink highlighter. On the laptop screen is an essay Thomas wrote earlier. He talks about being raped years before and says the rapist infected him with a virus, which began “reworking my personality into what it wanted me to be…. Fling after fling, guy after guy, the virus not only corrupted my mind, but then used me to manipulate the minds of others—manipulating them into giving me some sort of approval, tricking me into thinking I was recovering but I didn’t.”

Kirksville police recognize that name from previous deaths, so when they visit Grossheim’s apartment, they bring a counselor. After he hears the news, he remarks in a low voice that this is the fourth friend to take his own life.

At 4:12 that morning, he added an update: “I tried fighting off the virus. It just became too strong…. I’m so sorry. I just can’t do it anymore. I love you all. But I lost.”

Hoping they can reach him in time, they tear through the house and finally find his body in a storage room. On the floor is a piece of paper, unfolded, that bears the name Brandon Grossheim and two email addresses.

Kirksville police recognize that name from previous deaths, so when they visit Grossheim’s apartment, they bring a counselor. After he hears the news, he remarks in a low voice that this is the fourth friend to take his own life. Then he tells them about finding his grandmother’s body when she died from cancer. The counselor, Nicole Salmons, asks how he would help someone who was going through what he had gone through. In what seems a bit of a non sequitur, he tells her that “he made sure to let all of his friends know that he was there for them and gave them advice and ‘step by step’ directions on how to deal with things like depression,” all the while knowing that they will exert “their own free will.”

“He compared himself to a superhero and gravitated toward these people,” the police report notes. “He called himself ‘peacemaker’ when Nicole asked him what his nickname would be.”

The officer adds that “Brandon was very curious about who found Josh and where the incident took place. We did not give him this information.”

 

•  •  •

 

The fifth death, in July 2017, was not ruled a suicide. Paramedics recognized Glenna Haught, a tall, pretty twenty-nine–year-old dog trainer, from several previous trips to the ER for liver failure. Now her liver has hemorrhaged, and toxicology shows “severe acute ethanol intoxication.” The only relevance to this story is that ninety minutes before she was found dead, Grossheim heard a thud and went across the hall to make sure no one was hurt. Visibly upset, her lips trembling, Haught told him she had slipped and fallen. “He advised he asked multiple times if she needed anything,” a police officer reported. “He advised she said no and began to tear up….”

This time, police brought him in and questioned him about all five deaths. They also did a computer voice stress analysis. The test results “detected deception”; he said he had misunderstood one of the questions. The polygraph was not repeated, and he was not charged.

 

•  •  •

 

In my twenties, I attracted so many troubled souls, friends teased me about it; one even smudged my apartment with sage. Then I married, and the calls for help broke off with a clean snap. Is a young, sympathetic single woman by definition a confidante? At least what I felt was only sympathy, I think now, rather than flat-out empathy. If a little less serotonin had coursed through my own brain, an abyss would have opened.

For Grossheim, maybe it did, and he filled the void with amateur therapy.

“His voice had a soothing quality,” Gentri Meininger recalls, “and he made it very easy for people to open up to him.” She lived in Grossheim’s apartment building, and she watched him interact with a mutual friend: “He almost always started each conversation with a question about her mood.” Soon he was asking detailed questions about the friend’s mental health, probing her descriptions of depression and suicidal thoughts. When the depression deepened and she confided that she felt worthless, “he comforted her and said that if she chose to commit suicide, he would support her decision, and all her family and friends would understand.” Startled, she told him she was pretty sure they would not understand. These were just thoughts, nothing more, she assured him.

As she began to pull herself out of her depression, he drifted away, Meininger says. “If she would answer that she was feeling better, he would ignore her messages. He seems to lose interest once he realizes there is no ‘mission.’ I think that’s why he stopped talking to me as much. He tried to get me to open up about my relationship and its problems. I gave him very short, plain answers, as I am a fairly private person when it comes to my emotions. Once he realized [my friend] and I weren’t as weak as he had initially thought, he almost completely stopped checking in.”

Meininger liked Grossheim; she says she and her boyfriend “used to hang out with him fairly often,” before his drinking and drugs took over. She feels sure he played no role when the young woman died in their building. But influencing friends who were already depressed?

“The Peacemaker strikes again!” wrote one young man beneath Grossheim’s Facebook request for a ride to Thomas’s funeral.

“We would all like to believe that Brandon, this seemingly sweet, well-spoken, and charming person, could never do something as horrid as convincing a person that suicide is a valid option,” she says. “Only, I believe he didn’t see it as horrid. He seemed to romanticize death and even see comfort in it, as he explained to me back then in our conversations about depression. Brandon would go on rants about how death isn’t the end and that it seems like it would be peaceful.” She thinks he felt it “his duty as ‘Peacemaker’—this is what Brandon called himself—to make sure his friends were happy.”

Four suicides twisted that nickname. “The Peacemaker strikes again!” wrote one young man beneath Grossheim’s Facebook request for a ride to Thomas’s funeral. Grossheim presented his peacemaking as a simple desire to help people, but when I look up the original Peacemaker, I find a DC Comics superhero so committed to peace that he is willing to use force to bring it about. His zeal is the result of mental illness brought on by the shame of having a Nazi death camp commandant for a father, and he believes his father’s spirit haunts him and criticizes his every move. In DC’s extended universe, the Peacemaker returns as a member of the Suicide Squad.

 

•  •  •

 

Pop culture is not evidence. Proximity is not complicity. Still, the lawsuit makes much of the fact that Grossheim discovered two of the deaths, had access to the living spaces of all five, was the last to speak to Hughes and Haught and the second-last to speak to Vogt. In retrospect, it all sounds shivery and significant. So do his excited Facebook posts about Deadpool and a coffee labeled Death Wish, and the videos of him reading Grimms’ Fairy Tales in “the classical version…with all of its horrors.” Except—you could find that many dark references to death in most nineteen-year-olds’ lives. When police asked why he signed a poster for a friend “Die Master,” he grinned and explained that he was nimble at a dice-tossing drinking game called Beer Die.

What does stick is Grossheim’s reaction to death itself. He told the New Yorker writer how, when they found his grandmother dead, he sent his mother back to the garage and approached the body alone—an unusual chivalry for a teenager. “I wasn’t quite prepared for it,” he added. “When a person dies, the whole process… Have you ever seen a dead person? The bowels often clear.”

Growing up, he continued, he occasionally felt depressed but mostly, he just felt a little detached and isolated. I sense the same detachment in the clinical way he talks about his grandmother’s death, and in his ability, even eagerness, to move toward dead bodies rather than recoil from them. He was sufficiently self-possessed to note the exact time, 2:06, when he was trying to do CPR on Jake Hughes. When a police officer started to ask a question, he interrupted: “Are you going to ask, like, if it’s a copycat?”

A young woman he was seeing after Hughes’s death, Tristen Weiser, tells me they were doing homework on her dorm-room futon when, out of nowhere, he put his hand on her stomach and left it there. She says she asked what he was doing, and he told her he just wanted to feel her breathe. Which felt so creepy, she broke off the friendship.

His social skills are strong but situational, and they stop short of self-protection. Despite all the (often inaccurate) news reports and harsh gossip, he wrote a loving farewell post to Josh Thomas on Facebook, setting off a storm of accusations and blame.

Grossheim later denied her account altogether, which left her indignant and puzzled: why not just spin it, say it was just an excuse to touch her? I ask what his mood was in those September weeks when the AKL members grew wary of his behavior. “He was always happy,” she says. “Always happy.” With her, he never talked about suicide or depression, although “other people said he talked about that stuff all the time.”

He has a way of stepping outside of himself. “So, as I was trying to act like a normal human being,” he says, beginning a video about his cat interrupting him to have kittens. His social skills are strong but situational, and they stop short of self-protection. Despite all the (often inaccurate) news reports and harsh gossip, he posted a loving farewell to Josh Thomas on Facebook, setting off a storm of accusations and blame. The same thing happened when he wrote a belated, posthumous happy birthday post to Jake Hughes. Yet he left his Facebook page up for another year.

It is now locked, but his brief Instagram page is still live. The third photo shows him standing with six other pledges in front of their new frat house, holding up the AKL banner. “I already feel like they are my second family,” he wrote. “I hope that together, we can both make the college experience the best that it can be, while preparing ourselves for the future that lies beyond.”

Eight months later, he had lost all of that.

 

•  •  •

 

My knee-jerk response was to hear the litany of deaths and assume that Grossheim had to be involved somehow, even unwittingly. But he did not physically cause these deaths; nor did he create the history that led up to them. “It’s pretty disgusting how you can make an allegation like this, have no evidence, and practically ruin a young man’s life,” is the only comment from his lawyer, Curtis Niewald.

No hard evidence is cited in the lawsuit, no documentation of messages or detailed advice. The petition simply alleges, working from the police report, that Grossheim “had the intent to aid or encourage Mullins and Thomas to commit self- harm in that he ‘counseled’ them and gave ‘step-by step-instructions to them on how to ‘deal with their depression,’ make peace and ‘do their own free will’ thereby implying that he counseled them to commit suicide.” That seems a bit of a leap to me; emphasizing free will is hardly a manifesto for inducing suicide. All five of these deaths are “wrongful” in a human sense—premature, unnatural, unnecessary. But I do not even know how to think about culpability in this context.

Neither does the law. In Missouri, a bill was introduced a few years ago making it a Class E felony to encourage suicide—but the bill died in committee. The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that criminalizing the encouragement of suicide violated the First Amendment. Yet in Illinois, “inducement to commit suicide,” even through psychological pressure or philosophical principle, is a Class 2 felony.

In Massachusetts, no law prohibits encouraging or assisting suicide. Yet a woman there was convicted of involuntary manslaughter after, as an emotionally shaky seventeen-year-old, she encouraged a boyfriend toward suicide. She had first urged him against it, then, worn down by his insistence that he wanted to die, she texted, “If this is the only way you think you’re gonna be happy, heaven will welcome you with open arms.” A long string of texts followed, encouraging him to go ahead and assuring him that carbon monoxide poisoning “will 100% work. It’s not that hard to mess up.” But what swung the judge’s decision was not these texts. It was her admission that when the gas started to build up and he panicked and got out of his truck, she told him to get back in.

“This is saying that what she did is killing him,” protested an ACLU lawyer—“that her words literally killed him, that the murder weapon here was her words.”

We talk, metaphorically, as though that could be true. You’re killing me! You slay me. Words like daggers. He broke my heart. She took my breath away. But physical consequences? “To suggest that one person’s actions or words can directly cause someone to carry out this act is completely absurd,” a man comments beneath a law article about encouraging suicide. A second commenter slams back, saying it is both possible and criminal. “If a person is thin-skinned that’s their problem,” counters a third. Opinions flip back and forth. Why? Because we are not sure whether suicide is a destructive act that needs to be prevented or a choice that ought to be respected.

All five of these deaths are “wrongful” in a human sense—premature, unnatural, unnecessary. But I do not even know how to think about culpability in this context. Neither does the law.

On Facebook, providing no context, I ask, “Was there a time when someone said something to you that changed your life, for good or for bad?” Somebody recommends Elyse King’s viral TikTok video about a comment a substitute teacher made, discouraging her from trying out for cheerleading because she was too round. “I met that man for one hour when I was, like, eleven,” she says, “and I am twenty-eight and still undoing the damage that that sentence had on my life.” Other Facebook replies mention compliments, delivered in passing, that changed a career choice; teasing that led to a lifetime of self-loathing; a loving sentence that turned an addiction around.

“Words are events, they do things, change things,” said the writer Ursula K. LeGuin. “They transform both speaker and hearer…. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”

 

•  •  •

 

After Vogt’s suicide, his girlfriend sobbed to police that they were once again on the verge of breaking up, and the previous time, he had said he would kill himself if they did. Mullins “wanted to forget” after running into a former girlfriend. Hughes had just argued with his girlfriend. Thomas had just broken up with his boyfriend. It would be as easy to blame infatuation, loneliness, or rejection for these deaths.

But romantic love is often an anchor flung into an already roiling sea, so that the slightest slippage feels like betrayal. I once watched a couple grimly continue to date because the guy was terrified of what his girlfriend would do if he left her. People who are suffering often dangle such threats: pain creates need, and need can be manipulative.

What we cannot blame is stereotype. None of these guys were loners, isolated and socially inept, leading lives without promise or purpose. Instead, they were funny, charming, nice-looking, sweet.

The other easy culprit is all the chemistry that gets us through dark nights. An apartment tenant heard pill bottles rattling in Haught’s backpack as she passed. Police photos from the frat house show tabletop still lifes of Xanax, amphetamines, pot, and empty liquor bottles, some of it used to ease academic struggle, some to forget failure, parental disappointment, or a life that did not feel worth living.

What we cannot blame is stereotype. None of these guys were loners, isolated and socially inept, leading lives without promise or purpose. Instead, they were funny, charming, nice-looking, sweet. They had what we like to call “issues,” distancing those scary imbalances of mood, memory, and chemistry until they sound like topics in current events. They had spent years trying to balance their moods and nervous systems against life’s stresses.

It is not easy to be young these days.

In 2010, suicide passed homicide to become the second most common cause of death for those ages fifteen to twenty-four. Between 2007 and 2018, their suicide rate increased by 57.4 percent. Four similar suicides in the same place outdoes even these statistics. But contagion is real.

“Direct and indirect exposure to suicidal behavior has been shown to precede an increase in suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide,” notes one review, “especially in adolescents and young adults.” The fact of someone else’s suicide, especially someone a lot like them, opens up the possibility, making it available to imitate. And a young person’s shift from thinking about suicide to actual suicide is often an impulsive one, blinded by emotion, not a planned end to years of pain.

An even more ominous clustering is the way young people who are unhappy find one another. Back in 1969, researchers noted that “attempted suicides had an unusually large number of suicidal friends.”

“It would have happened anyway,” we tell one another, for comfort. But what of the many who attempt suicide, then find themselves profoundly grateful to be alive? “They secretly wanted to live all along,” people say, but I am not sure it is that simple. A mood, a curtain of memories and emotions stuck together with chemicals, can close out hope or allow it to enter. And moods fall and lift, persist or dissolve, in ways none of us can control.

An even more ominous clustering is the way young people who are unhappy find one another. Back in 1969, researchers noted that “attempted suicides had an unusually large number of suicidal friends.” If you feel your life has no meaning, you may be “unusually suggestible,” and you may also be prone to thoughts of suicide. Even if those thoughts go unshared, the pairing can be lethal.

 

•  •  •

 

Vogt’s former girlfriend now works to help other young women empower themselves. In her website bio, she describes early struggles, then writes, “My mental health completely unraveled during my junior year of college, when my boyfriend killed himself. It happened essentially right in front of me…. I made plans to kill myself in a foreign country, where I believed that my suicide would affect no one.”

Contagion, again—yet she managed to heal. I see the same resilience in the “;you (yes you) can talk to me about suicide;” message on the social media profiles of several of the young men’s friends. (The semi-colons stand for preventing suicide, skirting that hard stop, continuing.)

Turning grief around, using sorrow’s dark energy to help others—that was what Grossheim wanted to do, too. The difference is that he does not seem to have been bent on dissuading anyone from suicide or finding them professional help. He found his own counseling sessions at Truman a waste of time and money and soon stopped going. In his mind, suicide was a matter of free will. But when someone is young, inexperienced, swept by intense emotion, refusing professional counseling and prescribed medication, and preferring the swift release of drugs, booze, maybe even death—how “free” are they?

The philosopher Galen Strawson scoffs at the notion that any of us has free will. To make a truly free choice, he says simply, someone would have to be in complete control of themselves.

These kids were nowhere close.

 

•  •  •

 

There are two ways to think about a death by suicide. In one, all of us bear a degree of responsibility, because life is, after all, a joint project. None of us lives apart, and no one can generate enough meaning all by themselves. It is the difference between striking a single sodden match and plugging into a generator.

The other way to think about a death by suicide is as a choice, forged by pain and made in the privacy of the soul. Once that die is cast, there is little anyone else can do. Buoyant words of optimism will sink like lead. Nothing this primal, this contrary to biological instinct, happens on a dare or a nudge.

Either can be true.

We can blame failed romance, substance abuse, inadequate medical care, or the parents of troubled teenage boys. Or we can do something that is at once easier and harder: blame Grossheim, whose counsel could have pushed them over the edge instead of pulling them back to safety.

All four of these young men had histories of depression and suicidal thoughts; three of the four had attempted suicide in the recent past. One had stopped taking antidepressants and quit going to counseling; one had switched to a new antidepressant and was drinking heavily while taking it. All four were having romantic difficulties; one had gone on academic probation the year before; several were said to have tense relationships with their parents. The only suicide note hinted at past trauma and delusion.

So take your pick: We can blame failed romance, substance abuse, inadequate medical care, or the parents of troubled teenage boys. Or we can do something that is at once easier and harder: blame Grossheim, whose counsel could have pushed them over the edge instead of pulling them back to safety.

 

•  •  •

 

Thinking of suicide can feel like a private release valve, a guarantee that if life becomes even less bearable, there will always be an exit. But thinking about doing something makes it feel more real each time, more possible and then, by dint of repetition, more probable. If the pain continues, it begins to seem inevitable—especially if you see others take the same step or hear others talk about it. You are primed. At the next moment of despair, the needle will slip into that groove and spin.

Is that a free choice? Maybe we just prefer to see it that way, so we can rage against the person who left us. But what if suicide is an absence of choices, a fugue state of hopelessness, pain, and self-loathing that cancels the ability to reason or reach for help? In that case, any of us might have done something to prevent it. I find the thought hard to bear.

 

•  •  •

 

Learning to be a hostage negotiator for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, Jerald Barnes drenched his shirts with sweat, concentrated until his head ached. Terrified of saying the wrong thing, he spent months training and volunteered on a suicide hotline for practice, learning to listen without judgment, to hear inflections and patterns and warning signs, to probe the meaning behind the words.

He saved a lot of lives, talked a lot of people out of suicide when they were already poised to jump or shoot. But the rest of us have no training. I used to frown when people pulled away from someone in pain and muttered that they were not qualified to deal with this. Selfish, I thought. Cowardly. Now I would add “wise.” Because while the recoil might be selfish, its justification is true. The trick is to listen without pronouncements, urge them toward qualified help, act as an ambulance. Toss in your own views, and they can land on broken glass.

“Anytime you take someone really vulnerable and really at risk and they are connected to someone and that person starts to lead them down the wrong path, their vulnerability and risk goes up,” notes Dan Reidenberg, executive director of SAVE, “particularly if that person presents themselves as a ‘helper’ or ‘healer’ or something similar.”

I used to frown when people pulled away from someone in pain and muttered that they were not qualified to deal with this. Selfish, I thought. Cowardly. Now I would add “wise.”

Yet you have to do something. “I have always felt that a human being could only be saved by another human being,” James Baldwin said. “I am aware that we do not save each other very often. But I am also aware that we save each other some of the time.”

 

•  •  •

 

What did I say to all those people when I was in my twenties? I got nervous and jumped in too soon, contradicted their reality with mine, stayed too cheery and probably deepened their depression. Decades later, I erred in the opposite direction, tiptoeing because I was terrified of landing too hard. My British friend was far too stiff-necked and private; how could I barge in and force him to spill his guts? My brilliant, neurotic literary friend knew more of the world than I did; what could I say that would rise above cliché?

Maybe if I had smashed through the ice of reserve, I could have dragged them both to safety. Something else we will never know. Indifference, cruelty, malice—all of that is clearly culpable. But what if we mean well, but our own needs, fears, and beliefs get in the way?

One of the tragedies of young suicide, and maybe the biggest reason for its contagion, is that at that age, a lot of people only trust what comes back from someone who is as messed up as they are, searching just as hard.

We do not bear the burden of lives that are not own. But are we in any way responsible for them? The word is rooted in response: it asks us to offer something in return. And what we offer in return for someone else’s pain will always be inadequate.

One of the tragedies of young suicide, and maybe the biggest reason for its contagion, is that at that age, a lot of people only trust what comes back from someone who is as messed up as they are, searching just as hard.

That is what put Brandon Grossheim at the center of five deaths.

If these events had unfolded several years later, and he had a degree in psychology and sensitive, well-rehearsed clinical skills, he might have persuaded his friends to seek help. Instead, he offered that help himself, leaving them with a terrible freedom that I would argue was not free at all.

 

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If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours, every day.

 

Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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