When a Student Commits Suicide

College emails about someone’s death usually involve people I never knew. This one was different.

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

August 04, 2014

It was a Friday, the day before spring break in 2013. I checked my email as I do every morning before setting out to work. One of the messages was titled "In Sadness." That is code for "Somebody Died." Usually these emails from the college report news of the death of an elderly board member or retired professor—people I never knew. But this one was different. A student had committed suicide the night before. And not just any student, but a young woman whom I liked very much, who had been in many of my classes, and who had seemed, from my limited perspective, to be doing well.

This "sadness" hit me like a punch to the stomach. I was not sure how to process the information. I had never dealt with the death of one of my students, nor had I prepared myself for something this tragic. I took a shower, walked over to work. I live across the street from the college. How had I not noticed any police or ambulance activity the night before? I didn’t teach that day. Or at least I do not remember teaching. It is all a blur.

I do recall not seeing many students because they had left campus to start their break. The student who had died—I will call her "Mae"—was gone, but before long, all of the students had gone home. For the next 10 days or so, the situation felt unreal, its impact thwarted. We all had to cope with this loss individually, rather than as a community.

Suicide is a topic I have more than the usual difficulty with. Years ago, when I was fresh out of college, my ex-boyfriend committed suicide. He lived in another state by then, and I had had no idea that he was in trouble. We had remained friends after I graduated (he was two years older), and we spoke by phone every few months. The last time we were in contact, he’d seemed in good spirits. I’d had no clue that he was facing any significant problems.

He left a suicide note and requested that certain people be notified. I was the last on the list. His sister had difficulty locating me to relay the information, and by the time she did, it was too late to attend his funeral or memorial service. Just like that, he was gone from my life. No goodbyes. No closure. For months afterward, I had dreams where I saw him from the corner of my eye at the mall or at the movies. I would search for him in the crowd to no avail. He was 24.

Years later, when I turned 48, I was struck by the fact that I had now lived two lifetimes compared to his one. I wanted to reach out to any young person who might be considering that same option. Suicide is particularly prevalent in the LGBT community, so I filmed an "It Gets Better" video as part of a campaign started by my college’s gay-student organization. I told about the suicide of my first boyfriend and begged any student to reach out and find help instead of suffering in silence. I wrote a short article for the Huffington Post and urged readers to donate to the Trevor Project, an organization devoted to stopping LGBT youth suicide.

Did Mae see my video? I know she had read some of my other Huffington Post articles because we had discussed them. Had she seen the piece I wrote about suicide? If she had read or heard me speak about it, why did she not come to me for help? Were there signs that I missed? Was it my fault for not sensing that something was amiss? During spring break, my mind replayed an endless loop of such questions.

A funeral was scheduled in her home state toward the end of the break. I was asked if I would speak, and I knew that I should. It was the right thing to do. But I declined. I could not bring myself to face her parents. Professors have an unspoken understanding with the parents of our students, don’t we? Parents entrust the well-being of their children to us, and we promise to guide and teach them while they are away at college. I was not to blame for Mae’s death, but somehow I felt ashamed. How could I look her mother in the eye if I felt she was thinking, "Why did you let this happen?"

I staved off going to the funeral by claiming that my schedule was too full. That was true, although I could have tried harder to move my responsibilities around. Mostly, I needed time to process the death on my own before facing the students who were about to return from break.

The college administration sent out an email stating: "Our students’ well-being after a tragic event such as this is of utmost importance to us, and the faculty is an integral part of the caring network that supports our students." I understood that to mean it was my responsibility to look after students coming to campus now and deal with my own feelings later.

My immediate concern was for the student actors who were in the play that I was in the midst of directing. When they returned, we would be entering the technical phase of rehearsals. Opening night was only about 10 days away. The play, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner, includes a character who commits suicide. There are several sections in the script that deal directly with thoughts of suicide, and its aftermath. This play was originally written as a one-woman show for Lily Tomlin, but I had cast seven actors to play the various roles. All of the student actors knew Mae. One actor, in particular, was one of her closest friends. I found myself in a quandary: Should I alter the play? Cut sections from it? Keep it intact? Cancel it altogether?

Mae had auditioned for the play earlier in the semester, and I had not cast her. If she’d been a member of the cast, would she have stayed with us until opening night? Would the mentions of suicide in the play have saved her somehow? As my mind kept wandering to these "what ifs," I forced myself to refocus and prepare for the returning students.

I reached out to my colleagues for advice. The responses I received were, well, academic. Several professors suggested some excellent articles to read. A few recommended book titles and authors. But this was an emotional crisis, not a literary one. I knew the readings were meant to help me make sense of the situation, but it was senseless. Besides, I did not have the time or the focus to read anything. I made a mental note to read the books and articles in the summer when my head was clear again. In the meantime, I needed practical help.

On a lark, I wrote to Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin. I was shocked to receive a long, thoughtful reply, written by Tomlin on their behalf. It expressed their condolences and mentioned a similar experience they’d had working on a revival of the play in San Francisco in 2011. "We were very excited to bring the play back to the city we love, and we were set to open to sold-out audiences on September 13, 2001," Tomlin wrote in the email. "And then 9/11 happened. We didn’t know what to do. How could we go forward after such a tragedy? How could we cancel the run? After much thought and introspection, we eventually opened." She continued: "Jane and I will never know what the ‘right’ thing to do might have been. But we believe that the play, during that six month run, afforded a healing influence on everyone who saw it." Tomlin then urged us to "go forward with the play, this play or any play, even in the face of extraordinary challenges, to continue the ‘seeing and telling’ that all of us humans must do every day."

Receiving that email was immensely comforting. Knowing that Tomlin and Wagner had shared feelings similar to mine allowed me to see the situation more clearly. It was also reassuring to be reminded of the healing quality that art can provide.

Just as Dorothy realized that she had the power all along in the form of her ruby-red slippers, I found that the answers to my immediate problems were right in front of me—in the play itself. The Search for Signs is hilarious and poignant, filled with wisdom and advice. Looking to the play would provide us with strength. The main character, Trudy, is, to put it mildly, bonkers. But her views of the world are fresh and insightful because they come from a different angle. Passages from the play that I had heard dozens of times before spring break took on much more importance now: "At the moment you are most in awe of all there is about life that you don’t understand," Trudy tells us, "you are closer to understanding it than at any other time." I understood that my focus must be on life, not on the death we all had experienced.

So inspired, I was able to better serve the students as we progressed through the last phase of rehearsals. Almost immediately, I knew there was a problem with one of the students, Mae’s good friend, whom I will call "Ruth." She had sent an email during spring break to express her difficulties coping with Mae’s suicide. I assembled the cast before Ruth arrived to make sure that they were all sensitive to her needs.

When Ruth first got back, she mustered up her actor-self and, during rehearsals, was able to quiet her emotions and become another person for an hour or two. But as soon she left the theater, she was falling apart. She had trouble remembering lines. She was late for rehearsals and, eventually, missed several. Soon she could not get out of bed. Residential staff members and administrators were looking after her well-being, but something had to be done to remove the burden of the play from her back.

Two days before we opened, I had a frank talk with her: "You should consider dropping out." She feared that she would be letting me and the rest of the cast down. "Your health is much more important than any play," I reasoned with her. Ultimately she agreed, and we went about finding a replacement with two days to go.

The others students were faring better. They, too, started to hear the wisdom in Jane Wagner’s script. When they found out that Ruth was no longer in the cast, they were disappointed, but with renewed purpose, they worked harder to bring the play to fruition. We rallied together, worked with replacements, and made it to opening night. That adage, "the show must go on," never felt more apt. It was gratifying to share what we had learned personally about the messages present in the play with appreciative audiences.

Several months later, a memorial was planned for Mae on campus. Her parents would be there. Several professors and students were asked to speak. I was more emotionally prepared this time, and agreed to participate. But I knew I could not write and deliver a traditional speech. It did not feel right. Again, I turned to theater as a source of courage, and asked four students to help me perform a short piece. I gathered a series of quotes from artists, poets, and musicians that reminded me of Mae. Together with my students, we shared the quotes as a means of expressing our feelings about her.

Mae was bright, unique, and outspoken. When she was a first-year student, she bravely and honestly spoke of her bisexuality in one of my classes during a discussion. I remembered that distinctly because I had thought at the time that I would never have had the courage to speak so openly and maturely when I was a college freshman. After her death, I discovered that she also did not identify with a particular gender and that she preferred gender neutrality. I have used "she" in referring to Mae in this article, but perhaps she would have requested that I use "zhe." It is easy to imagine Mae and myself having a discussion about this and other challenging topics, if only she had returned from break with the other students.

After the memorial service, we moved outside the theater building to where a tree had been planted in her honor. Some of her ashes were laid at the roots.

This past spring, the tree began to thrive. I see it every day as I walk to work. It is a lovely reminder of her spirit, although I would prefer that Mae were with us, rather than the tree. It is many shades of green, but the campus itself somehow seems less colorful.

Domenick Scudera is a professor of theater at Ursinus College.