I wanted to understand what was going on in Dylan’s mind prior to his death, so I looked for answers from other survivors of suicide loss. I did research and volunteered to help with fund-raising events, and whenever I could, I talked with those who had survived their own suicidal crisis or attempt. One of the most helpful conversations I had was with a coworker who overheard me talking to someone else in my office cubicle. She heard me say that Dylan could not have loved me if he could do something as horrible as he did. Later, when she found me alone, she apologized for overhearing that conversation, but told me that I was wrong.
She said that when she was a young, single mother with three small children, she became severely depressed and was hospitalized to keep her safe. At the time, she was certain that her children would be better off if she died, so she had made a plan to end her life. She assured me that a mother’s love was the strongest bond on Earth, and that she loved her children more than anything in the world, but because of her illness, she was sure that they would be better off without her.
What she said and what I’ve learned from others is that we do not make the so-called decision or choice to die by suicide in the same way that we choose what car to drive or where to go on a Saturday night. When someone is in an extremely suicidal state, they are in a stage four medical health emergency. Their thinking is impaired and they’ve lost access to tools of self-governance.
Even though they can make a plan and act with logic, their sense of truth is distorted by a filter of pain through which they interpret their reality. Some people can be very good at hiding this state, and they often have good reasons for doing that. Many of us have suicidal thoughts at some point, but persistent, ongoing thoughts of suicide and devising a means to die are symptoms of pathology, and like many illnesses, the condition has to be recognized and treated before a life is lost.
But my son’s death was not purely a suicide. It involved mass murder. I wanted to know how his suicidal thinking became homicidal. But research is sparse and there are no simple answers. Yes, he probably had ongoing depression. He had a personality that was perfectionistic and self-reliant, and that made him less likely to seek help from others.
He had experienced triggering events at the school that left him feeling debased and humiliated and mad. And he had a complicated friendship with a boy who shared his feelings of rage and alienation, and who was seriously disturbed, controlling and homicidal. And on top of this period in his life of extreme vulnerability and fragility, Dylan found access to guns even though we’d never owned any in our home. It was appallingly easy for a 17-year-old boy to buy guns, both legally and illegally, without my permission or knowledge. And somehow, 17 years and many school shootings later, it’s still appallingly easy.
What Dylan did that day broke my heart, and as trauma so often does, it took a toll on my body and on my mind. Two years after the shootings, I got breast cancer, and two years after that, I began to have mental health problems. On top of the constant, perpetual grief I was terrified that I would run into a family member of someone Dylan had killed, or be accosted by the press or by an angry citizen. I was afraid to turn on the news, afraid to hear myself being called a terrible parent or a disgusting person. I started having panic attacks.
The first bout started four years after the shootings, when I was getting ready for the depositions and would have to meet the victims’ families face to face. The second round started six years after the shootings, when I was preparing to speak publicly about murder-suicide for the first time at a conference. Both episodes lasted several weeks. The attacks happened everywhere: in the hardware store, in my office, or even while reading a book in bed. My mind would suddenly lock into this spinning cycle of terror and no matter how I hard I tried to calm myself down or reason my way out of it, I couldn’t do it.
It felt as if my brain was trying to kill me, and then, being afraid of — being afraid consumed all of my thoughts. That’s when I learned firsthand what it feels like to have a malfunctioning mind, and that’s when I truly became a brain health advocate. With therapy and medication and self-care, life eventually returned to whatever could be thought of as normal under the circumstances. When I looked back on all that had happened, I could see that my son’s spiral into dysfunction probably occurred over a period of about two years, plenty of time to get him help, if only someone had known that he needed help and known what to do.
Every time someone asks me, “How could you not have known?”, it feels like a punch in the gut. It carries accusation and taps into my feelings of guilt that no matter how much therapy I’ve had I will never fully eradicate. But here’s something I’ve learned: if love were enough to stop someone who is suicidal from hurting themselves, suicides would hardly ever happen. But love is not enough, and suicide is prevalent. It’s the second leading cause of death for people age 10 to 34, and 15 percent of American youth report having made a suicide plan in the last year. I’ve learned that no matter how much we want to believe we can, we cannot know or control everything our loved ones think and feel, and the stubborn belief that we are somehow different, that someone we love would never think of hurting themselves or someone else, can cause us to miss what’s hidden in plain sight.
And if worst case scenarios do come to pass, we’ll have to learn to forgive ourselves for not knowing or for not asking the right questions or not finding the right treatment. We should always assume that someone we love may be suffering, regardless of what they say or how they act. We should listen with our whole being, without judgments, and without offering solutions I know that I will live with this tragedy, with these multiple tragedies, for the rest of my life I know that in the minds of many, what I lost can’t compare to what the other families lost.