Life After Suicide

Original Image and Article from: Personal Survivor Stories –
by Stan Lewy


On Monday, May 22, 2001, at 1:00 a.m., the phone rang and awakened my wife Sydney and me. We had been expecting a call from our daughter, Erica, who was to let us know how David was doing. He was dealing with some interpersonal issues at the lab and we had been on the phone with him for a good portion of the weekend trying to give him advice and support in dealing with his lab partner. Erica was planning to speak to him and “take his temperature.” He always communicated more openly with her.

There was a male voice on the phone who introduced himself as officer “something” from the La Jolla Medical Examiners Office. I really had not realized what he said and asked, “Is David OK?” He answered, “I am sorry Mr. Lewy, and your son is dead.” I just sat on the edge of the bed, stunned. I was afraid to react, I could not breathe. I hung up the phone and held my wife Sydney. I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it.

David was a special person. He was sensitive, he was kind, he was brilliant and he was humane. David graduated from the University of Michigan in 1997. When he graduated, he received two honorariums: one as “The Chemistry Department’s Most Outstanding Chemist” and another as the “Honors Program’s Most Well Rounded Student.”

David applied to the 10 finest organic chemistry Ph.D. programs in the country, and within two weeks, was accepted to all. He chose The Scripps Research Institute in LaJolla, Calif., where he worked for three years on a project to replicate a chemical molecule by the name of Chloropeptyn. Chloropeptyn in its natural state inhibits the HIV virus from replicating. David was one of five teams working on the project. The other teams were comprised of three and four Ph.D. candidates and Postdoctoral candidates. David worked alone for the first three years.

After David’s burial, Sydney, Erica and I went to California to recover his possessions and to discover whatever we could piece together about his last few days and weeks in order to try to better understand his rationale for making the decision to end his life. We learned much, but we did not answer that elusive question. It will remain forever unanswered. We met the people that adored him. He was not the loner that he projected himself to be. We met the people who revered him. He was the best of the best, not the failure he most feared. David was a tri-athlete who urged fellow members of his master class of swimmers to “do their best and never give up.” He led his fellow Ph.D. candidates to help out at a soup kitchen on Sunday dinners at St. Vincent de Paul. He counseled everyone on their problems, and he helped them all.

At a gathering we held at his apartment so that his friends could express their emotions and thoughts we heard stories that fill my eyes with tears even today, four years after his death. A young lady said, “We are graduate students, we don’t have much time to really do things outside the lab. We work really hard. David did everything that all of us would like to have the time to do, and still Mr. Lewy, he was the best of us.”

This is not the profile of one you would expect to die by his own hand.

The first priority is survival.
Upon returning from California, we had the exceptional good fortune to be introduced to L.O.S.S. (Loving Outreach for Survivors of Suicide). We were with people who had experienced this horrific loss, many years before us, and they had survived!!! They still ached, they always will, but they had survived. If they did, perhaps we could too.

The second priority is survival.
After three or four months had passed, I was almost able to breathe again. I walked along the Chicago Lakefront with my dogs each morning and I thought about David, and I cried. I could not conceive of an explanation that would explain his suicide, other than the pain. The psychic pain. Four years later, I know much more of the science, but I can only imagine the pain, I have no concept of how terrifying it must be to constantly live with it.

What do I do with the rest of my life?
I knew that I could not return to the world of corporate finance and banking. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to leave a legacy in honor of the work that David would not complete. I wanted to honor my son. But my skills were “hands off” and I wanted to do work that was “hands on” and I had not prepared myself for this type of endeavor.

How do you do that?
I spent three months learning how to transition from the world of profit to the not-for- profit world. I spent the next three months learning about specific agencies in the Chicago area. I decided that my new mission in life should have at its core, assistance for young people with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I needed to insure that other families would not experience the pain that we were experiencing. I wanted to do something to rid the world of the effects of suicide. And I found that I was having a very difficult time in moving forward towards my goal. Something was blocking me, and I knew what it was, I just could not find a way around my dilemma. I wanted to help bipolar individuals, but I afraid of what would happen to me if one of them were to take their own life. I was afraid of replaying, all over again, the pain and agony that I had just experienced, that I was still experiencing. I could not handle that pain again.

Attacking the Bogeyman.
One Saturday afternoon, I was walking along the lakefront while training for the first Out of the Darkness walk in Washington, D.C. I happened to be speaking with Jill Scott, the program director of L.O.S.S. and we were sharing our personal stories. I learned, for the first time, that Jill was also a survivor of her brother’s suicide, 15 years earlier. I told her of my dilemma and asked whether I had a legitimate concern, or was I creating a Bogeyman? Were my fears real or imagined?

Jill said that my concerns were valid. “However,” she counseled, “the further you distance yourself from that close intimacy, the more clinically you can approach the issue of suicide. You, of course, will be impacted, but not as severely as you envision.”

The following Monday I made three phone calls and set up three meetings. The Monday thereafter, I met with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, and joined their development committee. On Tuesday, I had a telephone meeting with AFSP Executive Director Robert Gebbia, in which I agreed to reactivate the Midwest chapter of AFSP, and on Wednesday I met with the chief operating officer and executive director of Thresholds, the premiere psychosocial rehabilitation agency in the state of Illinois.

The first day of the rest of my life.
As Thresholds’ only full-time volunteer, I visited and observed each of their psychosocial rehabilitation programs and residential programs, whose sole purpose is to help those with a serious and persistent mental illness. Thresholds represented a model I wanted to replicate for the Midwest chapter of AFSP, treating every aspect of suicide’s impact and its prevention.

I designed a “vision” which described a circular interaction between prevention, intervention and postvention. Each segment is assisted by, and assists, each other segment. I set forth every aspect of the community it touches, the services it requires and the lives it impacts. I described my goal to provide Chicago, and then the state of Illinois, with an effective crisis hotline, with a face to face intervention, ultimately coupled to a “safe house” where people at risk could find help and assistance, and a place to be safe, but one without the trappings and restrictions of a hospital. This is a complicated and tricky balancing of issues, and one that will take years to bring to fruition. But we need a goal, a path to travel and a vision for tomorrow.

Identifying services and service gaps.
With a vision clearly in mind, it was now important to try to determine the state of Illinois’ suicide prevention, intervention and postvention infrastructure. Where were there good services that needed support, mediocre services that needed fixing, and gaps in services that needed filling? The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) directed me to the two individuals running the Illinois Injury Prevention Coalition’s Suicide Prevention Strategic Planning Committee (SPSPC) that had written the Illinois State Plan. They invited me to join the steering committee of SPSPC, which was a 90-person coalition of representatives of state agencies, private and public agencies, professionals, survivors, educators and researchers. SPSPC was impressive group that in only eight months had prepared a rough draft of an Illinois State Suicide Prevention Plan. However, no assessment of service delivery or needs assessment had yet been performed, nor did one exist.

I became active with the steering committee and four months later was asked to take the assignment of beginning a three- to five-year project of writing legislation to fund and formalize the activities and goals of SPSPC. We started in November 2003 and by February had a bill introduced into the House of Representatives. We testified before the House Human Services Committee where we went from three sponsors to nine sponsors. Two days later, we had 56 sponsors and the next day the bill passed the House, 115 yea, 0 nay and 0 abstentions. We then found a sponsor in the Senate where the record ultimately was 62-0-0. On Nov. 9, 2004, less than a year after it was drafted, Illinois Public Act 097-0903, the Illinois Suicide Prevention, Education and Treatment Act, became law.

The act provided $225,000 in funding and another $250,000 for pilot programs, subject to appropriations. But it was passed, in a period when all programs were being curtailed in the state, and it provided stature and an infrastructure for suicide prevention within the state of Illinois. This past May, the governor appointed the Illinois Suicide Prevention Strategic Planning Committee as the vehicle to create, implement and monitor the Illinois Suicide Prevention Plan. I will chair that committee.

My day job.
For two years I volunteered full time at Thresholds and began my own healing process. While working with the office of the Illinois Attorney General trying to correct an inappropriate housing regulation, I was appointed to the Attorney General’s Disability Rights Advisory Council.

In December 2003, I accepted an opportunity to build a program for Thresholds in Lake County, the northern suburbs of Chicago. The Uptown Cafe is a transitional employment program for individuals with a severe and persistent mental illness. The program has expanded to around 40 members and we are forming alliances with major national corporations to find job opportunities for people with a mental disability doing the work that they want to perform, in the community, and at competitive wages.

It has been four years since I received the call that changed my life forever. It has not been an easy journey and the journey is far from its end. With determination, a true cause, and the inner need to help, I believe that I have begun to make a difference. I hope that I have done honor to my son, David, and the impact that he would have made on this planet. I miss him terribly, I always will. I do this work in his name.

Stan lives in Chicago and is the president and founder AFSP-Midwest/Chicago.