Survivors of SuicideNOVEMBER 22, 2008
- Doug Merrill
- (Desiree Cooper)
- View the Slideshow
- Doug Merrill
- National Survivors of Suicide Day (American Foundation of Suicide Prevention)
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
- Rudy's Barbershop
- New Langston Hughes Poems Discovered
- Coming to America
- Weekend Soundtrack: "Shattered" by the Rolling Stones
More From Desiree Cooper
Today is the 10th Annual National Survivors of Suicide Day. Survivors are the ones left behind when someone commits suicide. There will be conferences all over the country to help people learn more about depression and suicide. More than 32,000 Americans take their own lives every year. It's the fourth leading cause of death for adults and the third leading cause among 15 to 24-year-olds. For the survivors, getting over the grief, anger and the lingering questions can be difficult. Doug Merrill has had to struggle with how to carry on. He's lived through the suicide of eight people - most of them teens - in the bedroom community of Bowling Green, Ohio, just south of Toledo. Weekend America's Desiree Cooper went to hear his story of survival.
Doug Merrill has spent his entire life in Bowling Green. His fondest childhood memories are of playing Whiffle ball in the front yard. And of Dawn, the girl he fell in love with in seventh grade.
"I remember that she kicked me in the shin first," Doug laughed, "and later I did a shoulder bump. It was our way of saying, 'Hey, I like you!'"
Doug and Dawn were buddies through high school, going to dances and singing in the choir together. They thought they'd be friends forever, but in May of 1987, all that changed. Out of the blue, one of Doug's wrestling teammates killed himself. At 16, Doug took it hard. Dawn took it harder. A few days afterwards, they were on the school bus when Dawn asked whether their friend had gone to hell.
"My answer to her haunts me to this day," said Doug. "Even now, I'm having a difficult time telling you about it. I looked her straight in the eye and said, 'No, Dawn, I don't believe he's in hell. I believe when you and I die, we'll talk to him the same way you and I are talking now."
I asked him why it was so hard for him to recall what he said to Dawn.
"Because we were having two different conversations, and I didn't realize that," he answered. "I thought I was making her feel better. But she was actually using me to remove that last hurdle of doubt for something she already wanted to do."
Later that day, Dawn hanged herself. Doug was past grief. He was angry.
"If she didn't want to be a part of my life, I didn't want to be a part of hers," Doug said. "I did not attend her visitation; I did not attend her funeral. In many ways, I wiped her from my mind."
At school, he yelled at a student who was lowering the flag in Dawn's honor. He didn't want anyone to glorify her suicide. Alarmed by his outburst, the staff put him into counseling. He wasn't happy about it. He worried other students would either think he was crazy or an attention hound.
But it was in counseling that he revealed his secret. "I hadn't spoken to anyone about that conversation I'd had with Dawn the day before," he said. "I wasn't 100 percent sure I hadn't done something legally wrong. I felt responsible for killing her." Counselors assured him that he'd done nothing wrong. But still, Doug couldn't forgive himself. He kept those feelings bottled up for years.
Then when Doug was 20, a friend died in a car crash, and he just couldn't take it. He drove to southern Ohio, left a goodbye note in his car, then stood on a cliff preparing to jump. When a stranger happened to walk by, he lost his nerve. Instead, he went to visit his friend's grave.
But at the cemetery, he stumbled over something. "When I stopped to see what I tripped on, I saw this name on a tombstone. Dawn was here."
Here's the thing: He didn't even know she was buried there. Remember, he'd refused to go to her funeral. Now he was face to face with the anger he'd carried all those years. That's when he spoke to what he calls the demons of suicide. He stared them down, saying, "You almost got one more, but you lost and you're going to continue to lose."
Four years later, Doug was back at his old high school - this time as the baseball coach. He showed me the trophies he'd won as a member of Bowling Green High School's baseball team - and the recent championship trophies he'd won as the coach.
Things were going well until April of 2004. That's when an assistant coach reprimanded a baseball player, Derek, for chewing tobacco.
Derek went home and hanged himself.
Caitlyn Lanseer had dated Derek off and on. She was devastated. "After Derek's death I started to get angry because I just didn't understand," she said. "I just didn't understand."
The school provided counseling for Caitlyn and others. In fact, it implemented an action plan that's like a page out of the homeland security playbook. All threats are taken seriously. All freshmen are given training on preventing and detecting depression. All of the counselors have experience in crisis management.
Still, the suicides kept happening, again and again. Between 2004 and 2007, four students at BGHS killed themselves. There were three other attempts in a single week. The principal, Jeff Dever, couldn't believe what was happening in his school of 1100 students.
"We serve a suburban population 80 percent, 20 percent rural," said Dever. "We're out in the middle of northwest Ohio. We're hometown USA." No one could figure out a reason, but maybe there wasn't one.
Dever said that statistically, when you have one suicide, chances increase that you'll have more. "The window is usually anywhere from 5 to 6 years long," he said. "We're about a year out from that original suicide, and hopefully, we'll be OK."
I went to visit Caitlyn Lanseer, the student who had dated Derek, one of the recent suicides. She's now at Bowling Green State University. Last year, she even joined a sorority, where they knew her as the "happy, go-lucky, bubbly girl." But just like Doug, her anger came back to haunt her.
In the middle of February, she fell into severe depression. When Doug ran into her earlier this year, he noticed the trouble signs.
"She did not embrace anything that life had to offer any longer," Doug said. "She had a hard time getting herself ready for work or for school. But the biggest sign was that she flat out told me that she didn't want to live anymore. That catches your attention. So I told on her. Her parents were able to have the opportunity to get involved, she was able to receive some counseling."
"He stepped in at the perfect time," Caitlyn said. "I've been healthy, happy. But my biggest fear is feeling like that again."
Doug realizes that the battle against suicide is never-ending. But he has a secret weapon for his own fight. He shared it with me as he pointed out the house where his friend Dawn used to live.
"I run past this house five times a week," he said. "Every time I do, I hold my index finger and my thumb out to form an 'L.' That stands for 'live.' It's a way to let that demon know that I know about him, and he's going to lose."
- Music Bridge:
- Artist: Helios
- CD: Caesura (Type)