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Winter had come late but ferociously to Glen Rock, New Jersey. The temperature was just 14 degrees F. as Zack Toskovich threw open his second-floor bedroom window sometime just before midnight on Wednesday, February 7, 2007. A nimble climber, the 17-year-old gripped a length of electrical piping, lowered himself to the darkened yard, then headed toward his school, a few blocks away. Later a neighbor would report calling anxiously after the lonely figure as he passed her driveway. He didn't answer; maybe he couldn't hear her through his iPod earbuds.
Glen Rock High School stands just two stories tall, and Zack easily scaled one side. Standing on the school roof that frigid night, wearing a new winter coat his mother had just bought for him, he evidently thumbed this text message into his cell phone, then sent it simultaneously to five of his closest friends:
im sorry. everyone who gets this message will probably hate me but i cant help that. you were the greatest people in my life and i love you all.
When the phone rang around 12:15 a.m., it woke Jane and Pete Toskovich from a sound sleep. Pete fumbled for the phone. "Hello?"
"Is Zack there? It's Vanessa." Zack had professed his love for Vanessa Gonzales the previous year, but she'd told him she thought of him as a brother. At 18, Vanessa had already graduated and now attended Barnard College, in New York City, but the two old friends had stayed close. Just this weekend they'd watched the movie Amelie together.
"He's probably sleeping, but I'll check," said Pete, 53.
Vanessa heard Pete climb the stairs before he came back on the line. "He's not here," he said, sounding perplexed.
Vanessa was not surprised. She'd already phoned and texted Zack, with no response. "Okay," she said. "Can you tell him I called?"
Returning to the master bedroom, Pete told his wife that Zack wasn't home. Instantly alert, Jane grabbed the phone and dialed Vanessa back. "Vanessa, what's going on?" Jane demanded.
"I got this weird text message. I don't think it's good."
Could Zack have run away? Jane, also 53, would sooner have believed that her other kids -- daughters Alexandra, 21, and Kerre, 19 -- had snuck out of their college dorms to join the circus. Zack was known throughout the town for his genial smile, his enormous intellect and, especially, his contented home life. The previous April, when he and a number of high school kids had gone to Spain over spring break, he'd suffered the worst bout of homesickness of the group.
Jane raced upstairs and threw open Zack's door. Everything seemed normal. Video games were piled in one corner and the walls, as always, were bare except for a mounted VW hubcap he'd found on the side of a road. On top of Zack's bookshelf was a collection of energy drinks, a silly monument to his love of the jolt.
Except his bed was undisturbed, as tightly made up as an army bunk. Jane crossed to the desk. There a Post-it read, "Turn on the computer for more information." As Pete hovered behind her, she pushed the power button and the screen illuminated. In the middle of the desktop was a single document icon, titled "Goodbye." After a click, Jane began to read.
"Pete, call the police," she said, panic rising in her chest. "This is a suicide note."
Pete dialed 911, but Jane had a sinking feeling. Zack never tried anything without succeeding spectacularly. Even at a school filled with high achievers -- Glen Rock High School has been ranked sixth in the state and sends around 98 percent of its graduates to college -- Zack was a standout, in the running for class valedictorian at graduation in June. Early-admission letters and scholarships had already arrived from the University of Pittsburgh and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and more were hoped for from Columbia and Princeton.
As she looked into the face of her husband of three decades -- her high school sweetheart, the only man she had ever loved -- Jane had a flash of pure fear, a vision of what life might be like after this long night was over. "Pete, you have to promise me," she said, "whatever happens with Zack, we'll still be okay. Promise me that."
"I promise," Pete replied.
Glen Rock is an affluent, close-knit community of about 11,500 in northern New Jersey. Few things are more urgent there, or more rare, than the report of a missing child. Within minutes of Pete's call, two policemen arrived at the Toskovich home. The police suggested the couple call Zack's other friends; perhaps he'd gone out with one of them. They woke Zack's classmate Matt Casella at close to 1 a.m. Matt didn't know Zack's whereabouts, but when he turned on his cell phone he found the same text message Vanessa had received, also dated 12:10 a.m., February 8.
Matt got in the car and started driving around, looking for Zack. While one officer stayed behind with Jane, the other set out with Pete to search for clues. They cruised from one of Zack's favorite places to another. They even circled the school, but the courtyard was not visible from the car. When the officer took Pete home he went back out into the bitter cold and walked through the whole town -- the railroad tracks, the woods -- thinking he might see his son.
It was the worst night of Jane's life. "I still had hope but part of me feared he might already be gone," she later recalled.
The school custodian made the grisly discovery near dawn. Zack lay facedown on a sidewalk in the courtyard. His earbuds were still in place, but his glasses lay shattered on the ground next to him.
Because the extreme cold weather masked important forensic clues, the exact time of death could not be pinpointed. According to the county medical examiner, the impact of the fall lacerated Zack's liver and one of his lungs and caused multiple fractures, especially in his skull, jaw, and nose. Apparently he had taken additional measures to kill himself: Near his jugular was a stab wound; a kitchen knife lay nearby.
"You don't expect something like this," said Glen Rock Police Chief Steven Cherry, who was very distressed by the scene. "There are plenty of troubled kids in the world who, unfortunately, find no other way of relief than to take their own life. In some cases you can forecast the risk. But there were no signs here. We never picked this kid up, he was never intoxicated, he was not a blip on our screen."
That sentiment was echoed by Zack's teachers. Alan Feldman, his advanced placement psychology teacher, suspected nothing. "I'm fairly good at picking up kids' emotional feelings," he said, noting that he'd seen Zack the day before his death. "But I had no sense whatsoever that he was anxious or thinking about doing something like this at all."
"From what I saw of him -- and obviously we didn't see everything we needed to -- he was pretty confident," added guidance counselor Dan Brodhead, who was meeting with Zack up to three times a week in order to help him with college applications.
Indeed, it's a familiar, if grim, scenario: a teenager's traumatic death by his own hand, a painful funeral and heartbroken friends and relatives who shake their heads and say they never saw it coming. Yet, as an examination of Zack Toskovich's short life reveals, the clues are nearly always there; they may just be imperceptible to all but a chosen few. Zack, a brilliant, outwardly upbeat young man, didn't entirely conceal his private demons: He confided previous suicide attempts to two friends, who never told an adult what they knew.
On the morning of February 8, Glen Rock High's principal, Jim McCarthy, activated the school's reverse 911 system, sending an automated message to 800 ninth through 12th graders that school was canceled that day. McCarthy's next step in what would be a pitch-perfect response to the tragedy was to assemble a crisis-intervention plan, calling in experts from the area to help kids grapple with the trauma. In such situations, he knew, there was always a danger of copycat suicides. Experts advise aggressively unfurling a safety net for other at-risk kids while avoiding any move that might romanticize suicide or heap on it the kind of attention that a troubled kid might envy. The school was determined that no teenager would be tempted to follow in Zack's path. After all, if black moods could claim someone as perpetually cheerful as Zack Toskovich, then everyone was vulnerable.
Administrators increased security on the roof while stifling their impulse to remove Zack's desks from his classrooms or to close off the courtyard. Teen trauma experts met with individual students, if needed, and specialists in disaster cleanup returned the courtyard to normal. A "safe room" was set up for kids too distraught for classes, and group sessions, headed by a trauma therapist, were offered to anyone who wanted to attend. It would meet every Thursday for the rest of the school year.
Gabbie Robbins arrived at school early on February 8. Police were everywhere and a helicopter buzzed overhead. When she was turned back at the door, Gabbie knew instantly that something terrible had happened. She returned home and took her cell phone off the shelf; according to Gabbie, the previous day her mother had grounded her from using it. Before Gabbie could dial her friends the phone produced Zack's farewell text message, the same one he'd sent to four other friends.
But Zack had sent Gabbie a second text two minutes later, to her alone: i love you. goodbye :(
Through her flood of tears, Gabbie also saw she'd missed two incoming calls from him, the last one at 12:07 a.m., most likely just minutes before his feet left the roof.
The full import of the missed messages hit Gabbie like a punch in the stomach. She and Zack had shared their thoughts about suicide, and they'd made a pact: If either was about to try anything dire, each would phone the other immediately.
Zack had made that call. And Gabbie missed it.
Two years younger than Zack, Gabbie was different from his other friends; she was as contemptuous of the school's competitive academic life as he was integral to it. The two met in Latin class, and Zack seemed to admire Gabbie's free spirit and talent for social drama. She never sat next to Zack; she usually sat in his lap. She was the friend he secretly text-messaged from one classroom to another.
Their friendship had taken a more serious turn one night a few months earlier. In a text message Gabbie told Zack she'd attempted suicide. As it turned out she was mostly posturing. Drawn to razors, she would show up at school, a friend recalled, with "teeny cuts on her wrist." But cutting is not typically indicative of suicidal tendencies; indeed, it is often described as a way of confirming that one can feel something in an otherwise-numb existence. Suicide, on the other hand, is usually seen as an attempt to deaden an overabundance of unwanted feelings.
Gabbie later explained that she'd never considered killing herself. It was something she told Zack, probably to appear more darkly mysterious. And it must have struck a chord with him. He told her that he had twice tried to take his own life. In eighth grade, he said, he'd swallowed some pills; more recently he'd slashed his leg with a razor.
Zack had divulged the pills episode to just one other person, Vanessa Gonzales, and he'd implied that it was a childish act well in his past. In Gabbie, though, Zack appeared to find a kindred spirit, someone who knew what it felt like to want to harm himself. "We were the only two people who knew the extent of how we were feeling," Gabbie said, describing a Zack no one else saw. "He just hated everything he did. He was never good enough. Is there something about yourself that you just hate? Like your nose or your hair? For Zack it was everything."
Zack's death tore Gabbie apart. She wrote poems to him on her MySpace page and proclaimed him the "love of my life," lamenting that she'd never told him so. She took to berating herself for his death. "I was avoiding him the 7th bc I was in a bad mood and didn't want to talk to anyone, really," she blogged. "I was avoiding him and if I hadn't been he'd be alive."
After she dropped hints that she might follow Zack on February 8 of her own senior year, Gabbie said, the school's administration insisted that her family check her into Four Winds Hospitals, a psychiatric facility, for four days. About two months later she was back for a 10-day stay.
Jane, too, found herself inordinately concerned about Gabbie, who had phoned to express her sorrow over Zack's death. When they finally met, "Gabbie talked about how she loved my son's eyes and how cute his smile was," Jane recalled. "I tried to take care of her, honestly, because she seemed so fragile."
Jane and Pete Toskovich both grew up Catholic, but their children were raised with no particular religion. The couple had Zack's body cremated, and rather than hold a funeral organized a memorial service for the Saturday after his death. They expected that the community would want to pay respects but were stunned at the size of the crowd, which swelled to 500. "I don't think we realized how many people Zack touched," Pete said. In fact, so many townspeople wanted to mourn Zack that Glen Rock's houses of worship left their doors open that day, receiving anyone who wanted to pray.
The students also mounted their own memorial event behind the school: Two hundred of them -- a quarter of the student body -- gathered to write notes to Zack and fold them into a memory box, painted green and blue and covered with stickers. "There were a lot of kids who didn't go to grief counseling after this happened, but the whole school seemed devastated," explained senior Amy Plasencia, who organized the event with Zack's friend Brad Baron. (Brad, who'd known Zack since grade school, carried an extra burden of grief: He'd felt shocked and "betrayed" not to have been among the five friends to whom Zack texted his goodbye.) Despite their still-fresh pain, Jane and Pete attended the ceremony. Jane felt a keen need to help the students endure the tragedy. But mostly she worried they might be haunted by guilt, as she was.
She thought it was really important to say, "You need to know that this is nobody's fault." When it was Pete's turn to speak, he told the students that he thought Zack was at peace.
A few weeks after Zack's death, Jane, an office manager and Lamaze teacher, was still crying several times a day and had become convinced she was forgetting her son. Desperately she studied a DVD of the school choir, listening closely for his voice. It was no use. She could see Zack's mouth open and close, but it was impossible to make out which notes emanated from her youngest child.
"I still remember my mom, but I knew her for 33 years," sobbed Jane. "I only knew Zack for 17 3/4 years."
Still, some things came into easy focus. He was a home birth, "an angel baby" who always seemed happy. He loved his Montessori kindergarten and excelled at public school. In fact, Zack's IQ was in the 99th percentile. From third grade on he took classes with students a year older. In high school he earned a nearly unbroken string of A's. His classmates used to rib him that his large head was necessary to accommodate his abnormally large brain.
Zack planned to be a chemical engineer, but his academic possibilities were wide open. His parents never had those opportunities. Jane earned an associate's degree in nursing, while Pete, a tool-and-die maker, dropped out of college after a few weeks. Even in middle age the pair retain vestiges of their hippie youth -- in sharp contrast to their neighbors, many of whom work on Wall Street.
The Toskovich children, on the other hand, were driven academically. Alexandra graduated at the very top of her class at Glen Rock High School and went on to Georgetown University; Kerre, who used to say she didn't want to work as hard as her siblings, nonetheless enrolled at the highly competitive Villanova University. (Neither daughter agreed to be interviewed for this article.) In this environment, Jane remembered, nobody pushed himself more than Zack. "If he got a 96, he wanted a 98. If he got 100, my husband used to joke, 'Couldn't you get extra credit? Wasn't there 103?' But that was fun for him. Zack loved the challenge of it. His mind was his passion."
While the 3 million high-achieving teens in the United States are as a whole better adjusted than their peers, these teens "get very mixed messages about their giftedness," says Tracy Cross, PhD, a psychologist and dean at Ball State University and a specialist in high-functioning adolescents. "Therefore many experience additional stress and turmoil." Other research indicates that these teens can be more prone to social and emotional disturbances, including supersensitivity, social isolation, and extreme perfectionism -- a quality that many studies point to as a risk factor for suicidal thinking.
But Zack was no loner or detached intellectual, and while he was almost certainly a perfectionist, his drive for success struck no one as disproportionate. He worked hard on his schoolwork but allowed himself ample leisure time. Mornings by his locker he tutored other kids, sitting cross-legged around their books, and many afternoons were devoted to playing the musical video game Guitar Hero. In fact, video games could consume entire weekends, often spent with Mark Sodo, a shy, artistic young man who'd been Zack's best friend since third grade.
Zack had many good friends, in fact, and an even wider circle of acquaintances. "He was always smiling, always had something nice to say," said Amy Plasencia. "You couldn't not like Zack."
In addition to the choir, Zack joined the track team for a year, though he wasn't a great athlete. This didn't seem to disappoint him; indeed, nothing seemed to disappoint him. Neither did he do drugs or even drink much, convinced that alcohol might damage his brain cells. Jane asked Vanessa Gonzales if she thought Zack had felt pressured by his family to excel in school. "Absolutely not," Vanessa replied. "His perfectionism was totally self-imposed." Yet she admitted that it was "obviously symbolic" that Zack died at their school and hinted at a possible source of Zack's inner anguish. "Zack used to say, 'Other people have other talents, and my talent is school,'" Vanessa recalled. "He had an A+ in every single class. It became so commonplace to him. I think he was expecting something more that never happened. Because when you have an A+ how do you go further?"
In her quest to understand what led her son to kill himself, Jane scoured the literature on suicide but came up empty-handed. "He didn't lose weight, he didn't stop eating, he didn't do drugs, he didn't lose sleep, he didn't get sick," she said, ticking off all the classic warning signs. She has racked her memory for anything out of the ordinary. Earlier on his last day Zack had a minor car accident, colliding with another vehicle on his way to a coaching session to prepare for his interview at Columbia University. Nobody was hurt and the police didn't issue a ticket, but the family car sustained $2,000 in damage. Zack knew he'd have to help with the repair bill -- he'd used his earnings as a summer camp counselor to pay for a previous fender bender -- but nobody brought it up. His parents were just glad he was safe and told him so over and over at dinner that night.
In retrospect, though, Jane realized that Zack's behavior after the accident was somewhat odd. Though his usual tendency was to mope when something went wrong, "he was more up," said Jane. She began to wonder if he hadn't made his suicide plan immediately after the collision. Was his elevated mood a sign of relief?
Jane endlessly rehashed those last few hours of her son's life. If she had suggested a different route that afternoon, would he have avoided the accident -- and maybe the suicide? Had she and Pete been wrong to make their kids pay for repairs? Should she have been a different kind of mother -- less demanding or less permissive, more demonstrative or less smothering? Had Zack felt unloved? Alone? Unfulfilled?
Whatever it was Zack felt, Jane told herself that as his mother she could have, should have, fixed it -- but didn't. Her grief snowballed. "I've been beating myself up," she said. "It's very hard to live with that guilt, to think it was your fault your son took his life."
But as much as Jane yearned to rewind history and replay it differently, she could not change what happened that night: The family ate dinner together. Zack went upstairs to do his homework. When he finished he came downstairs to say good night, giving his mother the usual kiss and "I love you."
At 10:17 he was at his computer, typing his suicide note.
Part of that note bequeathed some of Zack's possessions to his friends. Though suicide prevention advocates warn that when a child begins divesting his or her possessions, alarms should sound, this was the first and only time Zack had ever tried to get rid of his things.
To Matt Casella, Zack willed his television and several video games. Mark Sodo, he wrote, should inherit his prize game system, Xbox 360, "since his parents won't let him buy one." To Vanessa he left two computer files, in which he'd recorded his memories of her, and bequeathed his beloved Guitar Hero game to another of the five friends who received his final text message.
To Gabbie Robbins he left no worldly goods but he told her he loved her and specifically apologized.
Zack's note also attempted to explain why he felt suicide was his only option. It wasn't just the accident, he wrote, or the expense that would result from it. Instead, he described the biting negativity that hectored his thoughts. He wrote of the intense pressure he put on himself to do better in school, to have more friends, to be more handsome.
A therapist Jane later consulted would take this self-laceration as evidence that Zack suffered from an acute form of perfectionism that construed even his accomplishments as failures and resulted in a sense of "false hopelessness." Moreover, Zack almost seemed to know that this was a self-imposed reality, and that it was irrational. But he was evidently powerless to change it. "My perception of myself is overwhelming me," he confessed in his note, "and there is nothing that you could have done to change that."
Until her own tragedy Jane knew only one person touched by suicide. Then people started coming out of the woodwork. "Someone at work told me about his brother-in-law who committed suicide," she said. "He wouldn't have told me that before. Other people have approached me. 'So-and-so's son tried to kill himself twice,' that kind of thing. There's a lot of this going on, and nobody knows it."
"There's a taboo around suicide," agreed Pete.
Because they wanted to help other parents avoid a similar tragedy, Jane and Pete forced themselves to give as many newspaper interviews as they could manage. They say their daughters opposed this approach, fulminating against becoming the "poster family for suicide." ("They're just dealing with it in their own way," Pete explained.)
Zack had been dead only a few weeks when a friend called to tell Jane about "Out of the Darkness," a fund-raising event sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Teams of walkers would start at sunset on June 9 and walk 20 miles through New York City, arriving at the finish line at dawn. Jane signed up immediately, forming Team Zack Pack. Mark Sodo was among the first to join, followed by his mother, Grace. Other students signed up, then other parents, old friends, Zack's gym teacher, and even total strangers who'd read about Zack's death in the newspaper. Soon there were 13 walkers who raised $33,838 in pledges.
From the beginning Pete told his wife the walk was not for him, and she accepted that. Respecting her daughters' grief, she understood when they told her they didn't want to participate, though they supported her. On the afternoon of the walk, four months after Zack's death, Jane piled supplies in her backpack, then dawdled when the time came to meet the Zack Pack van for the 30-minute drive to New York City. "I wonder if Pete's going to come home to see us off," she said out loud. He'd spent the day on a job site. Reluctantly, she moved toward the door. "Guess not," she said.
The difficult night's walk was marked by tears, sore feet, and down-to-the-bone exhaustion. It rained several times, but Jane and her team pushed through the city, from Wall Street up to Harlem. Each wore a T-shirt emblazoned with pictures of Zack, beaming the smile that concealed so much. "This is for you, Zack," Jane said, holding out her arms. "This is all for you!" At dawn, at the finish line, Jane lit a candle for her lost son and sat before it, utterly depleted.
During the final few weeks of the school year, a semblance of normalcy returned to Glen Rock High School. Principal McCarthy watched with relief as students began walking through the courtyard again, overcoming its gruesome taint. The senior play and prom went on as planned.
Over the administration's half-hearted objection, some of Zack's friends bought a tree for the courtyard and held a planting ceremony to which Zack's parents were invited. Because of concerns that memorializing a suicide might encourage copycat actions, students were not permitted to lay a stone carved with Zack's name, so instead they commissioned a marker that read, simply, "REMEMBER." Before backfilling the hole, they wrote farewell letters and placed them in the pit. The last to finish was Mark Sodo, who sat in the grass composing a long missive dense with ink. When he finished, he folded the paper into the soil.
Mark's mother had been worried by her son's decision not to talk about his best friend's death. Mark claimed that mourning was pointless. "I want to get over it," he explained to her. "I don't think it's worth it to just keep this in my mind and struggle with it."
Brad Baron had a different kind of epiphany. After making the painful discovery that he didn't know his good friend so well after all, Brad decided to reveal a secret of his own. "When Zack died, I said to myself, secrets suck, secrets are bad, secrets kill you," he said. Until then Brad had never told anyone that he was gay; by fall, when he headed off for his freshman year at Princeton, many in Glen Rock knew he was out of the closet.
On graduation day, June 21, 176 gowned seniors lined up in the school corridor, ready to fall in behind a band of bagpipers for the march to the soccer field, where a stage had been erected. Just 30 minutes before showtime, the crystalline sky was ambushed by steel-black clouds and a sudden cold front rolled in. Within minutes the temperature plunged 20 degrees and a thick rain hammered the campus. It was the strangest barometric phenomenon in memory -- one that was impossible not to link to the suicide that had cast a gloom over senior year. Then, 15 minutes before the ceremony was to begin, the skies cleared as dramatically as they had darkened. A cheer went up among the graduates. Even Jane and Pete Toskovich, who attended, were visibly pleased.
The ceremony proceeded briskly. The band and choir performed and several top students gave speeches. Then in a surprise gesture, the graduates called Jane and Pete to the center of the field. There they were presented with a box that contained single strands cut from the tassel of each graduate. All 176 seniors participated in the tribute. The couple returned to their seats with glassy eyes. "That was a thoughtful gesture," Jane said, placing a hand on her husband's shoulder.
Pete dried his eyes and laughed gently. "I guess they wanted to see me cry one more time," he said.
By midsummer Pete and Jane had returned to their old routines, and daughters Alex and Kerre, home from college, filled the house with the chaos of ordinary life. With work and social obligations claiming the young women's attention, the subject of their brother, much less their own grief, didn't seem to come up.
This alarmed their mother. "I keep saying, I really need to find out where they're at, but I haven't done it," Jane said. "They seem fine. Then again, that's kind of a funny expression in this house." Pete urged his wife to let their daughters grieve in their own time. After an acquaintance who'd lost a sibling told Jane that it could take years for her daughters to talk about it, Jane reluctantly agreed.
Meanwhile, Pete and Jane had many of what they called "bad days," especially on weekends and around holidays. Over the Fourth of July, Pete removed Zack's energy drinks, but lost his emotional bearing as he carried them down the stairs. He cried angrily.
"Just because I'm removing these cans doesn't mean I'm going to forget Zack," he told Jane.
"Honest to God, Pete," she consoled him, "do you think I think you'd ever forget?" It had, after all, been days before Jane managed to empty the trash in Zack's room. For months she was unable to strip his bed and she still hasn't finished sorting his clothing.
For all the progress Jane and Pete had made toward an intellectual understanding of suicide, they were still emotional wrecks. Both could quote the statistics -- someone in America attempts suicide every minute of every day -- but they couldn't enter their son's room without agony.
Late in the summer Jane finally made an appointment with a specialist in teen suicide whose name she'd come across in a newspaper article. Mark Hatton, PhD, had a subspecialty, conducting "psychological autopsies" of adolescents who killed themselves. She wanted his professional assessment of Zack.
She brought Zack's suicide note, the only tangible clue he left behind. According to Jane, who has committed most of the note to memory, Zack had been very detailed about what had -- and had not -- caused his dark tailspin. Family or friends were not at fault, he emphasized. He focused on his failures. For a half page he detailed the myriad ways he had let himself down.
He asked his parents to show the letter to his five closest friends, then asked those friends to post the text on the Internet so all who knew him could learn who he really was. "I'm sorry, Mom and Dad, but it's not your decision," he wrote.
"Tough luck," Jane thought. "You took your life, you lost your vote."
After finding the letter on Zack's computer, Jane says she printed it and deleted it from the hard drive. Rather than distributing the note as requested, she invited the five friends to the house to read it (so far only three have done so), then filed away the only copy in her bedroom.
Jane went alone to the therapy appointment. After studying the note, Dr. Hatton reassured her that it was not surprising that she had been unaware of Zack's inner turmoil. Bright kids, he said, are especially good at covering up their perceived limitations. And Zack had specifically exempted her from any responsibility. "A big part of the note was about dispelling his parents' guilt," Dr. Hatton explained later. "It was very thoughtful. I got a flavor of how thorough he was, how caring.
"He talked about not being able to stand feeling the way he felt any longer," Dr. Hatton continued. "He didn't see any options. He was inside that no-option bubble for so long that he decided with that very capable mind of his, that this is what he had to do." Dr. Hatton called this an example of "constricted thinking" and concluded that Zack may have suffered from adjustment problems he might eventually have outgrown. "Adolescents may have very sophisticated thoughts and brilliant insights, but we forget that that's overlaid on an experience base that's extremely thin. Everything is changing -- their bodies, their interpersonal relationships, their home lives -- and they come to those intense adolescent conclusions because they really don't have much life experience."
Add to this the physiological reality that in the adolescent brain the connections in the prefrontal cortex -- the area of the brain responsible for planning ahead, reasoning, and curbing destructive impulses -- are not fully developed. "It's like that perfect storm, where all these factors came together and amplified Zack's constricted thinking," Dr. Hatton said, noting that the boy could possibly have just crumpled under the accumulated pressures of his young life, including the desire to do well in his college interviews, his frustration over his accident, and his towering and unmanageable perfectionism. "Unfortunately, this was impossible for anybody to see."
Dr. Hatton's analysis both eased and complicated Jane's progress toward healing. It allowed her to begin to forgive herself, but it fertilized a regret: If Zack had held on, if he could have found his way into therapy, he could have emerged from this adolescent phase relatively unscathed.
Before the session ended Dr. Hatton homed in on a passage in Zack's letter that Jane had not seen as particularly significant. "He said to me, 'Jane, look at this sentence: I can't even think any more. Zack as much as said, my mind has shut down.'"
Over the next several weeks Jane returned again and again to that sentence. Zack had more thinking skills than just about anybody. He could think his way through any homework assignment, but what was happening to him was on another plane altogether. "Poor thing," she said. "Thinking was everything to him. But this was all feeling."
In a final gesture, the members of the senior class passed around a copy of the senior yearbook in Zack's memory, then delivered the signed volume to his family. Jane sat on the living-room sofa, paging through it into the evening. In their inscriptions some kids confessed their own struggles with drugs or depression. One message knocked the breath out of Jane. It was written by a girl she knew quite well, a high achiever like Zack, and just as apparently happy-go-lucky:
Zack, you have been an incredible friend ever since we met in middle school. I love your optimistic cynicism, your dry humor, admirable brilliance, and contagious smile. By ending your life, you saved my own. After this tragedy, I finally stopped denying my own depression, anxiety, bulimia, and OCD, and committed myself to care. I cry for you every single day, and can only hope you would not have regretted your decision. I still can't walk through the courtyard, and I miss you so much. I love you Zack, you were too good for us.
Jane later learned that after Zack's suicide, this girl fell into a severe depression. Her boyfriend became so worried that he told her parents, who checked her into a psychiatric facility, where she spent most of last summer, getting therapy and medication that stabilized her moods. By fall she was able to head off to college on schedule. Hers was the alternate ending that Zack might have had, had his secrets reached adults.
Jane and Pete's own healing came in fits and starts. Jane tried a bereavement group but found little solace there. After reading about a Wyoming-based medium she booked a telephone appointment with the woman, hoping she could communicate with Zack through a seance. The medium seemed to know that Zack was "cerebral," that Jane studied nursing and that Zack liked to ride in Pete's pickup truck. "She described the image of a quiet, shy, reserved, reflective person," Jane recounted. "And then she asked me if he'd had trauma to the head." But when Jane wanted to ask her son a direct question the signal seemed to fade. A year ago, Jane might instantly have dismissed the woman as a charlatan; now her grief and desperation were such that, she said, "it didn't seem totally ridiculous." She planned to try again in a few months.
Since Zack's death Pete, too, had begun to ponder the afterlife. "Every day I talk to Zack -- like a spirit guide, you know?" he said. "It's like I live two lives now. I live life here with Jane and my two daughters. And there's the life with Zack. There are two worlds and I'm caught somewhere between the two."
The public speaking engagements that Jane began as a way to help others -- but now feels are even more helpful to herself -- have brought her a measure of peace. Breaking the silence about suicide, she believes, is a parent's responsibility. "I talked with my kids about condoms, drugs, and alcohol," Jane recently told a college class of future mental-health counselors, "but I never said, 'Let's talk about mental health.' We never discussed depression, or bipolar disorder, or anything like that." And she never told them that if a peer mentioned suicide, they had an obligation to tell an adult.
Jane is taking measures to change that. She started by having a heart-to-heart talk with her daughters about their reluctance to discuss their brother's death. They convinced her that they weren't in denial but were advancing through their grief at their own pace. The talk went well, and Jane now feels that her relationship with her daughters is more candid and intimate than ever.
She also decided how to use the $2,000 collected for a memorial by the parents of graduating seniors: She will create a suicide-prevention campaign targeting children, parents, and teachers. In November Jane met with a steering committee about becoming part of the "Yellow Ribbon Program" in which kids can anonymously fill out wallet-size cards when they learn of another kid's struggles. The system is designed to circumvent kids' reluctance to "rat out" friends, says Dr. Cross. "Some of these kids say they would rather have a dead friend than a live enemy -- someone who's furious at them for ratting him out. We must change those views."
In a single year Jane Toskovich has gone from victim to survivor to visionary. She is now surrounded by a large support network that includes others who've experienced a suicide. Among this group is Gabbie, who at press time was helping to organize a rock concert in Zack's memory called "Life Rocks." Proceeds will help finance this year's Zack Pack in the fund-raising walk.
"I think Zack wanted Jane to carry a message to help other people," says Pete. "He gave her a mission, and she's on it now."
The role suits her. "In the most tragic year of my life," she admits, "I have much to be grateful for." But back home there's still work to be done. As Jane embraced these new roles, Pete withdrew, finding it hard to shake his anguish. "You like to think that it's better than it was nine months ago," he says, "but to me, it's not better. Some things really haven't changed a bit. I can't believe how much I miss my son. I don't have the same need for answers as Jane does. I don't look for the why. For me, it's just getting through every day, that's all."
Pete has coped by loading his schedule with extra jobs, often returning home only after the rest of Glen Rock has shut down for the night. Even when he's home, he's hard to reach, retreating to his "island," as Jane calls it. "Pete's going to take a long time to get back again," she says. "I think he got lost." Recently she told him, "You have to make a conscious decision to get better. I've decided I'm going to be happy. I'm determined to be happy."
"I'm not sure I can do that," he said.
After 31 years of marriage Jane begged to differ. "You can do it, Pete," she said. "You just have to decide."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2008.