I have been struggling all weekend to understand what unknowable forces compel a young person so full of vitality and joy – and I do believe it is a compulsion – to take his own life. I know about immature frontal lobes, and the telescopic vision of late adolescence. Yes, yes, I know about risk factors. And still… there is no answer to the wailing rage of WHY.
As ‘house masters’ at Harvard, my husband and I often find ourselves immersed in symbolic responsibilities: presiding over various Ivy-tinged milestones, making the odd lofty remarks when duty calls. These aren’t insignificant matters, to be sure – and sometimes they are even transformative; we take the intellectual and moral lives of our students very, very seriously.
But it’s easy to get wrapped up in metaphors. (It’s an academic thing.) This weekend, my work took me back down to earth, into the raw and dirty trenches of youthful grief, disbelief, rage and fear. I’ve spent two days feeding people, handing out tissues, pouring glasses of orange juice and ice water, patting people on the back. All weekend, students have streamed into our house, begging, pleading for answers. I have none. Instead, I hand out origami paper, to make peace cranes. I say: Eat a cookie. ‘Ask for help.’ Is there anything I can do for you? Hollow gestures. There is no answer I can offer that would satisfy.
But the scientist in me believes one day there will be some answers that go beyond platitudes. One day I hope we can better understand and prevent the scourge of suicide. And the first step is to acknowledge and name it. Suicide. I’m therefore incredibly grateful to the family of Cote Laramie for allowing administrators such as myself at Harvard College to officially name the cause of dear Cote’s death. I believe we honor Cote’s life when we acknowledge the complexities and contradictions and mysteries of the human condition. We honor the wholeness of his life by admitting the painful truth: that his sensitivity and artistic talents and passion for language were not only a gift — to him and to others – but sometimes, truly, an unbearable burden.
I believe Cote was fording a river to self-discovery. I do believe that. Like the rugged landscape of his beloved New Hampshire, the river Cote was crossing was a thing of great beauty and power: churning, changing, highly oxygenated. He was finding a way across that damned river. But last week, he slipped and he fell into the swirl of white water. I believe in time Cote would have found a way to see the half-submerged rock before he slipped and lost his balance. And he would have come to see the pool of calm water resting just below the falls, too. That is the special horror of youthful suicide: tunnel vision.
The suicide of a young person is unbearable. We cannot bear it. The only answer is to draw together, in love and kindness, and then to move forward, seeking the knowledge we need to stop suicide. This doesn’t mean we should be riven with guilt and “What ifs.” But we need to find those answers. We need to find out how we can help people bear the unbearable: the pain and mystery and fullness of their lives.
I am so sorry, Cote, that we couldn’t help you to better integrate the many facets of your rich, beautiful, and anguished existence.
This is Cote’s obituary in the Harvard Crimson, which captures the Cote we knew and loved.