Leaning into the pain
A year after their son’s suicide, a Chico couple works to save other children
Dan and Joan Strauss weren’t able to attend the first Out of the Darkness Community Walk to prevent suicide last year at this time. That’s because, on the day of the walk, they were attending the funeral of their 17-year-old son, Alex, who had taken his own life just a few days earlier, on Oct. 11.
But they will be in Bidwell Park this Saturday, Oct. 15, for the second annual walk. In fact, Dan Strauss will be among the survivor speakers at the event. Since Alex’s death, he’s channeled his grief into working overtime on an effort he’s named The Alex Project, a nationwide campaign to make it easier for distressed youths to contact help lines and crisis centers via text messaging.
The Strausses, both professional people, live in a comfortable suburban tract house in north Chico. The first thing they did, when I arrived for an interview, was show me about a dozen photographs of Alex. “I want you to see he’s a real person, not just an abstract concept,” Dan said.
What I saw was a good-looking boy with an open, intelligent face who in many of the photos was being embraced by his parents and older brother, Andy—the kind of kid you would never picture committing suicide.
In a profile he wrote a while back, Dan describes Alex as a “high achieving, athletic senior at Pleasant Valley High School…. He had a loving family and friends. Alex always had a silly joke or pun ready. He had plans for lunch dates, volunteering as a math tutor, and college. We had family vacation plans for a Southern California trip in a few weeks and then a trip to Alaska in the summer after graduation. All that disintegrated on October 11, 2010.”
Alex had struggled with depression and started seeing a counselor in his sophomore year, but he wanted very much to be “normal” and had a hard time talking about his feelings. But he loved to send text messages, and texting “seemed to provide just enough safety for him to open up a bit,” Dan writes. “Alex would text me even when we were in the same room. … Our most candid and intimate conversations were via texting.”
The night of his death, Alex sent several text messages. The friends he reached did not pick up on his condition. His counselor “did not see the text message in which Alex said he was not doing very well until the next morning,” Dan writes. And none of the crisis centers whose numbers the Strausses kept posted on cards around the house accepted text messages.
“My wife and I believe that we still might have our dear son Alex with us today if the suicide crisis lines accepted text messages,” Dan writes.
It’s been a year since Alex’s death, but the pain is still crushing. “We wake up with it in the morning,” Dan said, “and we go to sleep with it at night. The presence of his absence is everywhere.” There’s a line in the Bible that describes the feeling perfectly, he added: “We miss you because your seat is empty.”
The Strausses aren’t running from their pain—indeed, they are “leaning into it,” as they say, letting it transform them and mobilize them to do good work. Nor are they hiding Alex and the cause of his death from view. Many people, they say, are afraid to talk with them about it, as if they worry they’re being hurtful by doing so, but the Strausses like to talk about their son. It helps them keep him present in their lives, and they don’t want to give that up.
“Besides,” Dan said, “just talking about suicide is an intervention,” to which Joan added, “If we raise people’s level of discussion, we can end the silence [surrounding suicide],” the third-leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24.
At first, following Alex’s death, the Strausses left the house only to take walks at night. “How do we get our life back?” they wondered. It felt, Dan said, “like we lost our future. Everywhere we turned we noticed his absence.”
But their faith is strong, and they knew they would see Alex in heaven. “But heaven can wait,” Dan said. “It’s more needful to be here. … It’s more needful to give young people hope.”
For Dan, especially, becoming active has brought some measure of solace. In addition to starting The Alex Project, he’s spoken to the graduating seniors in Alex’s International Baccalaureate program; set up a Prevent Youth Suicide Fund at North Valley Community Foundation; established relationships with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the California Mental Health Services Authority and the North Valley Talk Line operated by Northern Valley Catholic Social Service; and now is taking a featured role in the Out of Darkness Community Walk on Saturday.
He also participated in the “Send Silence Packing” public-education exhibit held in mid-September on the Chico State campus. Sponsored by the group Active Minds (www.activeminds.org), it’s a traveling exhibit of 1,100 backpacks representing the 1,100 American college students who commit suicide every year. Alex’s backpack is now among them.
Dan’s consistent focus is on The Alex Project. He’s researched Nielsen Co. data, for example, and discovered that kids Alex’s age (13-17) send text messages seven times as often as they make phone calls. And he’s learned that, of the 150 crisis centers participating in the interlinked National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, only two are capable of receiving text messages. One is in Washington, D.C., the other in Mississippi.
In the process of contacting suicide-prevention services on the national, state and local levels, Dan said, he’d “never met anyone who doesn’t believe [text-messaging capacity] is a good idea.”
The technology is there, and he’s been told by Butte County officials that privacy issues aren’t a problem. The bigger obstacles are funding and the fact that suicide-prevention officials “just have too much going on” to focus on adding text-messaging capacity.
His hope is that Alex’s story will provide the emotional push to get the ball rolling at a small number of crisis centers, at least. Once movement begins, he believes, it won’t stop. And he’s determined to keep working until every crisis center can accept text messages.
“With something so painful, with something so costly, we needed to do something good with it and not waste the pain,” Dan said. “We needed to find something that could provide some joy.”