Gone with the Wind: A Case History
If someone you knew has died by suicide, chances are you’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why. You have searched for reasons to explain such an unacceptable death. You’ve retraced your friendship and then all the times that you and your friend or family member spent together. You may have talked to parents and siblings, desperately trying to find some answers. Piecing together the life of one suicide victim—performing what is called a “psychological autopsy”—can often shed some light on what may have gone wrong.
. . . . . . . .
Teri was dragging her feet. It was almost time for her parents to drive her the thirty-five miles to Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, and she still had last-minute errands to run. Maybe she’d put off buying school supplies as a silent protest against leaving hone.
Teri stood in front of the school supplies at a local drugstore. “I don’t know which pens to get,” she said in a small, childlike voice. Her older sister, Elaine, grabbed a handful of inexpensive ballpoints and tossed them into the shopping cart.
“And what about notebooks?” Teri asked. “I have no idea what kind to buy.”
Elaine looked at her sister. Why was she having such a hard time making simple decisions?
“I used these last year,” she said, picking up several narrow-lined notebooks and throwing them on top of the pens.
Elaine felt sorry for Teri, remembering how scared she’d been the day she’d left for college.
“Need anything else?” she asked.
“I don’t know what I need,” Teri mumbled. “I just don’t know.”
Elaine was worried. It wasn’t like Teri to be so indecisive. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing . . . nothing,” Teri said, as she started pushing the cart down the aisle. “It’s getting late. Let’s go.”
Saying good-bye to Teri wasn’t easy. Elaine sat staring at the driveway long after her sister and parents had pulled away. Teri had looked so lost, sitting there in the backseat of the car, smothered by all of her belongings. Elaine had let her down. She hadn’t said the right things. Maybe she should have gone, too. She could have helped Teri unpack or walked around campus with her. But Teri might have been embarrassed. She might not have wanted her older sister tagging along. Elaine didn’t know what to think. Part of her felt stupid for worrying so much; the other part knew instinctively that Teri needed her. It took about thirty minutes before she grabbed a jacket, got into her car, and headed for the university.
Teri was surprised to see Elaine but didn’t say much as she unpacked. Her roommate had stopped in earlier, just long enough to drop off a load of her things. She’d gone home for more and wouldn’t be back until later the following afternoon. Around six, Teri’s parents decided it was time to leave. Knowing Elaine was planning to stay longer made it easier to say good-bye. Besides, they’d be seeing Teri in less than a week for a cousin’s wedding.
After dinner at a campus restaurant, Elaine bought Teri a six-pack of beer and a pint of whiskey to take back to the dorm and share with some of the other girls. She figured that was a good way to get Teri to meet new people. Otherwise, Teri might stay alone in her room like Elaine had done when she’d first gone away to school.
“I’ll stay longer if you want,” Elaine said, knowing how frightened Teri was.
“No, I’ll be fine.”
Elaine slowly tied her jacket around her waist, giving Teri time to change her mind.
“Sure you don’t want me to stay?” she asked again, putting her arms around Teri and holding her tight. She couldn’t stop the tears streaming down her cheeks.
“I’m sure,” Teri said, sobbing softly.
Twenty minutes out of DeKalb, Elaine pulled over on the side of the road and stopped the car. Maybe she should turn around and go back. Teri hadn’t really wanted her to leave. She’d just said that to look brave. Was she just overreacting because of her own insecurities the year before? Or did Teri really need her? She’d made the offer to stay. Teri had turned her down. She was probably okay. Most likely she’d gone across the hall and was beginning to relax and have some fun. The other girls would cheer her up. Elaine made up her mind not to turn around.
Elaine stayed hone the next day, waiting to hear from Teri. She never called. At six, as the family was eating dinner, a local policeman rang the doorbell. Teri’s mother went to the door. The policeman told her as gently as he could that Teri was dead.
In order to lessen the shock for her other children, Teri’s mother said that Teri had died accidentally from an overdose of drugs and alcohol. Only after the funeral were Elaine and the others told what had really happened.
Teri had gone into the closet, sat on a box, taken the drawstring of her laundry bag, which was hanging on a hook, and put it around her neck, then leaned forward. Her roommate had found her late the next afternoon. The coroner estimated that she had been dead since midnight. She had been legally drunk when she’d died.
Guilt swept over Elaine like ocean waves during a raging storm. Alcohol was part of what had killed Teri, and Elaine had bought the booze. She had killed her own sister. How could she ever get through the rest of her life knowing what she had done? She fell apart, lying in bed at night, sobbing uncontrollably.
“Why did you do it, Teri?” she cried into the darkness. “Why didn’t you ask me for help?” Over and over again, Elaine blamed herself for buying the alcohol and for not turning back.
As young newlyweds, Carol and Ernie Fluder dreamed of having a large family. Carol would leave her job as a nurse to stay home with the kids, while Ernie pursued his career as a mechanical engineer. Exactly eleven months after her wedding night, the first of her five children, Elaine, was born. Elaine was a happy baby who held her parents’ undivided attention for all of sixteen months until Teresa (Teri, for short) was born. Just over a year later, a third baby girl, Laura, arrived.
Carol had her hands full with three small children at home all under the age of three. To make room for their growing family, the Fluders moved to a three-bedroom home surrounded by farmers’ fields some twenty-five miles from Chicago. It was like living in the country. The sounds of cows mooing and tractors whirring woke them every morning. There was plenty of room to play outdoors in the fresh air. It was a great place to raise a family.
While none of the kids was difficult, Teri seemed to require almost no attention. She was quiet and always enjoyed playing by herself. Up until she was sixteen months old, she said almost nothing. Then one day she came up to Carol in the kitchen and uttered a complete sentence: “May I please have a drink of water?” Carol was astonished. She looked down at the little person standing next to her and wondered whether Teri had really spoken. Teri was never as verbal as her sisters. Rather than talk, she would sit and take everything in. She appeared, even as a toddler, to be an astute observer.
Three years later, the Fluder’s only son, Paul, was born. Teri adjusted to her baby brother’s arrival the same way she’d accepted Laura’s birth with no visible jealousy or trauma. She remained the easiest of the four children to take care of, spending hours playing alone. When Amy was born three years after Paul, Teri again appeared to take the birth of another sibling in stride. The family, now numbering seven, spent much of its time together outdoors. They camped, swam, and rode horses. The television set was rarely on. Elaine remembers coming home from school one day in tears because she was the only child in her second-grade class who had never seen the TV show “Spiderman.” She felt embarrassed and left out.
Unlike many fathers who were either not around or distant emotionally, Ernie spent as much time at home as he could. He and his father had never been close. He didn’t want the same distance to separate him from his own children.
When Teri was eight, the Fluders moved to a larger, four-bedroom home about a mile away. Though the three oldest girls still attended the same grammar school, they now had to take the bus instead of walking. They lost that feeling of closeness with the other kids in their old neighborhood. The move was particularly hard on Teri. Her best friend had lived next door. Now it seemed as if she lived on another planet. Because Teri was quiet and shy, she had trouble making new friends. And often when she did, it seemed as if Laura stepped in and took the friend away. It was some time before Teri made friends with a girl across the street.
Because there weren’t enough bedrooms to go around, Teri and Elaine doubled up. Though they had their share of sisterly disagreements, their love of books bound them together. Teri, especially, read all the time. She loved books that transported her to another place and time. The Little House series was one of her favorites. Even as a youngster, Teri thought nothing of staying up half the night to finish a book. Teri lost herself in books, escaping from the real world.
By the time she was nine, Teri had gained a lot of weight. Elaine remembers one day when she and Teri went ice skating at a local rink. Teri’s plump body and short haircut made her look like a boy. When the rink manager announced that it was the girls’ turn to skate, she and Elaine took to the ice. Just then a stranger turned to Teri and said, “Hey, this is the girls’ time to skate.” Elaine was horrified. She knew how crushed she felt and could only imagine what Teri was feeling. Teri grew up hating the way she looked, even when she lost weight and wore a size seven.
Though she didn’t like the way she looked and had a tough time making friends, Teri wasn’t a rebellious kid. She minded her own business at home, never making trouble. When it was time to go to sleep, she went straight to bed. She didn’t challenge rules and regulations: They were meant to be followed. She avoided arguments at all costs. She wasn’t a fighter. At school, too, she was well behaved. Until her junior year, she got good grades and was never in trouble. Her dream was to become an architect.
That all changed Teri’s junior year. Her best friend had moved to Florida during the summer. The two had been inseparable. Now Teri had to make other friends. Her new friends were what Elaine called “The Freaks.” Their top priority was having a good time. Studying took a backseat. Teri’s grades dropped. But she was having fun. Friends called; there was always something to do. For the first time in her life, she was in the center of things, surrounded by a group of people who liked and accepted her. Teri’s parents weren’t thrilled with some of the friends or with the drop in grades. But they saw Teri’s change in personality as a healthy one. She had finally come out of her shell. They knew she had the brains to excel academically whenever she wanted to.
Teri had taken drafting and art classes in high school. She enjoyed the work and the challenge. When she didn’t sign up for any art at all junior year, her parents were surprised. She had seemed so interested. When they asked her why, Teri said she was “no good.” Her art teacher from the year before had told her to forget about becoming an architect; she didn’t have the talent. Teri took the criticism to heart. She didn’t draw again for almost two years.
Senior year was a disaster. Teri started cutting classes and was suspended from school several times. She lost at least two part-time jobs for coming to work late. And she couldn’t sleep. She’d lie awake all night, tossing and turning. Reading no longer calmed her down.
One evening, after going out with friends and realizing it was too late to go home, she stayed in her parents’ car all night. The angrier and more frustrated her parents got, the quieter Teri grew. She refused to talk about what might be bothering her. She said there was nothing wrong.
But there was a lot wrong. Teri had decided to run away. She couldn’t take the pressure at home any longer. She jumped out of her second-floor bedroom window and took off. Luckily, one of her friends found her and talked her into going home. Her attempt to run away was the last straw. Her parents insisted that she get some help. After much coaxing, she agreed to talk to a parish priest who had a degree in counseling. After her first visit, she came home convinced that she didn’t need to see him again.
“Everything’s fine,” she told her parents. Under pressure, she did talk to the priest one more time. After that second visit, the priest told her parents that she was just going through normal teenage stress and that there was nothing to worry about. Both her parents were relieved. They trusted the priest’s judgment and believed him when he said that Teri’s problems would pass.
Although she hadn’t shown any interest in school for over a year, Teri applied to the University of Illinois, where her father had gone. She was not accepted. Disappointed, she halfheartedly decided to go to Northern Illinois University in the fall. She spent the remainder of her senior year and the summer that followed partying and getting more and more depressed. She had the feeling no one liked her, not even her close friends. When a group of them threw her an eighteenth-birthday party, she came home in tears. She said everyone was making fun of her. She cried a lot and spent more and more time alone. Her mother was so distressed that she considered putting Teri into the hospital. Everyone told her that she was crazy.
Two days before Teri was to leave for college, her mother took her shopping for a dress to wear to a cousin’s wedding. Teri hated everything she tried on. Nothing looked right.
“It makes me look fat,” she said, standing in front of the mirror in one of the dresses.
“Teri,” her mother said, “you weigh one hundred and nine pounds and wear a size seven. You’re not fat.”
Her mother took her by the shoulders. “Look at yourself,” she said, urging her to look at her reflection in the mirror. “Where are you ugly? What’s ugly?”
“I’m just ugly,” Teri said, staring past her reflection.
Her mother didn’t know what to do. Here was her daughter, so unhappy, about to go away to college. Teri didn’t have a close friend going to the same school; she would be on her own. Maybe she should stay home for a semester, go to a local junior college. When Teri’s mother made the suggestion, Teri refused.
“If you won’t drive me to school, I’ll get someone else to take me.”
Driving her wasn’t the issue, her mother tried to explain. She was concerned about her.
“Well, I’m going,” Teri said. “That’s all there is to it.”
Her mother wasn’t satisfied. She called her sister and a good friend. She needed their advice. What should she do? Both women told her she was overreacting. Teri would be fine. She was just nervous and excited. Leaving home for the first time was a trying experience. Teri would find a niche for herself soon enough. When Teri’s mother went to work that night, she told several of her co-workers that college would either “make or break Teri.”
Looking back. searching for answers, Carol and Ernie can only guess why Teri took her own life. They’ve gone over and over their last hours with her, trying desperately to find some clues. Teri was very quiet during the drive to Northern, but that was understandable. She was scared. Who wouldn’t be? Elaine had told them how she had cried for three days straight the year before. It wasn’t surprising that Teri was nervous.
When they arrived at the dorm, Teri had to check in with a Resident Assistant. The young man made some flip comment about the Snoopy T-shirt she was wearing. He was trying to put her at ease, but Teri was noticeably upset. Then he gave her a short lecture about not losing her key and locking herself out of her room. He made a big deal out of it.
When she and her parents finally got to her room, they met Teri’s roommate. She was around for a short time before leaving for home. Teri didn’t seem to mind. She quietly started to unpack. Elaine showed up, surprising everyone, and Carol and Ernie said good-bye around 6:30 P.M.
“I’ll call you as soon as I get my phone connected on Monday,” Teri promised.
Her parents felt better.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I can handle it. I’ll be fine.”
Around ten that night, after spending time with some of the girls across the hall, Teri discovered that she had locked herself out of her room. She had to go and find the Resident Assistant who had lectured her earlier in the day. He let her into her room and came back at 11:30 to make sure she was settled. When she didn’t answer his knock, he assumed she was asleep. No one saw her again until her roommate opened the closet door late the next afternoon.
Teri didn’t leave a suicide note. She had killed herself without any attempt to explain why.
Four year later after Teri died, Elaine drove to DeKalb to read the autopsy report on her sister. She had thought about it for a long time, hoping beyond hope to find some explanation for what had happened. After four years of looking for answers, she still didn’t understand why. According to the report, Teri had first tried to slash her wrists with razors. The police had found several of them in the wastepaper basket. That explained the mysterious marks on her wrists. But there was nothing else. No note. No other clues. Whatever her reasons, Teri had taken them with her.
Elaine stopped grieving that day in the coroner’s office; she stopped asking why. She knew there would never be any answers.
Carol isn’t sure when she stopped asking why. It was a gradual process that took many years. But she now sees the first time she openly expressed her anger about Teri as a turning point. She and her youngest daughter, Amy, were on their way home from Amy’s first counseling session. Amy was fourteen and having a hard time. Old friends of Teri’s kept saying things like, “You remind us a lot of your sister.” Amy was confused. If she reminded so many people of Teri, maybe she was like her. She cried all the way home.
Carol was furious. She went to the cemetery that afternoon . . . a place where she had done a lot of crying in the years since Teri had died. But this day was different; she was hopping mad. And she told Teri so. What right did she have to cause so much pain? What right did she have to ruin Amy’s life, too? Getting angry felt good. And, though she felt a twinge of guilt, Carol’s search for answers grew gradually less pressing.
Ernie doesn’t know when he stopped working through his daughter’s suicide. With time, his pain has been dulled, but never erased. It’s something that will be with him for the rest of his life.
In 1979, the Fluders, along with three other families and Father Charles Rubey of Catholic Charities in Chicago, started a support group called Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS). Today, the group continues to offer a safe, non-judgmental environment where adult and young survivors of suicide can openly talk about feelings and experiences. One hundred per cent of members reported that it was helpful to hear how others coped with loss, and 91% of clients felt that the group process helped them to deal with their grief and develop positive coping skills with others who have suffered similar losses.
No one can tell how long the grieving process will take. It is different for everyone. LOSS understands this and lets its members participate for as long as they need to. There are support groups like LOSS in most major cities across the country. If you or someone you know would like more information about the suicide survivors’ support groups in your area, try checking out web sites, using the key words like support groups for suicide victims’ families, help for suicide survivors, counseling for family and friends of suicide, or Compassionate Friends. You might also call the American Association of Suicidology (http://www.suicidology.org) at 202-237-2280 or the American Foundations for Suicide Prevention
(http://www.afsp.org/coping-with-suicide/find-support), 888-333-AFSP (2377).
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