When John Schuderer’s son Noel died at 27, he didn’t think it was by suicide.
“Noel had recently been diagnosed with Behcet’s disease,” said John, “a rare condition that’s similar to lupus and, depending on the individual patient, can cause inflammation of the blood vessels and internal organs.”
There is no cure for Behcet’s disease, just treatments to alleviate the numerous and often debilitating symptoms.
“Noel had been an extremely active and athletic young man,” said John. “He wanted to see the world. At 25, he and his girlfriend saved up and went to Israel. They stayed on a kibbutz, traveled around the Middle East and wound up in Thailand.”
Each place Noel traveled, he found work and saved enough money for the next adventure. In Thailand, he earned his master diver certificate and led scuba diving tours around the island. He traveled for two years.
“From there he went to Taiwan and was teaching English,” said John. “While he was there he had another girlfriend and didn’t find out until just before he died that she had become pregnant, but miscarried.”
While he was overseas, two of his grandparents died.
Now nearly 20 years later, John still wonders what went wrong.
He knows somewhere along the line, Noel developed financial issues. He became depressed and started abusing substances.
As a mental health and substance abuse counselor, John had been through training on suicide and suicidal behavior.
“Although I was trained as a mental health counselor and worked in this capacity for a number of years, when it came to my own son, Noel, I missed all the signs until it was too late.”
Losses, including the divorce of his parents when he was 8, and the reality of his health diagnosis began to catch up with him, his father says.
“The loss of his physical stamina was almost certainly very distressing to him,” said John. “He was always physically active, loved hiking, rock climbing and sky diving.”
After two years traveling, Noel returned home.
“He spent time visiting friends he hadn’t seen in two years, shared his travels and photographs,” John said. “The night before Noel died he had been out visiting friends. I was on the computer. Noel came home. On my way to bed I knocked on his door and said, ‘I love you son.’ Noel replied, ‘I love you too.’”
Those were the last words they said to each other.
John had a long day at work the next day.
“I got home around 9 p.m., saw the light on Noel’s nightstand was on, went into his room and found him.”
John called 911. They said to check Noel’s pulse. He didn’t have one.
Emergency personnel came, but there was nothing they could do to revive him. John’s wife was in Washington, D.C. attending an education conference. He called a friend.
“I remember the police officers and others kept asking me questions and maybe I’d get an answer out,” said John. “Noel’s biological mother and stepdad arrived and wanted to see Noel’s body before it was moved.”
John and his family were not able to reach their pastor, so the police chaplain was called.
Noel’s body was removed and they were left alone.
“I spent the night at a friend’s home so I wouldn’t be alone.”
John’s wife came back the following day.
“It was not until the memorial service that I started to hear about things that would have raised red flags had I known what was going on,” he said.
“Friends of Noel’s said that when he visited them he was giving his things away,” said John. “He tried to give me his 35mm camera he had since the seventh grade, said it was because it was heavy and he wanted to get a new digital camera. I didn’t think anything of it at the time.”
After the service, “that’s when it all started to hit me.”
An autopsy was performed.
Two and a half months later, the results revealed a green liquid in Noel’s system, the equivalent of 300 pills. Noel died from diphenhydramine poisoning (an active ingredient in many sleep aids and antihistamines).
His death was ruled a suicide.
Up until the autopsy results, John and his family thought the disease had killed him. John couldn’t believe the test results.
“Whatever spiritual healing had occurred in the two and a half months since Noel died went out the window.”
Trying to make sense
“The question that drives people crazy is the constant ‘why’ — why did this happen?” said John.
“After his death, I felt I was in a time warp. Everything was very slow and the rest of the world seemed to be zipping along. I wanted to say, ‘Don’t you realize what has happened? My son is dead!’ It wasn’t anger at the world so much as disappointment.
“It didn’t make sense he would choose to die by suicide.”
Researchers say people often blame themselves for not preventing a suicide.
John wondered why he hadn’t seen the signs.
“I felt a lot of guilt and shame. Eventually I came to grips with the fact that it was Noel’s decision, it wasn’t anything I did or didn’t do.
“Because of my training, I promised myself I would experience each and every emotion that came up and not fight them,” said John. “Experience them in the healthiest way possible so the emotions would not destroy me.”
John felt angry and depressed. A song on the radio could trigger him, sending him in a downward spiral.
John started a memorial website, which went live on the first anniversary of Noel’s death.
“Guys especially have to do something to manage their grief, for women it’s more social, emotional and interactive. Often, if men don’t do something to let the energy out it will consume them.”
Last year, almost 18 years since Noel’s death, as John was driving through Jerome he swore he saw Noel walking down the street.
“For a split second I thought ‘Oh my God ...’ but of course it wasn’t. So, 18 years later there is still a hole in my heart, I’ve just had to learn to live with it and not let it destroy me.”
John has retired from the mental health field.
Since Noel’s death, he has dedicated himself to suicide education and prevention.