Explaining the End
A few weeks ago a friend and I met for dinner. As we stood in line at a local restaurant, we talked about how this was the first time we had hung out out since our first year. Our final year in college certainly made precious meetings like this one more urgent. We talked about school, sport, relationships, and life - the usual components of a ‘catching-up’ conversation among friends at our particular university. My friend mentioned to me that he was trying something new this year: instead of talking about what he did everyday, he talked about how he felt during the day. Attempting to stray away from the “Type A” personality, he was focusing on developing ‘the self’ instead of checking things off a list or adding to his (already exemplary) resume. I thought this was an incredible idea - so I asked him how he felt about the things he had done that day.
He told me about a book he was reading, and how the book was reminiscent of an article he had read about fellow UVa student Sean Bryant. In her article, Everything to Live For, Jennifer Mendelsohn writes about this particular student - his life, and his death.
Bryant was a “goofy and spontaneous” student who liked to “fussily serve his friends” and drive “his Volvo like a maniac.” Mendelsohn writes that Bryant “wasn’t one of those striving automatons who seem to flourish at Virginia...the kind so focused on doing whatever it takes to land a Lawn room that other students belittle them as ‘pre-Lawn.’” Bryant proudly wore his bright yellow galoshes, and woke friends up at 1am to take their pictures and use up a roll of film. He was described as a “tea-drinking, dirt-covered, kite-flying” individual, a superb student who expressed unlimited potential to all who knew or taught him.
UVa police and and medical examiners classified Bryant’s death as a “straightforward suicide” upon closer examination.  Even so, many rumors surrounded Bryant’s actions especially as the story traveled to other parts of the country. Now, half a decade later, his passing remains shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. On the 12th of December, a Thursday in 2012, Bryant’s body was found in his Lawn room. His body was “hanging from the bookshelves over his bed, suspended by a belt from his bicycle hook.”
My friend, a current resident of the prestigious UVa Lawn community, shivered slightly as he told me about that last part of the article - not because of the cool winter breeze.
After dinner, I went home to read Mendelsohn’s article in its entirety. I found that Mendelsohn went on to contextualize student suicide, filing Bryant’s death in alongside other students’ deaths. Mendelsohn posited that victims of suicide “not only seem free of obvious problems, but have the kind of productive, successful lives that we assume inoculates them [against suicide].” In her rush to investigate why Bryant had killed himself, she forgot to emphasize the unique things that made Bryant special and lovable. Through her analysis, she turned Bryant into a statistic instead of a UVa student. Additionally, she quoted experts and psychologists who cautioned that “the signs are always there.” Based on interviews with Bryant’s friends and family, Mendelsohn included information about why Bryant did what he did. I am not suggesting that Mendelsohn’s article was under-researched. On the contrary, she was quite thorough in her fact collection. Instead, I raise a flag: so much of the article focused on investigating why Bryant did what he did, which left little room for celebrating who Bryant was. There was no mention of how the world would be a little less bright without him in it.
While reading about Bryant, I reflected on another Hoo who was lost to suicide. That is an interesting turn of phrase, is it not? “Lost to suicide.” It is as if “suicide” could take over our bodies, like cancer, and dispel our logical reasoning the same way malignant tumors could. In Fall 2014, Peter was lost to suicide. At the time, he was a 2nd year - like me. I should make it clear that I do not claim to have known Peter very well; I was in a small writing class with him and only knew him for a semester. With his passing, however, I became acutely aware of the challenges suicide inflicts on its victims and those who stand in their wake. As I spent more time processing Peter’s death, I realized that I needed to understand why he had chosen to end it. I needed answers to the questions I kept rephrasing in my head. I craved for an explanation to The End - Peter’s End.
But there was no explanation. There was no amount of logical reasoning that could explain why Peter did what he did. No one had the answer I was looking for. Just like Mendelsohn did when writing about Bryant, I focused on why Peter did what he did, which left little room for celebrating who Peter was. It took me a while to reflect on how the world was a little less bright without Peter in it. I slowly began to realize, as I leaned on support from my family and friends, that all I could do was celebrate Peter’s memory. It was in the middle of my 3rd year when I recognized why student suicides were so jarring for me: not only because we lost significant souls from our communities, but also because we had no way of explaining death due to suicide. It was the ‘not knowing’ that made us feel so uncomfortable with our despair and loss. Why? Why do we need to understand why someone ended their life? Why do we need the answers? How would suicide be perceived if we accepted a lost life and celebrated it, instead of tortured ourselves and our communities searching for answers?
These same questions came to mind as I reflected on Bryant’s passing, and the murky circumstances surrounding his death.
I blinked as my friend paused, and took a sip of water. He had finished his meal, and was shivering slightly on the Lawn where we were sitting. He cleared his throat while waiting for me to respond to the story he had relayed about Bryant. “The scary thing,” he prompted, “is that I felt like I was reading about my own life when I was reading about Bryant’s.”
There is a double-edged sword we students carry: 20 years from today, UVa will be standing the same way it is now and, to the external observer, nothing would have changed. But you know what they say? Change is the only thing that remains constant. While we will change, and grow, our University will stand the test of time. The timeless experience we currently enjoy will, for the foreseeable future at least, remain given the things endemic to UVA such as Beach Week, CIOs, student self-governance, Lawn room prestige, the hype around Rhodes Scholarships, and McKinsey interviews. Perhaps the most timeless aspects of our shared UVa experience are the professors who endure long after our courses end, and ultimately teach many generations of the same family.
Students who walk the Lawn generations after us will see the same things we see and therefore relate to our lived experiences - the same way my friend could relate to Bryant. The same way I could relate to Bryant. The same, I imagine, Peter could relate to Bryant.
Perhaps the trick to understanding suicide, and death alike, is that we need not know all the answers. Perhaps we do not have to explain The End. Perhaps, in the end, all we need to do is understand each other so we can celebrate each other and celebrate our lives lived.
Mendelsohn, Jennifer. 2014. “Everything to Live For.” The Washingtonian, accessed February 20. https://www.washingtonian.com/2014/09/15/from-the-archives-everything-to-live-for/
Yani, Oren. 2014. “Great-grandson of D’Agostino supermarket founder dead. New York Daily News, accessed February 20. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/great-grandson-agostino-supermarket-founder-dead-article-1.2022511