Owing Owen

How a promising Penn student's suicide earlier this week hit home

We talked about Owen Thomas at the dinner table again last night.

We first talked about the Penn junior Monday night, my husband Doug and our son Jake and I. Owen seemed to have a lot in common with Jake. They were both good students; they were both good football players. Owen had just been chosen by his fellow players as a captain of Penn’s team. He and Jake were both fun, popular guys. Only Owen, standing on the threshold of a wonderful life, with everything in front of him, was dead, and we are trying our best to keep Jake alive when he heads off to college in the fall. [SIGNUP]

Our first assumption was that Owen was another in the long, sad line of college kids who die from too much drinking. Doug and I cringe when we read those news stories — the kids who go to parties, have too many shots, and, before they ever have a chance to negotiate the intricate balance between having fun and fitting in and letting things get out of hand, fall off balconies, fall down staircases, fall down trash chutes, drive into trees or walls or just drown in a puddle of vomit. We cut out the newspaper stories, put them at Jake’s place at dinner, try to make sure he sees them. We know he thinks he’s invincible. He’s 17. And us? We’re old enough to realize how impossibly delicate human life is. “You can drink yourself to death,” we tell our son. He rolls his eyes.

Turns out, though, that Owen’s story is different. His mom says he hanged himself in his off-campus apartment. She says he put “huge expectations” on himself, and that maybe he “wasn’t going to excel at some of the courses he was taking.” She believes he acted impulsively. She said, eloquently, that suicide is “not trusting … that things will get better in time.”

Time is so different when you’re 17 from when you’re 50 and then some. Live long enough, get buffeted enough, and you toughen up, gain perspective. You figure out that even when you can’t believe you need to say something to your child, maybe you do.

“No grade in school is ever worth killing yourself over,” Doug told Jake last night. “You know that?”

“I know that.”

I hope he never has reason to remember our conversation. But I’m glad we had it, just the same.

SANDY HINGSTON is a Philly Mag senior editor.