It’s a parent’s worst nightmare. Last week, Nora Miller, a junior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, committed suicide by dousing herself with a flammable liquid and lighting herself on fire at the edge of one of the University’s playing fields. She was discovered early Monday morning with burns over 100 percent of her body and airlifted to Hartford Hospital. She died shortly after at a nearby burn unit.
According to various University blogs, the night before she died, Miller wrote the following entry on her Facebook page: “When there is nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire.” The quote is from a song by a band called the Stars, from their album “Set Yourself on Fire.” Culling through various online comments by friends of Miller’s, there were numerous mentions of her sadness and depression. How could it be otherwise? A girl who feels she has “nothing left to burn” is in a dark place indeed.
A week later, the story continues to weigh on me. As a parent, I feel enormous sadness for Miller’s family. To lose a twenty-two-year-old daughter under any circumstances is unbearable. To lose a child to suicide, especially one as violent and painful as this one, can only mean a whole other level of hell. In fact, to even speculate about this family’s grief feels intrusive and part of me wonders if the only acceptable response to her death is to simply draw a curtain around it. Let those who knew Miller grieve in privacy.
And yet, I am haunted by the fate of this promising dark-haired girl, a film major and track star who reportedly liked Converse chucks and funky jewelry. A girl who shattered track records and was at the top of her class. Like so many smart and accomplished young people, she was – on paper anyway — someone who seemed to go from success to success, strength to strength. Until, of course, she didn’t and despite her talent and drive was unable to see any way forward but her own violent end.
I am haunted by Nora Miller because I think as parents we sometimes fail to recognize how stressed-out and unhappy our children are, especially when they are successful. And that the pressure we put on them to excel – to have perfect grades, high test scores, artistic and athletic accomplishments – can be toxic, especially when mixed with underlying depression.
I am haunted by Nora Miller’s death because my daughter is one of those driven, hard-working young women. She also happens to be a freshman at Wesleyan. And while it feels wrong to dwell on my own state of mind in the face of this tragedy, I have to admit that having Miller’s suicide occur just two weeks after dropping my daughter off at her “Wes” dorm makes me feel her absence that much more acutely. Calls and texts have reassured me that my daughter is — for now anyway — happy and engaged. But Miller’s death has reminded me to never take such happiness for granted.
I do not presume to know why Nora Miller took her life, and I don’t want to imply that her parents were in any way at fault. But when a young woman ends her life in this kind of dramatic and public way, I do not think we can pull the curtain down and pretend it didn’t happen. We owe it to her to consider what her death might be telling us about how we are raising our children — and how we might do it better.
A version of this piece appeared in Slate.com on September 22nd, 2010