The tormented life of 28-year-old Stephen Patton ended three weeks ago in Omaha, Neb., when he went into his daughter’s room, knelt beside her bed and shot himself in the head.
No mother should have to learn of her son’s suicide while stuck in traffic and on a car phone, but back in Orange County on Santa Ana Canyon Road, that’s how Misty Ibsen got the news of Stephen’s death. Bumper-to-bumper, she casually phoned home for messages, and one from her daughter told her to call Omaha. She phoned, Stephen’s mother-in-law said something about a “terrible tragedy” and, for Misty Ibsen, shock set in from there.
It probably is more accurate to say she was “in shock” rather than shocked. To say she was shocked suggests she had no inkling her son was desperately troubled. In truth, Misty knew Stephen had been battling depression most of his life, and a close friend told her that, deep down, she probably had been expecting a call like that for years.
“I think he was in pain all the time,” Misty says, as she and her husband, David, are talking to me in his office on the Fullerton College campus, where he is the dean of the Social Sciences Division. Misty married David 20 years ago after divorcing Stephen’s father, with whom Stephen had lived until he was 18.
As painful as Stephen’s suicide was for them, something else on their minds has caused them another round of emotional wrenching, a second layer of pain.
Once she returned home to Yorba Linda from the funeral, Misty expected to be greeted by consoling thoughts from acquaintances. For the most part, though, the phone didn’t ring. The cards didn’t come. Flowers never arrived.
Rather than sympathy, Stephen’s suicide was accompanied mostly by the sounds of silence, even from people who had known the Ibsens for years.
“I was so hurt for so many days [afterward],” Misty says. “Nobody could have stopped the first wound, but the second one didn’t have to happen. To this day, I’ve heard the explanations, but I don’t understand how they could not react.”
“There were a few good friends who were very comforting, but a lot of people--most people--ignored me,” David says. “I’d even go further and say they avoided me.”
He contrasted it with the outpouring of consolation he got when his mother died at 85. “People had to know what Misty and I [as a stepfather], to a lesser extent, were going through,” David says. “I asked my secretary, ‘What’s going on?’ and she said, ‘To be honest, I think it’s the suicide thing.’ ”
Another friend told Misty that people consider losing a child to be so painful that they didn’t know what to say. But what, she wonders, if Stephen had died of a disease like cancer or in an accident?
“It’s almost as if people expect us to be ashamed or embarrassed, " she says. “That this was somehow his fault or our fault . . . where cancer is no one’s fault, it’s just fate. Cancer may be in the genes, but depression is in the genes too. It’s not Stephen’s fault he got it.”
She is not speaking idly. Depression runs up and down her family tree, Misty says. At one point after Stephen’s death, she was alone with her mother and aunt, and all three realized that each had lost a child to suicide.
The Ibsens realize the stigma that suicide carries and the pain that people associate when a parent loses a child.
“If they don’t know what to say, let them stumble around,” Misty says. “Nobody is hurt by someone stumbling around with their words. We’re hurt because there were no words. If people are having a hard time, they can tell us, ‘We don’t understand, and we’re having a really hard time,’ and then they’re sharing where we are because we’re having a hard time, and we don’t understand either.”
A Christian therapist, Misty was hopeful to the end that Stephen might “turn it around.” She and David tried to magnify Stephen’s good moments and, perhaps, wish away the bad ones. As such, Misty says it “weighs heavily” that she has helped so many of her patients but was not able to save her own son.
Beyond that, though, the Ibsens hope people won’t disparage those battling depression. Like anyone with a lifelong illness, they say, Stephen suffered.
“No one knows how much courage it took to face each of those days for 28 years,” Misty says. “No one knows if they would have had enough if it had been them. Life was unbearable for him.”
I ask if there are lessons to be learned from Stephen’s death. “Depression is a disease, not a character defect,” Misty says. “That’s one lesson. And when you lose a child, no matter the reason, silence isn’t golden. It’s hurtful. It’s cruel.”
Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Readers may reach Parsons by writing to him at The Times Orange County Edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or calling (714) 966-7821.