A Michigan mother finds solace in schools’ response after son’s suicide

Kelli Kobayashi

“You cry about someone you love because you can’t touch him anymore, at least not on this earth,” Kelli Kobayashi says of her son.  (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs) 

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CEDAR SPRINGS—A few minutes after noon one Sunday in August, a single shot was fired inside a bedroom in this rural town near Grand Rapids. 

Four years later, the answer to why 17-year-old Evan Kobayashi decided to end his life remains an agonizing mystery to his parents, Kelli and Toshi. The teen did not leave a note. 

“Ultimately,” said Kelli Kobayashi, “I don’t know.” 

By all accounts, Evan was a kind, thoughtful and athletic boy, days from starting his senior year at Cedar Springs High School. 

“There were absolutely no warning signs,” his mother said. “Nor did his friends see any. To understand the circumstances of it is still mystifying.”

Related: After three student suicides, one Michigan school district fights back 

Still, she said, she takes comfort in transformations she sees in the school district and in her community in the years since Evan and two other Cedar Springs students died by suicide in a 12-month period. 

She calls the district’s hiring of six additional mental-health professionals “a tremendous commitment” to students’ well-being. 

“It is hard to utter the words that there could be a good thing that comes from such a horrible thing,” she said. “But these are concrete examples of changes that have come about from some awful tragedies.” 

This summer, the family hosted a high school graduation party for Evan’s younger brother, Logan. Students and family members wore “Good Friends are Priceless” bracelets, trinkets that have become a widespread remembrance of her son.

“It’s been nearly four years ago, but some people are still wearing those bracelets every day,” the mother said.

Jonathan Wolfarth, a high school friend of Evan’s, said he was inspired to enter the ministry after Evan appeared in a dream after his death, advising him to “be ready.” Wolfarth said he began seeing Evan’s varsity baseball uniform number, 13, “everywhere I went.”

In a letter to the Kobayashis, Wolfarth wrote that Evan’s “story has not ended, it is only just beginning. It is my hope that you can rejoice like I do in knowing that God continues to use Evan to touch and save lives.”

Kelli said others who knew Evan recall a ready smile and easy friendships, even as he excelled in baseball and academics. In middle school, he was one of 100 students chosen statewide for competition in the Michigan Geographic Bee. He had his eyes set on a four-year college after graduation.

“He was a very active boy, a very intelligent boy, a very sensitive boy, a very kind soul,” Kelli said, tears streaming down her face.

Related: Suicide, depression on rise in rural Michigan, but psychiatrists are scarce
Related: Suicides, often linked to opioids, spike in rural Michigan and among young

“You cry about someone you love because you can’t touch him anymore, at least not on this earth. My Evan was a gift taken away from me way too soon.”

Outside school, Kelli said, her son hiked the sand dunes at a Lake Michigan state park and hunted for morel mushrooms in the woods around Kalkaska. In keeping with family tradition, Evan was also a deer hunter. And while he took gun safety classes before he was allowed to hunt, he also had access to one of the guns kept in the home for that purpose.

In the days after his suicide, the Kobayashis even wondered if drugs could have played a role in his death. She said the toxicology report from his autopsy came back negative.

While they still search for answers, the Kobayashis are determined to break the stigma that surrounds suicide and keeps many families from talking about it. Every year, the Kobayashis join the Out of the Darkness Walk in Grand Rapids, one of 350 similar walks around the nation organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“We are not afraid to talk about it,” Kelli said. “I am hoping that changing the mindset and bringing awareness to the subject is going to change that. People need to know this could happen to any family.”

Suicide prevention resources 

Call: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 800-273-8255. It’s a network of more than 150 crisis centers that provides a 24-hour hotline to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.

Text: Crisis Text Line: 741741, is a national service that connects the texter with a live, trained crisis counselor 

Connect: To Michigan suicide hotlines, located in many communities across the state.

Reach out: To OK2SAY, a state-funded student safety program which allows students to confidentially report tips on potential suicide and other risks to student safety. The tips can be reported by phone, at 8-555-OK2SAY (855-565-2729); by text message at 652729 (OK2SAY); or by email, at OK2SAY@mi.gov

Communicate: People can be hesitant to approach someone showing signs of despair. But experts say getting a friend or loved one to talk openly of suicidal thoughts can save a life.

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Kelly Ripken
Sat, 07/27/2019 - 11:39am

You are so courageous, Kelli. I hope you will devote some of your energy to addressing the connection between gun ownership and suicide. In a study of suicides in all 50 states, Harvard School of Public Health found a "powerful link" between rates of firearm ownership and suicides. See https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/magazine/guns-and-suicide/. I don't mean to turn your tragedy into a political issue, but you have an extraordinary opportunity to speak to this issue.

As Harvard PH says:
The lesson? Many lives would likely be saved if people disposed of their firearms, kept them locked away, or stored them outside the home. Says HSPH Professor of Health Policy David Hemenway, the ICRC’s director: “Studies show that most attempters act on impulse, in moments of panic or despair. Once the acute feelings ease, 90 percent do not go on to die by suicide.”

But few can survive a gun blast. That’s why the ICRC’s Catherine Barber has launched Means Matter, a campaign that asks the public to help prevent suicide deaths by adopting practices and policies that keep guns out of the hands of vulnerable adults and children. For details, visit www.meansmatter.org.