In February 2018, at age 28, Michael Cohen committed suicide after suffering from a very short two months of depression. His parents, Carol and Steve, say that his death was completely unexpected and shocking to those who knew him. Michael had a life of so much promise — he had graduated from Pomona College, worked in China for three and a half years, traveled all over the world, and had wonderful friends and family. How then, his parents wonder, can you know if someone is harboring something so dark inside?
Typically, when someone dies of suicide, it’s not disclosed in the person’s obituary. But Carol and Steve wrote candidly about Michael’s depression and suicide in his obituary, and firmly believe that though it’s tragic, there’s nothing embarrassing about the way their son died. The stigma and shame associated with mental illness and suicide only prevents people who really need help from getting it.
Carol and Steve talk with host Shannon Cason about Michael’s life, his tragic death, and what they learned about suicide in the months that followed.
On who their son Michael was
Steve Cohen: Michael was everything you could ever want in a child. He was the warmest, nicest, smartest, most giving person you could ever imagine. Michael literally came out of the womb and did not cry. I’ve never heard of a baby not crying, and Michael had a smile on his face essentially permanently after that. Michael was just a wonderful child, and everybody loved him, respected him, and cared about him. And he cared very deeply for other people.
Carol Cohen: He grew into an adult who continued to have deep, caring relationships with other people — his siblings, with us, his friends — and that was really a hallmark of who he was.
On Michael’s fascination with China and traveling the world
Carol: Starting in sixth grade, he started taking Mandarin in our public schools. And that became a dominant theme in his life. He ended up taking Chinese for a number of years and went to China a number of times, and then ultimately, moved to China and lived there for about three and a half years and worked there after graduation.
Steve: He had this list when he went to China of all the places he wanted to go. It was like 30 different places, and some of them were way, way out in the middle of nowhere where very few Chinese people go. In fact, I actually went with him to one of them that only has one plane flight in and out every day. And he slowly managed to check off all of those places on his list. I would say nothing made him happier than traveling.
On Michael’s first bout of depression in college
Carol: When Michael came back from his [college] semester abroad in China, he was depressed. He was depressed because he had not become as elite of a Chinese speaker as he was expecting when he started at the beginning of that semester. That was the first time we had ever seen anything like that. He saw a therapist and he was on medication, and then he went back to school in the fall and continued that treatment and then was able to emerge from it, and as far as we can tell, was living a very normal life for the next seven years.
On Michael’s perfectionism, his search for the perfect job, and his second bout of depression
Steve: When you’re looking for the perfect job, it’s really really hard to find. And in his world, it was extremely narrow — there was some particular thing he was focused on and there was only barely any of it available. And the other thing you do when you’re a perfectionist is: ou read a job description, and there’s 28 job characteristics, and nobody in the world meets all of them, but you look at it … and say, “Well, I don’t meet number 24A, so I can’t really apply for that one.” And so Michael sort of spun his wheels for four months. That was really the start of this spiral.
Steve: He got more and more fixated with the idea that, I’ve waited too long, my credentials aren’t good enough, I can’t remember enough from the product management course — you know, all things that were untrue, and you know, Michael had all the credentials to do any number of jobs. But in his own mind, he wasn’t seeing it. And that really led him to be quite depressed.
Carol: You’re looking at everything through this very distorted lens, and so the distortion of, wow, maybe I’m permanently unemployable is something you can convince yourself of if you are very depressed. And the healthy mind looking at that can say, “Wait a minute, let’s get some perspective here.” But the depressed mind doesn’t see it that way.
On Steve and Carol’s take on Michael’s depression
Shannon Cason: Did you ever worry? Because you’d seen an episode previously. Did you worry that Michael wouldn’t come out of this depression?
Steve: Never. Never crossed my mind. Never crossed his therapist’s mind.
Steve: Our view of it, and the way he characterized it, was that it was fundamentally an employment problem. He gets a job and he’s fine. He just needs to get sort of going. And that was it. The idea that it was either something that would not get better, and in the most extreme case, end the way it did end, could not have been farther from our minds.
Carol: He had an MD and a therapist. And they had both talked to him about suicide. And neither of them thought that he was a suicide risk. And we certainly weren’t on suicide watch for him. Not only because of what we had heard from the therapist, but also because Michael was leading an unusually engaged life for someone who was in a depression. He had a volunteer job he was going to, he was seeing friends, he was continuing to interview for jobs, even though he was not in a great condition to do that, but he was interactive. You know, he wasn’t in a dark room for a bunch of months, there was no substance abuse, he didn’t have the long history of depression, we were not estranged from each other.
Steve: I use this example sometimes. There’s a homeless person who sits in front of the grocery store we go to. And I feel terrible for this person, but he’s out there every day asking people for money. And I feel like, that person’s got it a lot worse than a lot of people, certainly a lot worse than someone like Michael, and yet, he hangs in there. And so how do you know for someone who is so much better off — that there’s something so dark inside. You just have no idea.
On the day Michael died
Steve: It was Saturday, Michael had told us he was going away for the weekend with a friend. And I think Carol had gone out to a spin class and I had probably gone to the gym. It was a cold February day, late morning, and we’re sitting around just having something to eat, and the doorbell rings. And I go the front door and as I walk up, I can see there are two policemen there. And I’m thinking, haha you know, what did I do? Anyway, and I open the door kind of smiling and one of them said, “Are you Michael Cohen’s father?” And I said, “Yes is he ok?” And they said, “Can we come in?” And I — my heart just like was pounding.
Steve: And I walked in and I yelled out to Carol, “Carol come here, something is really wrong.” They said that they had found the car, and his body and the ID matched up. And we were sort of in disbelief. Like, could it have been someone else? How do you know? Are you sure you have the right person?
Steve: You’re just not prepared, no matter what you’ve been through in your life, you’re just not prepared for that. We were just out of our minds.
Carol: [One of our sons who was home at the time] said he knew something horrible had happened because he heard this screaming from the first floor unlike screaming he had never heard before. And of course, Steve and I don’t remember any of this. We were just in complete shock. I don’t remember the police leaving, I don’t remember closing the door, I don’t remember exactly what happened in that moment. We must have just started screaming.
On the moments after Michael’s death
Carol: It was just the worst time. And you can tell, it’s still very, very fresh. I mean, Michael died about five months ago, but telling his siblings and being together as a family in the moments after the police left our house — like that whole day — was just the worst time in our lives.
Carol: You have to do things that you would never think about: you have to get the body back, you have to talk to funeral homes., you have to go to the cemetery and pick out the place where you’re going to bury your child. I mean, you have to do things you just never imagined in a million years you would be doing. And even now, there’s the physical pain of it and there’s the mental, emotional pain. And it’s so unbearable that sometimes we say, “I felt kind of numb today,” when we talk to each other, now in the months since it’s happened. And we feel like that’s self preservation because you actually can’t endure the physical and emotional pain of this kind of tragedy 24/7.
Steve: You know the word heartbroken, and it’s just a word. But when you go through this, it’s more than a word. The physical pain is excruciating. It’s really unbearable. I can’t imagine anything like it.
On looking back
Steve: It’s like, how could you miss it? The second thing is, there are things that if people had done differently — us and others — we could have had a different result. In fact, the therapist that Michael saw and also one that we saw said that despite that Michael killed himself, that was an exceptionally unlikely outcome.
Steve: There’s a term that people use; it’s called the tyranny of hindsight. And you know, the ability to look back and see something and understand it much more clearly than you ever could have in the moment is extremely painful.
Steve: Carol and I don’t feel guilt because I feel like we did everything we knew to do for Michael. But not feeling guilt about it is different than recognizing that if some things had gone differently, perhaps the outcome would have been different. And so you can feel very sad about that.
On the future for Carol and Steve
Steve: We struggled a lot with can we have fun? Can we laugh? And I think we got to an understanding that there’s always going to be this sadness that sort of hangs over. And sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less, but having Michael around is not an option. So it’s not like I can say, if I don’t go out and have lunch with a friend and talk and laugh — if I give that up, Michael’s gonna come back. Michael’s not coming back. And I would give up everything to bring Michael back. But I can’t. So my only option is to make the best of whatever I can do in life. When you think it through, there’s kind of only one choice.
On deciding to put Michael’s suicide in his obituary
Steve: As my daughter put it, Michael died of a mental illness. A mental illness that was not terribly visible. And the idea that somehow you need to be embarrassed about that just never crossed our minds.
Carol: It took us a month before we were in any condition to be able to even write the obituary. And when we were talking about the obituary itself, it never really occurred to us that we would not say something about his depression and suicide. It’s not like we had the conversation and said, “Well, should we say it or should we not say it?” We just wrote it, and it wasn’t really a discussion.
Steve: One of the things we’ve learned from all the people we’ve talked to who either had family members who killed themselves or who thought about it themselves is that concealing it is really the differentiator between whether you make it or you don’t make it. And so the stigma that prevents people from talking is deadly.
These interview highlights have been edited for brevity and clarity by Candace Mittel Kahn.
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