Santa Rosa teen suicide leaves community in shock, seeking answers

Jonathan Field seemed to have everything going for him. The 17-year-old star student athlete had a loving family, a caring Jewish community and a promising college career ahead.

His suicide Dec. 6 in his Santa Rosa home left the Field family devastated and anxious community members looking for answers.

They may not get them.

Field left no note and had shown no warning signs, such as depression, before his death by hanging. The suicide sparked an outpouring of consolation for the Field family, and an unexpected dialogue among Sonoma County parents, teens and community leaders.

“With the death of children, let alone by suicide, we are bereft of answers,” said Rabbi George Schlesinger of Santa Rosa’s Congregation Beth Ami and a friend of the Field family. “As I said at the funeral, this is so much the natural order of things turned upside down. We don’t expect to outlive our children.”

Hundreds of people attended Field’s funeral Dec. 10 at Santa Rosa Congregation Shomrei Torah.

Schlesinger’s synagogue, Beth Ami, followed up with a communitywide meeting Dec. 13. About 50 parents from among the Jewish community and Maria Carrillo High School (Field’s school) attended.

Daniel Pickard, a Santa Rosa child psychologist with expertise on teen suicide, came to help parents make sense of the tragedy. “It was devastating to hear about Jon’s death,” he said. “Jon is known as a top-level student and athlete. He has very fine parents. His father spent years coaching soccer and basketball for both of his children.”

Jon was the son of Pam and David Field, and younger brother of Michael Field.

Most teen suicides show signs of depression or engage in prior self-destructive behavior. “It’s much more unusual to have no warning signs, no note,” adds Pickard. “There are signs and risk factors: a previous suicide attempt, depression, a stressful situation such as a break-up. The way teens think, with their limited life experience, a loss might feel like the end of the world. Another risk factor can be exposure to other teens who have either committed suicide or have died.”

Unfortunately, Santa Rosa has seen a rash of similar tragedies in recent months. A friend and soccer teammate of Jon Field’s died in July, and last month 2004 Maria Carrillo graduate Brenna Fessenden died in a bus accident in Ghana.

“I’m friendly with the [Fields],” added Pickard. “No one had seen any signs of depression. If [Jon] was struggling, he was keeping it under wraps.”

Barbara Scharf attended the Beth Ami meeting. Her son, Rio, and Jon Field attended preschool together at the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, and were Hebrew school classmates. She is shattered by Field’s death.

“The Fields are people many look up to for their values,” says Scharf, who is director of senior programming at the Sonoma JCC and a member of Shomrei Torah. “They are very pure-hearted. When you hear this happens to their child, everyone has a huge ‘why’ in front of them and there is no answer to that.”

That has left Scharf feeling vulnerable. She says lately she wakes in the middle of the night, haunted by the event and worrying about her own children.

“What we learned [at the meeting] was, if you have a high achiever you’re at risk; if you have a low achiever, you’re at risk,” she said. “Nobody felt safe from this happening to their own child.”

Rio Scharf, 17, understands the reactions of the adults around him, as well as the feelings of his fellow teens. “The students are mainly sad,” he says, “and the parents are mainly scared. I have to remind my mom every day it wasn’t me, that I’m not depressed.”

He thinks the community has responded well overall. “Everyone came together and was extremely supportive of each other,” he says. “I admired the way the administration of the school dealt with the situation, setting up a place for students to meet, talk, leave flowers. The kids really needed a shoulder to lean on.”

As a member of the Beth Ami youth group Kehilla, Rio Scharf took advantage of a meeting last week to help teens discuss their feelings. He says Kehilla leader Rick Concoff “encouraged everybody to support each other more, and he made people realize their impact on each other. You can only hope the effect will last.”

As for preventing further teen suicides, local parents and community leaders promise to do all they can. “There were suggestions of bringing this into the curriculum at religious school,” says Beth Ami’s Schlesinger, “and we will most likely follow that up. Adults are saying ‘Force-feed them,’ but the kids want to get back to being normal.”

Pickard encourages parents to talk to their teens about depression and suicide, even if it means walking the tightrope of being overly intrusive. He’s going through this with his own teenage daughter, who knew Field and is also coping with the recent deaths of a grandparent and a friend’s sister.

“When Jon died, she had sleep problems, and a lot of tears,” says Pickard. “She asked me, ‘Who’s going to die next?'”

Barbara Scharf thinks the Fields will emerge from this catastrophe with a new sense of purpose. “They’re not the types to shrink into the woodwork,” she says. “I see them helping other families. It’s the only way to manage this pain.”

As for managing her own pain, Scharf has found herself responding in surprising ways. Or perhaps not so surprising when a child leaves this life too soon.

“There’s been a huge openness and outpouring of love,” says Scharf. “I’ve been hugging every kid I come in contact with and telling them I love them. And I do.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.