‘It’s OK not to be OK’


November 2, 2020

Two years ago, Sean and Heather Bonner were lost in grief. Today, grief still consumes them, but they are no longer lost. ‘Now,’ Sean says, ‘we have a mission.’

by Ken Garfield

Sean and Heather Bonner live in the SouthPark area. He works in financial services. She’s a real-estate agent. Sean Jr. — his parents called him Seanie — was the middle of their three children. A star pitcher and captain of Charlotte Latin’s baseball team his junior and senior years, Sean won the Quiet Leadership Athlete of the Year award as a senior. He loved all kinds of music. He was known to quote lines by memory from goofy movies like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.

“You couldn’t find one of us without the other,” says Mitchell Malak, 23, a senior industrial engineering major at Clemson University who was Sean’s best friend. Sean was super social, Malak says, especially around friends with whom he felt comfortable. But looking back, Malak remembers times when Sean would distance himself from the crowd. It was nothing dramatic, but it gave Malak pause, a sense that his friend had something on his mind he was holding back. “In our society, feelings are hard to talk about.”

Before his senior year at Latin, Sean attended a baseball camp at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He loved the idyllic campus set in a quaint Midwestern town. It was a good fit academically and athletically. When the coach offered him a spot on the team, Sean accepted. Going off to college, playing baseball. What could be better?

Two years later, on Nov. 7, 2018, Sean died by suicide. His body was found in the woods near the baseball field at Denison. He was 20 years old, a junior economics major. No one knows how long he had been contemplating it, or whether it was a spur-of-the-moment decision. He left no note, but there had been signs.

In November of his freshman year at college, Sean suffered an apparent concussion when he fell in his dorm room. It was never diagnosed. He never sought treatment. He told his parents he hurt himself lifting weights, and he was having headaches. They encouraged him to see a neurologist, but because Sean didn’t reveal the true cause of the injury, he wasn’t tested for a concussion. His parents now believe he kept it hidden for fear of losing his spot on the baseball team.

In September of his junior year, Sean had surgery on his pitching arm. It was going to keep him from playing baseball his junior season. After the surgery, his parents knew something wasn’t right. They invited him to come home. Twice before he died, he saw a counselor. Still, they had no inkling of what was to come. Maybe Sean didn’t either, until the end. He told his parents he was getting a ride home for the holidays with a friend. He died 15 days before Thanksgiving.

Malak was one of the few people who could tell his friend was suffering, though he had no idea to what degree. 

“He had this ability to put on that smile, that front,” Malak says. “It all boiled down to never wanting to be a burden to anyone else.” On Nov. 6, as Malak was driving back to Clemson, he called Sean twice to check on him. He got no answer. The next day, Sean was gone.

In the days that followed Sean’s suicide, the Bonners searched for answers. In speaking with Sean’s college friends, they learned he might have suffered other concussions that went undiagnosed and untreated. They think he was dealing with headaches and having a hard time sleeping, signs that took on much deeper meaning after the fact: Only then could they put two and two together. They’ve accepted that questions will linger. Are the unanswered questions more painful not knowing exactly why? The Bonners shrug at the question. How could it be more painful?

By New Year’s, they came to understand that the world wasn’t going to stop for them. They have two other children who need them — Ryan, 19, a freshman at Clemson, and Alison, 24, a second-year medical student at UNC Chapel Hill. They couldn’t, as Heather says, crawl back into bed. Instead, like so many who suffer a tragedy, the Bonners went looking for something that might bring meaning to life after death. Something that might honor Sean by keeping others from heading down the same dark path.

They found it in Mission 34.

The idea for Mission 34 came from Peter Pittroff, an acquaintance of Sean’s from Charlotte and a friend and classmate at Denison. The Bonners founded the nonprofit last year to encourage people to share their burdens before it is too late. Pittroff, 22, saw it as a way to honor Sean, and a cause for his parents to embrace.

Sean wore No. 34 on the Denison baseball team. Mission 34’s tagline, “A New Type of Tough,” articulates the goal of urging people to seek help rather than hide behind a false smile. Whatever torment you are dealing with, there is someone who will listen.

“Everyone’s going through struggles,” Malak says. “It’s OK not to be OK. Asking for help’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.”

A variety of initiatives spread the message: speaking to youth, an annual kickball game, participating in a virtual walk for suicide prevention, selling Mission 34 shirts and other gear with the hope that people will look at the logo and ask, “What’s Mission 34?”

Two years ago, Sean and Heather Bonner barely knew where their next breath might come from.

Now they know.

“We tell the story,” Sean says, “so someone else doesn’t have to go through it. That’s the best we can do right now.” SP

A primer on suicide

In 2018, there were 48,000 suicides in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another 10.7 million American adults seriously thought about taking their own lives, 3.3 million made a plan and 1.4 million attempted it. In 2017, suicide was the second leading cause of death among Americans ages 15 to 24. Unintentional injury was No. 1.

Symptoms include excessive mood swings, changes in eating and sleeping habits, becoming withdrawn, showing despair or rage, increased use of alcohol and drugs, acting recklessly, talking about suicide, and saying goodbye in a way that seems final.

If you suspect someone is planning a suicide, call 911. You can also call the 24/7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

To learn about Mission 34, the nonprofit started by the Bonners in Sean’s memory, visit mission34.org.

Freelance writer/editor Ken Garfield is a frequent contributor to SouthPark magazine. He also helps charitable causes tell their stories and writes obituaries. Reach him at garfieldken3129@gmail.com. 

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