It has been more than two years since Rachel Vander Kolk woke in the middle of the night to learn her twin sister, Tracy, had taken her own life.
"Why didn't I notice anything?" Rachel said. "I felt like I should have recognized she was hurting because I was her twin sister."
It would be some time before she learned to accept there was nothing she could have done.
All the time, Rachel was on the honor roll while leading Severna Park High School to three lacrosse championships in her four years. This year's Capital Gazette Communications Female Athlete of the Year, Rachel earned a partial scholarship to play lacrosse at the University of Virginia, where she'll major in aerospace engineering.
Rachel learned to grieve and cope in the fishbowl atmosphere of high school. She learned to accept that there are some in her Severna Park community who linked her successes to her sister's death.
"These accomplishments are mine," Rachel said. "I'm more than my stats in the paper. I'm more than a smart kid who's good at sports."
Her story is one of persistence and acceptance of the help a therapist can offer — a story she's now willing to share.
"I recognized personal pride was ... (why it) took me so long to talk to someone," she said.
As a survivor of a loved one's suicide, Rachel embraced a "new normal" and continued to achieve at a high level while the public tragedy and her private grief played out in her high school community.
"To handle the work at the level she was used to doing it at while she was grieving," said her former engineering teacher Brad Hill, "it's really remarkable."
Mental health professionals say that for survivors a suicide is like an earthquake followed by a slow-moving tsunami.
Rachel's earthquake was approaching.
Support, then isolation
Tracy died in the early morning hours of May 10, 2012, a Thursday. Rachel didn't attend school for the rest of that week and the next while the funeral was planned.
At school, Severna Park's seniors were looking forward to graduation and the girls' lacrosse team was prepping for its annual run at the 4A title.
When Rachel came back May 21, school administrators arranged for her not to do more work.
In such circumstances, school staff may base a report card on the work a student has already completed.
There were no more assignments for Rachel, no more tests. "I was literally on my smartphone all day long" — anything to keep her mind off Tracy.
Lacrosse afforded her another respite. The Falcons were in the playoffs. As Severna Park advanced, some parents and students from opposing schools would share the story of Tracy's suicide in hushed tones.
There was nothing hushed at Severna Park High, where teammates, classmates and faculty were eager to help. The Broadneck girls' lacrosse team delivered shirts to their rivals that read "Always Remember Tracy" on the front and "One County. One Rival. One Heart" on the back.
"My teachers were awesome, too," Rachel said. "They didn't touch the subject if I didn't bring it up, which I didn't because it was too new then."
Rachel split time as goaltender and the Falcons won the state title May 25 with a 13-6 win over Westminster. The championship was celebrated, but the school community that rallied for the Vander Kolks began to scatter for summer vacation.
None of Rachel's friends was qualified to help her make sense of her sister's suicide — few 16-year-olds are.
"There had been so much support just a few weeks earlier ... then there was nothing."
She didn't feel ready for therapy, and without friends who could help her make sense of what had happened, Rachel felt increasingly isolated.
Her mind raced through scenarios involving her sister, asking herself questions for which she had no answers.
"By the end of summer, I really needed school to start."
"As a society, we treat suicide much differently than, say, a heart attack," said Alli Holstrom, a prevention program coordinator with the Anne Arundel County Partnership for Children and the chairwoman of the Youth Suicide Awareness team.
"We know what to say when someone suffers a serious medical condition, even cancer, because we accept those conditions as a normal part of life," Holstrom said. "Unfortunately, we're not so sure what to say to a survivor of suicide."
That fall, classmates and teachers were sympathetic but wary of wading into difficult conversations. There were hellos and goodbyes, but eye contact was fleeting. Talk was short, easy.
"You could see it with kids in the hallway. And teachers wouldn't press it," Rachel said. "Everyone nibbled around the edge of the cookie."
She had committed to playing lacrosse at Virginia over the summer, so she was playing soccer that fall for fun. Goalkeeper coach Johan de Vicq pulled her aside at the first practice.
"'Whatever you need from us or this sport to help you is what you're going to get from us," de Vicq told her.
"I was there for something to keep my mind off of Tracy," Rachel said.
Still, she found herself angry and frustrated.
"She hid it pretty well at first," former teacher Hill said. "I don't think she wanted to show cracks in her armor, because kids looked up to her."
By December 2012, basketball had begun. Rachel seemed fine, but those close to her sensed otherwise.
Rachel would find herself ramping up her emotions, sometimes having to leave class or practice to compose herself.
The first crack came during a basketball game. Severna Park coach Lisa Magness was shouting instructions to Rachel.
"Don't you know I'm playing for two people out here!" Rachel thundered back, in full hearing of the crowd.
Magness lives four houses from the Vander Kolks and was the twins' baby-sitter. She would turn to Paul Pellicani, the school's boys' basketball coach, who often sat on the end of Magness' bench.
"I would bounce questions off Paul about if I was being fair to the team or favoring Rachel, because I didn't know what was right and wrong about the situation," Magness said.
Camille King, a former lacrosse teammate, and Julie Gardner, a lacrosse coach, called, texted and met with Rachel and eventually persuaded her to seek help.
"I wouldn't let myself feel anything because I thought it was a sign of weakness," Rachel said. "Everyone knew what happened, so by that point there was no sense in trying to pretend I'm fine."
Learning to cope
Rachel began seeing a psychologist once a week. She said the sessions helped her make sense of the emotions she was confronting as a survivor.
Survivors are the largest group needing help because of suicide, with an estimated six survivors created per suicide, according to the American Association of Suicidology.
In 2010, the most recent year for which data are available, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 38,364 suicides nationally — roughly equivalent to the population of Annapolis — creating more than 230,000 survivors.
There is no set time frame for reaching healthy acceptance. Survivors are often coached to not expect their lives to return what they were before, but instead to adjust to life without a loved one.
For Rachel, that meant remembering her sister and the times they shared, such as when Rachel played the guitar as Tracy sang a new song they both liked.
The twins were born on Jan. 30, and Severna Park's students honored the Vander Kolks by secretly selling out a girls' basketball game against South River that day. The students who came all wore shirts that were lime green — Tracy's favorite color. Rachel struggled in an eight-point loss to the Seahawks.
Rachel continued her once-a-week therapy, and the Falcons had a solid lacrosse season. By fall 2013, Rachel was embracing the help she previously resisted and advocating for depression awareness.
On Sept. 7, 2013, the TracyVK team participated in the Annapolis Out of the Darkness Walk, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Rachel was the top fundraiser ($3,991) on a 143-person team that earned $18,198.
Because her sister's death happened near the end of the 2011-12 school year, Rachel didn't use the services offered by the county's schools. But she said that schools should encourage parents and children to talk more about depression.
"People don't understand talking about it won't induce it," Rachel said.
When the death of a student or faculty member affects a school community, the county deploys mental health professionals in trauma teams The county school system also encourages QPR — question, persuade and respond.
"If you see something concerning to you, question that behavior, persuade that person to go talk to somebody and get some help, and respond to the situation," county schools spokesman Bob Mosier said. "These conversations are critically important, because those first conversations can be lifesaving."
Her back-seat driver
Two weeks from today, Rachel will be in Charlottesville, Virginia, moving onto campus for her freshman year.
She still talks to her psychologist. It still helps.
"Everything that happened became part of the definition of who I am in Severna Park," she said. "The experiences, good and bad ... (have) shaped everything I've become up to now."
"Sometimes you have a passenger that always tried to give the input of how you're doing and where you're going," Rachel said. "Tracy is still my back-seat driver.
"Really, she never left me."
Where to find help
Anyone can suffer from depression at some point in life. Here are some resources:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255.
- Anne Arundel County Crisis Response Warmline, 410-768-5522.
- LGBTQ Youth — Trevor Project, 866-488-7386.
- Youth America Hotline ,1-877-YOUTHLINE (877-968-8454).
- ReachOut.com, 800-448-3000.
- Youth Suicide Awareness Action Team, achoicetolive.org.