07/02/2012 03:26 pm ET Updated Sep 01, 2012

Drowning 25 Yards from Shore

An article has been making the rounds on how to tell when people are drowning. According to Navy sea survival expert Mario Vittone, "Drowning is a deceptively quiet event. The waving, splashing and yelling that television prepares us to look for, is rarely seen in real life."

Vittone continues, "To get an idea of just how quiet and undramatic drowning can be, consider this... of the approximately 750 children who will drown next year, about 375 of them will do so within 25 yards of a parent or other adult."

This line was echoing in my head last week when I learned that a college friend had been found dead in a local park. "Police are investigating, but the initial determination is that he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound," the email said. "There is no other information as the family is still trying to cope with the shock."

They weren't the only ones. Mutual friends, including many who'd seen him a few weeks earlier at our 30th reunion, shared their horrified disbelief. Imagine the sweetest, goofiest person you know -- that was this guy. A big man with an incongruous giggle, always the first reach out with a kind hand or healing word.

The last time I heard from him was an email busting my chops for not making it to reunion. I wrote back, "There's always next time," but, of course, there wasn't.

In the days after his death, more information emerged. Financial problems. Bouts of depression. The sadness behind the smile. From the surface, these looked like challenges that many of us have faced. But stronger currents were pulling our friend down.

What takes you from crying in your beer (or eating too many pints of Ben and Jerry's) to the dark woods with a gun in your hand and a suicide note in your pocket? For his sake, I wish I could understand.

As we tried to process the loss, we lamented, "If only he had reached out!" Whatever secrets he kept, our friend didn't live in isolation. Active in his community, close to family as well as friends, he was greatly loved. There were at least 20 people who would have given their last dollar to get him out of any mess he was in.

But here's the survival expert again: "Except in rare circumstances, drowning people are unable to call out for help. The respiratory system was designed for breathing; speech is the secondary function. Breathing must be fulfilled before speech occurs." Furthermore, "Physiologically, drowning people... cannot stop drowning and perform voluntary movements such as waving for help, moving toward a rescuer, or reaching out for a piece of rescue equipment."

I believe he didn't ask for help because he couldn't. Vittone says, "The mouths of drowning people are not above the surface of the water long enough for them to exhale, inhale, and call out." Our friend sank silently, with only the crack of the bullet to alert us that he was gone.

So where do we go from here? Forward, slowly and in sadness. Forward, scanning the water for silent, nearly imperceptible dangers from without and within.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.