BOYLSTON, Mass. — As a medic in the U.S Army, Sgt. Nathan R. Stark had seen a lot by the time he was 22, including several suicide attempts and a miscarriage. But it was the death of his grandmother to cancer on his birthday last year that seemed to take the heaviest emotional toll on him. It led him to take his own life at her grave.
Two months after his death, his mother, Rebecca L. Stark, 51, from Boylston, who works as a nurse, is raising awareness about high-functioning depression and how cancer affects everyone, not just those diagnosed.
Ms. Stark said her son was very close to his grandmother and that she was his confidante. Mr. Stark’s grandmother, Marion J. Stark, helped raise him while his mother was at work.
“She was his day care provider when he was little,” Ms. Stark said. “They talked a lot and he grew up around there.”
When Mr. Stark enlisted in the Army, his mother said, he felt guilty about leaving his grandmother, who had been battling endometrial cancer since 2006. He also had a hard time leaving his little sister, Jenna L. Stark, who was 6 at the time, Ms. Stark said.
“He felt guilty he couldn’t be there,” Ms. Stark said, holding back tears. “He would call from Korea and ask how his grandmother was doing. I didn’t want to keep bothering him, but I had to keep him informed. He just felt bad he wasn’t there. He was used to being a medic and making everything right.”
Mr. Stark’s aunt, Deborah L. Temple, 49, from Sterling, said her family was close with the Starks. There was only nine months age difference between her oldest son, Zachary Temple, and Mr. Stark. She said they were like brothers.
Mr. Stark would come home for Christmas every year, his mother said, including while spending two years working as an Army medic in South Korea. It was during that time that his grandmother’s health declined further and doctors gave her a year to live, Ms. Stark said.
“We could see her getting worse and worse, and then we were called in for a meeting,” Ms. Stark said. “They said that they were stopping the treatments they were doing and that, ‘If she lives a year, she lives a year.’ We got everyone together to plan for our last big year with her.”
Mr. Stark wanted to be there. Ms. Stark said he requested a transfer to Fort Drum military base in New York.
The family, however, would not get another year with her. Weeks later, Marion Stark was back in the hospital for uncontrollable bleeding.
“They said it was a matter of weeks,” Ms. Stark said.
Her condition declined very rapidly, Ms. Stark said, and the family had a “couple of good days” with her. Marion Stark was home during her last few weeks before slipping into a coma.
Mr. Stark requested leave and rushed home to be by her side.
“He got an extended leave and would stay right there with my parents and lived right with them,” Ms. Stark said. “He would stay up at night to take care of her.”
Marion Stark died on March 1, 2016, at 76.
Shortly after, her family and a few friends, formed the team Stark Strong to participate in the annual UMass Medicine Cancer Walk & Run last September. The team raised $1,000, and Mr. Stark became the spokesman for the team.
“There was no indication he was really depressed ever,” Ms. Stark said. “We all were sad.”
Mr. Stark also began applying to medical school — a lifelong dream, his mother said — and had moved into his own apartment in Marlboro. He was getting more seriously involved with his girlfriend, who Ms. Stark said seemed like “the one.” He got a rescue dog, a coon-hound mix he named Gunner. The dog ended up at Ms. Stark’s house because his landlord would not allow pets, she said. Mr. Stark would stop in at his mother’s often to walk Gunner, she said.
“He couldn’t have pets when he got the apartment, so I inherited the dog,” Ms. Stark said, laughing.
He had started a new job after obtaining certification for his CDL license, his mother said. He trained a month in Miami.
On the evening of April 5, Mr. Stark stopped at his mother’s house briefly to walk Gunner, she said. He told his mother that he and his girlfriend had an argument.
“I said, ‘Are you OK?’ and he said, ‘Yeah. I’m OK.’ I didn’t want to push it,” Ms. Stark said. “It doesn’t go over well when you’re pushy and they think you’re being nosy.”
Mr. Stark had a glass of milk and granola bar, took Gunner out for a walk and left around 6:45 p.m., she said.
“After he left, I noticed he left his paycheck,” she said. “I tried to call him thinking he would be furious he left the check, but he didn’t answer his phone. I texted him, ‘You left your check,’ and he said, ‘I know.’ That’s the last I ever heard from him.”
The next morning, the police chief and an officer and two state police troopers stopped at her home to tell her that her son had shot himself.
“He went to the cemetery to my mother’s grave,” Ms. Stark said, crying. “He was found there by a cemetery worker that morning.”
Ms. Stark said she plays through the times in her mind when she saw her son in the months before his death, trying to recall any indication or clue that he would have killed himself that night. There weren’t any, she said.
“We honestly didn’t realize how much my mother’s death affected him until he chose to do what he did at her grave,” she said. “We never imagined in a million years. He always wanted to be a doctor and he texted me a few days before that he was accepted to BU.”
Though her son had no addiction issues and was into working out and dieting, she said, she later learned he was drinking beer the night he died.
“Everyone was in shock,” she said. “Everybody says pay attention — people cry for help — but, sometimes they don’t. I think to myself, ‘I’m a nurse. How did I not see all this?’ I think sometimes you just have a perfect storm.”
His uncle, William Stark, 55, from Auburn, said he had texted his nephew a few weeks before and Nathan told him he was excited about his new job.
Ms. Stark said her son suffered from high-functioning depression. Ms. Stark later learned that he was having a hard time adjusting to civilian life after leaving the military and was more upset over the breakup with his girlfriend than she realized.
“Nathan was one of the happiest kids you’d ever meet,” Ms. Stark said. “He was always smiling, always. That’s how everyone who knows him remembers him. He was a jokester, literally the life of the party. As difficult as it is, I want it to be hopeful, if that makes any sense. Through recent research I’ve done, I’ve learned that many suicides are impulsive acts. It’s the third-leading cause of death amongst 15- to -24-year-olds, and 20 veterans commit suicide each day. I’ve learned about high-functioning depression. I don’t have any answers, but maybe just raising awareness could help someone.”
She said she also wants people to know that cancer affects everybody and has a ripple effect.
“When you get a diagnosis about somebody, you have helpless feelings,” she said. “My son really wanted to give back and used our team to get donations. He had a lot of causes that were important to him and he was looking forward to helping raise money for research.”
She said it is important to the family to continue to give back.
Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com