When a sudden lift in mood isn’t a positive sign

Years ago, when my friend Franz Kriwanek killed himself, I felt not only grief and loss but a great sense of failure.

Franz was an artist and an accomplished potter. Born in Austria, he was conscripted into Hitler’s army when his country was overrun. Captured by the Allies, Franz spent several years as a prisoner of war in Britain. Not a bad way to sit out the war, he said, because he made many influential friends by painting flattering portraits of officers’ wives.

After the war, some of those influential friends greased the way for Franz to immigrate to America with his love, Hermie.

Franz had a successful career as an art professor at a succession of universities. During summer vacations, Franz and Hermie traveled, searching America for a place that reminded them of the mountains of their homeland.

They found what they sought in Silverton, and Franz opened a pottery shop. He prospected for and found a good clay deposit. The mineral-rich mines of the San Juan Mountains provided ores for his brilliantly-colored ox blood, celadon and deep sapphire blue glazes.

Passengers discharged for lunch from the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad heard his booming voice and hearty laugh accompanied by a sharp bang when Franz bashed one of his sturdy cups or pots on the worn wooden counter: “You buy these, you have them forever. They never break.”

His shtick sold a lot of pottery. Shelves and display cases in my home are filled with Franz’s work – collected piece by piece beginning when I was a medical student short on cash.

When Hermie died after a long illness, Franz was devastated. We spoke on the phone regularly, and I knew, long after Hermie died, that Franz was still severely depressed.

The last time I visited Franz in Colorado, his mood seemed much better. He spoke excitedly of plans for new works of art, works he would create “for her.” He ate a hearty dinner and complimented my cooking. We agreed to have lunch later in the week.

When I called Franz a few days later to confirm a date and time for lunch, I got his voice mail – again, and again. Concerned, I drove to Silverton. On the front porch of Franz’s home were bouquets of flowers left by neighbors.

Shortly after our last visit, a few days after the second anniversary of Hermie’s death, Franz had shot himself.

I was dumbfounded. How could I have been so taken in by Franz’s suddenly improved mood and future plans? As a physician trained in the psychology of suicide, I knew, as most families don’t, that a depressed person’s sudden mood shift may signal relief: When the decision to commit suicide is made, the emotional conflict is over.

Fine doctor I was. Why hadn’t I suspected? Why hadn’t I asked? What good was all my training if I couldn’t help my friend?

Loved ones of the murdered have someone to blame. After a suicide, friends and families blame themselves.

chuser@durangoherald.com Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland.

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