Following the musician's death, friends and family battle grief while working to keep his memory alive
The day Daniel Sebastian Loper took his own life, he appeared to busy himself planning for the future.
Loper returned to his studio loft at Milo Arts the evening of March 8, 2017, following a month when he'd been largely absent from the artists' community in the Milo-Grogan neighborhood. After a late jazz gig, roommate Lisa Bella Donna discovered Loper asleep on the couch in the residence the two shared. She paused to prop his feet back up on the sofa and to cover him with a blanket.
The next morning, after sleeping in, the two listened to records while Loper straightened up his area in the bright, airy, plant-filled room, which he'd left largely untended for weeks while housesitting across town. The pair also discussed plans to record Loper's first EP using the Tascam 388 reel-to-reel tape recorder Bella Donna had recently rescued from storage and given to him as a gift.
At some point in the late afternoon, Daniel's mother, Susan Loper, visited Milo Arts with a gift of her own: a case of water and some juice. When Daniel spotted her from the building's courtyard, he climbed the tall, chain-link fence and greeted her with a hug.
“He was so excited telling me about the tape recorder Lisa had given him and how he was going to record at the studio,” said Susan, who had worried about Daniel during the weeks he'd spent housesitting, concerned with both his apparent weight loss (“He looked so fragile”) and his lack of communication. She continually sent him positive notes via text message (“How are you doing, my beautiful, amazing son?”) regardless if he chose to respond.
“When I brought [the water] he was outside talking to someone, and it was like, ‘Great, he's connecting with people again,'” Susan said. “He was happy and smiling, and I told him, ‘I love you, son.' And he said, ‘I love you, too.' And when I left I felt good about where he was.”
Hours later, in the early evening, a friend discovered Daniel's body hanged in the attic of Milo Arts. He was 24 years old.
According to data compiled by the Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation, suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Ohioans 15-34 years of age. In 2010, 1,420 Ohioans died by suicide, outnumbering homicides two-to-one and surpassing even the number killed in motor vehicle crashes (1,155). And yet, the mental-health issues that often lead to suicide — largely depression — can still carry a stigma.
“That stigma is one of the reasons a lot of people won't ask for help,” said Rick Baumann, assistant coordinator of suicide prevention services with North Central Mental Health Services. “With over 90 percent of deaths by suicide there is a mental illness involved, and most of the time it is depression, which is one of the most easily treated mental illnesses.
“When people are suicidal, they don't see hope that anything will change. What we try to do is find a way where they can see there is hope. [Depression] can be treated. And treatment works.”
Growing up, Daniel, who was born in Langen, Germany, where he lived with his mother for nearly five years before the two relocated to Gahanna, often existed as “a square peg in a round hole,” according to Susan.
“Daniel, as a child, did not want to be told what to do. He wasn't easy,” she said. “I didn't understand some of the reactions he had to things. I was a single parent … and I always had that underlying worry: ‘Are you OK?'”
Early in life, Daniel was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Susan recalled how he would arrange his Hot Wheels in a line snaking through the house, each car facing the same direction, and how it would irritate him if she turned even a single vehicle so it faced the opposite way. “He had that compulsiveness about him where everything had to be in order,” she said.
As a result, Daniel had difficulty focusing in school, where he received average grades in spite of his obvious intelligence. “He knew he was brilliant, and he had ideas constantly, but he had trouble focusing,” Susan said. “When he did focus, it was amazing what he could do.”
He was also prone to acting out in school, according to longtime friend David Jost, who first met Daniel as a fellow kindergarten student at Shepherd Christian School in Gahanna when Daniel snuck up behind him while he was putting together a puzzle and brought the heel of his foot crashing down onto his hand.
“I started crying and looked up and it was Daniel,” Jost said, and laughed. “He got in trouble. And, for whatever reason, I decided to be friends with him from that point forward.” Eventually, the two bonded over a shared love of music, with Daniel, a bassist and keyboardist, professing a fondness for everyone from funk bassist Bootsy Collins to pianist Herbie Hancock.
Despite a dark, sarcastic sense of humor and a fondness for pranks, both Daniel's mother and Jost described him as a sensitive soul who had an innate awareness of others experiencing emotional pain. “I don't know if ‘troubled' is the right word, but he was an angst-y, bottled-up person growing up, and I think once he was out on his own he developed a habit of surrounding himself with people he could help,” Jost said.
“In middle school, he would often come home and say, ‘Mom, people pass me in the hallways and I know they're hurting,'” Susan said. “He had a sense for people's suffering, and I think maybe it was because he was suffering.”
At the time, Daniel spoke of starting an after-school support group for kids experiencing emotional turmoil, which he planned to name Operation Happy Face.
Daniel's high-school years were occasionally tumultuous, accompanied by anger issues that readily revealed themselves. Things between Susan and her son eventually grew so tenuous that Daniel moved to Florida to live with his father, Georg, for nearly three years following his freshman year. He also suffered from depression but kept it largely hidden. Incidents of self-harm were not uncommon (though unaware of it at the time, Susan recoiled years later when Daniel revealed scars from his cuts), and on at least one occasion he attempted suicide by overdose.
“He never came to me and said, ‘I'm depressed,' but I could look at him and see he wasn't happy, and it worried me,” Susan said. “It was like, ‘I just want you to be happy. What can I do to make you happy?'”
“I knew depression was something he had because I also suffer from depression badly,” Jost said. “But even as close as we were, it wasn't like we'd go, ‘Hey, man. I'm feeling really down today.' It's a hard thing to talk about, even when you've known someone for that long.”
Lisa Bella Donna, who spoke of her own ongoing struggle with depression, described the illness as “a parasite.” “Daniel and I had many conversations, and he mentioned he felt suicidal in the past, but he made it pretty clear he didn't feel that way now,” she said. “But I know how it is. And I know how quickly that climate can change within a person.”
Though Daniel would occasionally retreat from public view to “tend to his own garden,” as Bella Donna explained it, he most often carried himself with an energy and enthusiasm that bordered on infectious.
“He was just burning up with artistic vitality and passion,” Bella Donna said. “Music was a big part of his spectrum, but he was also interested in the visual arts and culinary arts and photography.”
These passions collided in the events Daniel curated, such as Vapid Vinyl, where attendees viewed artistic works and sampled appetizers inspired by a particular album while listening to the recording, and 934 Fest, a daylong music and arts extravaganza brainstormed by Daniel that debuted at 934 Gallery in Milo-Grogan in July 2016 (a second iteration in memory of Loper is scheduled for Saturday, July 22).
“He had dozens of clear ideas of what he wanted to do with his life,” said Milo resident and musician/photographer Dru Batte, who first met Daniel in 2015 and credits him with helping form her current band, Polly Pocket. “It wasn't like someone young who is like, ‘I know exactly what path I'm on.' He was like, ‘I know exactly what 20 paths I'm on.'”
At his core, Daniel was first and foremost an idea man, according to everyone interviewed. A partial rundown of some of Loper's brainstorms included: a recording studio that would double as a trade school, a boutique Downtown guitar store, a mobile art gallery that could bring art shows to underserved neighborhoods, and, predating Blaze Pizza, a Chipotle-style, build-your-own pizza shop.
This untethered enthusiasm radiated through the speakers in an unaired interview Daniel recorded for the Columbus-based “In the Record Store” podcast, which was captured in the midst of 934 Fest last year.
“Honestly, I'm not [tired]. … I'm fired up. I'm having a great time,” Daniel said, going on to explain his far-reaching goals not just for 934 Fest but for the gallery itself. “It's really just about branching out and reaching further into different audiences. … In my belief, an art gallery needs to showcase all forms of [art]. We're doing fashion shows and dinners with top chefs around town and concerts. … We want to do everything.”
At Milo Arts and 934 Gallery, where Daniel served as director of operations in a volunteer capacity beginning in March 2016, Loper experienced a sense of belonging that had often been missing in his life. “He and I were always loners and had that angry-at-the-whole-world thing,” Jost said. “When he got in with the Milo crowd, it seemed like … he was directing his energy more towards those ideas and projects that interested him rather than just being angry.”
Daniel's mother recalled receiving the excited call when he was accepted as a Milo resident early in 2016. “It really felt like he found a family there,” she said. “At Milo, he really fit. He could share his ideas and collaborate with likeminded people and really blossom.”
934 Gallery Executive Director Abigail Hartung, who, following Daniel's death, adopted his dog, told of Loper laboring over tiny display labels for a planned 934 art show, discarding the hand-typed ribbons if the text was even slightly off. “I picked up a few that had fun phrasings and were still legible, even if Daniel didn't think the spacing was perfect enough to go up on the wall,” she said. “One of them has been in my purse the whole time … and the phrase that it says on the label is ‘coming home.' Realizing the connection he had to Milo and how he really felt it was his home is still very powerful when I think back on it.”
In late May, Jost is seated at a Downtown coffee shop. At the same time, he's also on the top level of a parking garage visible on the southwest corner of High and Gay streets, standing beside Loper as the two watch a fire rage across the road at 11 E. Gay St. in April 2014.
“Now I see that building and that's the memory attached to it,” Jost said. “As far back as I can remember he's always been there. We grew up in Gahanna, and after high school we moved to Olde Towne East, so it's kind of like we discovered the city together. That's the hardest thing to cope with. I think about him every day.”
For those closest to Daniel, grief takes many shapes. Some have managed by trying to keep his memory at bay, while others have held tight to every interaction.
“The night of it, I came here and I sat down with all his things around me, undone,” said Bella Donna, seated in the studio the two shared. “It took me a long time to clean the place up, but I got to a point where I had to because I would turn around and see something of Daniel's and it would just thrash me. … As a survival tactic, I can't think of Daniel a lot because it makes me tune into a frequency in myself that I know too well: that I should be dead.”
Down the road, however, Bella Donna plans to return to recordings Daniel started, with the intention of completing the tracks “in the direction I assume he would go,” she said, describing his music as fuzzy, shoegaze-style instrumentals.
Dru Batte, meanwhile, immersed herself in anything related to Daniel, holding tight to his memory in hopes it, too, wouldn't slip away. “I immediately started going through [photos of Daniel]. I was so desperate to grab onto anything I could, so I found it all and held it close,” she said.
In the days and weeks that followed, Batte photographed Milo residents as they turned to painting, sculpture and dance, unwittingly creating a portrait of an arts community coping with grief. These photographs will comprise an exhibit opening at 934 Gallery in August, tentatively titled “Finding Light in New Places.” In addition, Milo Arts will open a Daniel Loper memorial garden on the grounds of the facility with a late-August commemoration ceremony.
For Jost, the loss has sparked much-needed soul searching.
“I thought I would be one of those people where death never fazed them,” he said. “But I think the nature of the situation, and seeing that I've dealt with similar feelings, sparked a change in me. Before, this might have been a catalyst for me to go further off the deep end and into a darker place, but I've really tried to use it as motivation to change for the better and help other people.”
In the short term, Jost said he's been more cognizant of those around him, reaching out if he notices anyone sending up what read as warning flares via social media. “Even saying, ‘You don't know me, but if you're in a bad place I'm more than happy to listen to you,'” he said. “When you're in a situation where you feel isolated and alone, you worry someone is going to think poorly of you if you open up to them, and that's never the case.
“One of the things I stressed at Daniel's eulogy is there is always something that can be done, and no one should ever reach that point. If you love and care about someone — even if it feels awkward — be like, ‘Hey, I'm thinking about you.' It might feel weird, but it feels a whole lot better than sitting at someone's funeral.”
Baumann of North Central Mental Health Services stressed the importance of these seemingly innocuous interventions. “That's our mantra at suicide prevention: Ask a question, save a life,” he said. “If you notice someone withdrawing and they don't seem to be enjoying anything anymore, don't be afraid to ask them the question.”
For Susan Loper, the grieving process has been constant and fractious, filled with small forward steps followed by long stretches where she feels like a derailed train unable to get back on course.
“I was totally disassociated from my body for at least a week, and even now I sometimes feel that way,” she said in a late May interview in Olde Town East. “You're just hit, like a lightning bolt, and you can't even think. I would look at my friend and say, ‘What are we doing? What did he say?' I couldn't focus on anything.”
In a follow-up email the next afternoon, Susan described the sensation as akin to moving through life “as a piece of glass.” “I try hard to keep it tinted so no one can see the deep pain and brokenness that is always underlying,” she wrote, “but I know at any given moment it's going to shatter into pieces and have to be picked up again.”
Regardless, in mid-April, just five weeks after Daniel's death, Susan ran the Boston Marathon — her fifth time competing in the event and her ninth marathon overall — embracing the run as a means of healing both spiritually and physically.
Going in, she wasn't concerned with her pace, but as she neared the top of Heartbreak Hill (“How appropriate, right?” she said) it struck her that she wasn't far off from the time needed to qualify for the 2018 marathon.
“I felt Daniel right here on my shoulder cheering me on, [and] I had the most spiritual, beautiful run,” she said. “He gave me his grit, and we were weaving in and out of all these people and I just gave it all I could to get to the end. … I got to [the finish line at] Boylston Street and someone was holding a sign and it says, ‘I love you, mama,' and that's what he would call me in German — not ‘mom' or ‘mommy.' It was ‘mama.'
“That timing — I really feel like there is another realm to this world we don't understand, and I felt so connected to it [in that moment]. That was very impactful, and it hit me really deep. I knew he was with me. He was there.”
She missed qualifying by 49 seconds. It still felt like victory.
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs to speak with someone immediately, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text the keyword “4hope” to 741 741.