In obit, a call to recognize a mental health & addiction crisis

Using the coded language found in obituaries, we can presume that Sergei Neubauer of Des Moines, Iowa died by his own hand of some sort on Monday. He was just 18 years old. His visitation is this evening, and tomorrow his family and friends will say goodbye.

Suicide? Addiction? It’s no matter that how he died isn’t revealed; how he lived is.

We read a lot of references in obituaries to “brave” or “courageous struggles”, usually against cancer.

Neubauer’s obituary doesn’t say so specifically, but his struggle, like most against depression and mental illness, was brave and courageous. His short life was amazing. And so too, obviously, were the two people in Iowa who agreed to be his parents when he was 11.

His obituary appeared in the Des Moines Register.

Ethan Sergey Neubauer, known as Sergei to his friends and family, died at home on Monday, Sept. 25. He was 18.

An enormously talented and gifted young man, he had experiences and adventures few could even imagine. He brought joy to those around him with his warm smile, quick wit and sometimes wicked sense of humor. He was a fun-loving teenager who often went out of his way to help others, particularly those he believed were vulnerable or hurting.

But Sergei also struggled throughout his life with depression, anxiety, PTSD and survivor’s guilt related to his tumultuous childhood in Russia. He had worked for years to overcome mental illness. It is right to acknowledge and honor the progress he had made while recognizing the toll that struggle took on his life.

Sergei was born on Sept. 29, 1998, in Murmansk, Russia. He lived in various locations in northwest Russia before becoming a resident of an orphanage in the Karelia Region. While there, he decided he wanted a different life. He wanted a family and a better future. Through his orphanage, he learned about the Camp Hope organization in a place called Iowa. The group worked to find homes for older children living in Russian orphanages.

In the summer of 2009, Sergei visited Iowa, and through Camp Hope, met a couple named Mary Neubauer and Larry Loss. They said they wanted to be his parents and offer him a life with them in America. He later recalled that he thought Mary was very tall and Larry’s hair was quite white; but they seemed nice, they smiled and laughed a lot and they had great dogs. Sergei agreed to become their son and the adoption process proceeded, first with Mary’s adoption of him in Russia and later with Larry’s adoption of him in Iowa. The family arrived home together from Russia on Christmas Day 2009 where they were welcomed by his new brother, Brent, and future sister-in-law Amy.

Sergei soon started school in Urbandale and learned English quickly. He thought it was especially great when one of his classmates taught him several bad words in English on his first day of school. He was conversational in English within about four months and tested out of the English Language Learners program within four years.

Sergei had an enormous intellect and enjoyed learning about the world around him, from considering new books with his mom to achieving the perfect cross-cut technique in lawn-mowing with his dad. The family argued good-naturedly over whether it would really be possible for humans to survive a zombie apocalypse as they watched those science-fiction scenes play out on television.

Sergei loved to cook and often made up new recipes as he went. He was especially proud to have baked a homemade cherry pie with his Grandma Louise and thought her cooking skills were ninja-level (which was true).

He adored his mom’s cheesecake and vanilla cupcakes each year for his birthday and her oatmeal cookies with chocolate chips and dried cranberries whenever she made them. (He perfected the approach of microwaving his cookies for a few seconds, saying they were best when enjoyed warm.) He loved seafood and could not understand why his land-locked Midwestern parents struggled with some dishes from the sea.

Sergei played youth soccer for Vision Soccer Academy in Waukee, youth football in Urbandale, and went on to become a letterman as a varsity wrestler for Urbandale High School. He also played rugby while in high school and said that playing sports in the cold did not bother him because he was from the North. He was a weight-lifting aficionado and his powerful physique reflected the hours he spent in the gym.

He was proud of his Russian heritage and maintained his native language through private tutoring lessons. He considered it an honor to have tea in a traditional Russia tea service with his tutor, Milla, and often told his parents that Americans just do not understand tea. But he also later would learn to drink iced tea with his mom (and Dr. Pepper with his dad).

Sergei loved nature and the outdoors and was especially kind to animals, often hugging his dogs, Ricky and Stan, and laughing as he played with them. He had just recently taught Stan to bow in exchange for a treat.

Sergei was proud to become an uncle when his brother Brent and sister-in-law Amy became parents in February 2016 to their daughter, Addison. Sergei possessed a unique ability to get Addie to look at the camera and take stunning photos with him.

Sergei graduated from Urbandale High School in May 2017 and was considering a number of options for his future. He was especially interested in psychology and social work and said he enjoyed helping others in need. It is true that Sergei often masked his own pain by keeping the focus on others, and that was an issue he struggled with throughout his life.

Mary and Larry are so proud that Sergei was their son. They know they are more caring and better enlightened people for having him in their lives. They plead with lawmakers and policymakers everywhere to recognize the toll that mental health struggles and addictions are taking on our society, particularly our young people. They believe it is a crisis facing America, one that must be acknowledged, better understood and ultimately addressed for people to have the tools to heal. Iowa did not have adequate mental-health resources during Sergei’s times of crisis, and he spent several months out of state this year in residential treatment.

Several times through the years, Sergei took the brave step of asking for help. Mary and Larry encourage anyone who is struggling to know that help is available and better times are possible. They ask that you keep Sergei in your thoughts and prayers. In addition, they urge everyone to be a positive force for change.

1.If you need help, ask for it. Can it be scary to take that step? No doubt. But you are not alone.

2.Seek to build others up, not tear them down. In little ways every day, we each can try to make a constructive difference. A smile, a kind word, a moment of your time can make a huge impact on others.

3.Avoid drama. It does no good. Use your energy more wisely – there is only so much to go around.

4.Recognize small moments of joy, for they happen all the time. We just have to notice.

Visitations with the family will be from 4-7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28, at Caldwell Parrish Funeral Home and Crematory in Urbandale; and from 10-11 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 29, at Lutheran Church of Hope in West Des Moines. A Celebration of Life service for Sergei will be held at 11 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 29, at Lutheran Church of Hope.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made in Sergei’s memory to the National Alliance on Mental Illness at; the Animal Rescue League of Iowa at; or Youth and Shelter Services Inc. at

(h/t: Nikki Armstead)