Content warning: This story addresses suicide with the aim of raising awareness. It does not seek to promote suicide but rather to remember and honor those affected by it while emphasizing the importance of mental health support and prevention. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
Madison Ash Lignell’s story is equal parts beautiful and heartbreaking.
He was born charming, energetic and curious about the world, according to mom Jordana, who lights up when talking about the boy with the bright smile and big heart better known as Maddy.
He was a typical Boulder, Colorado, kid – camping, skiing, hiking and climbing. He built a rocket from duct tape in his garage, attended elementary school up the street and worked hard for all his achievements.
“Fun-loving and exuberant but also compassionate and respectful – that was the essence of Maddy,” Jordana said.
When Maddy visited Cal Poly, he knew it was the place for him. He enrolled in 2013 as a general engineering major before transferring into mechanical engineering, bringing his enthusiasm to classrooms, dorms and clubs. Along the way, he landed an internship at SpaceX that turned into a dream job after his graduation in 2018.
Three years later, Maddy would die by suicide, shattering the lives of his family, colleagues and countless friends.
The onset of his mental health crisis was acute and catastrophic, occurring over the course of six days and witnessed by older sisters Hanna and Shayna as well as Jordana and Oliver, who rushed to their only son’s side, cocooning Maddy with love during what would be his last hours.
Reeling from grief over Maddy’s death, the Ash-Lignells reached out to scientists and clinicians around the country, sharing details of their son’s final days, as they sought answers to questions they never thought they would have to ask.
“The misconception is that people who die by suicide either struggled with mental health issues for a long time or were hiding something about their mental health problems,” Jordana said.
“We believe something different happened to Maddy.”
As a licensed clinical social worker, Jordana advocates for mental wellness in families including her own.
“Our family culture is one that encourages talking about feelings and asking for help when it’s needed,” she said, noting mental health was an open topic conversation among Maddy and his sisters.
When he arrived at Cal Poly, Maddy was quick to make friends, seek support from his professors and advice from Counseling Services after a particularly painful breakup.
“He reached out for help when he needed it, was close to his family and was able to find joy,” she said. “He had an optimistic outlook nearly all the time.”
Maddy’s positivity fueled his dedication to creating a more just world by giving his time and money to causes that save people and the planet, including the International Rescue Committee, Critical Resistance and Sunrise Movement LA.
Maddy pursued his other passion for space exploration in Cal Poly’s CubeSat Lab, where he gained experience around satellites he took into his SpaceX internship that became a full-time job working on the Falcon 9 rocket in Hawthorne, California.
“Maddy loved being a part of something so innovative,” Jordana said. “He wanted to change the world.”
His next adventure with SpaceX took him to Redmond, Washington, in May 2021 to help produce satellites for the global Starlink broadband internet network, but the decision to relocate was a difficult one.
“He was stressed before he moved, like anyone heading into a big life transition to leave friends and California, but he was also eager to do that,” Jordana said.
He died just two weeks later.
Jordana and his sisters first noticed Maddy, then 26, was exhausted when the family gathered over Zoom for their Sunday check-in which coincided with Mother’s Day.
They knew things were growing increasingly concerning over the next week, when Maddy began relaying excessive worries about his proficiency at work, a stark departure from his usual confidence. He was suspicious and agitated as he discussed aspects of his personal and professional life.
“He was open with his team members about the stress he was experiencing, and he was so responsive during our conversations,” she said, “but the way he was processing didn’t make sense.”
Early Thursday, Maddy called his mom to communicate significantly heightened anxieties about his new role, spurring Oliver and Jordana to board a plane hours later.
“If your person is saying something worrying, please go be with them,” Jordana said. “Take it seriously.”
They brought him to their hotel and spent Friday talking candidly about stress, sleep and getting professional help, which Maddy welcomed.
“We knew this problem was bigger than something our family could handle,” she said.
They found a psychiatrist who chatted with Maddy by phone, offering him an appointment five days later. Maddy, who was both rational and acutely aware of his mental state, said he needed something sooner, so they agreed to meet the next day instead.
Hours before that appointment, however, Maddy took his own life while his parents slept in their shared hotel room.
“Our hearts are forever broken,” Jordana said.
Utter devastation defined the days and months that followed, as the Ash-Lignells navigated their new reality.
“The brain protects you by helping you function without conscious thought,” she said. “The support of others is what holds you up.”
The family knew right away that they wanted a community event to share their collective grief, but a celebration of life felt unsettling given Maddy’s untimely death.
They held the first of what would become an annual Gathering for Maddy six weeks later.
Hundreds from across the country – including his manager and director of production at SpaceX, wrestling coach, teachers, mentors, camping and gaming buddies, extended family and a host of friends from childhood, Cal Poly and community service groups – joined the Ash-Lignells in Boulder to express their deep love for the young man who had changed their world.
“He made a lifetime of impact in his 26 years,” Jordana said.
Out of respect for the valuable role Maddy played at SpaceX, the team in California inscribed “In Loving Memory of Madison Lignell” on an engine that powers the second stage of the Falcon 9 rocket into deep space to deploy its Starlink satellites. The rocket was launched at 4:41 a.m. Dec. 18, 2021, from Vandenberg Space Force Base as the Ash-Lignells watched from a dark, lonely hilltop near Lompoc.
“We know the component is orbiting even now, as it will for years to come,” Jordana said. “When I look at the sky, I think of him there.”
Mourning for the family also meant investigating the lead-up to Maddy’s death.
“I’ve scrutinized that time period,” said Jordana, who along with Oliver and his sisters, talked extensively with Maddy’s SpaceX team about his mental state. “We learned he had an amazing first week, was open with his team about his stress and was doing everything in his power to figure out what was going on with his brain.
“He was well, and he wasn’t hiding anything from us.”
Jordana’s next step was talking to experts at universities across the country about Maddy’s mental health crisis. Their conversations began centering on a condition known as acute suicidal affective disturbance, or ASAD, characterized by rapid-onset, severe suicidality.
The Ash-Lignells had a likely explanation at last, but they haven’t stopped advocating for more action.
“I realized I didn’t have the solution to this newly defined condition, but what I could do is bring together the smartest people from around the country and tell them Maddy’s story,” she said. “Let these scientists, clinicians and policymakers work together to bring attention to ASAD as we all work to address this devastating outcome.”
She’s confident the coordinated effort, supported by a local nonprofit, is gaining momentum as it evolves and will make a difference.
The Ash-Lignells recently hosted the third Gathering for Maddy in Boulder that drew 70 people, including close to a dozen Cal Poly alumni.
“There has been an outpouring of support from friends and loved ones who continue to share their stories about Maddy,” Jordana said.
She joins them in their mission to keep Maddy’s memory alive, refusing to let the stigma around suicide prevent her from sharing insights born from tragedy.
She has spoken to advocacy groups and has been the featured speaker on a national webinar, communicating simple but strong messages about how to support those who have lost a loved one to suicide: “Come sit with us. Tolerate our grief. Bear witness to our pain. Let us know you are thinking about us.”
She has also emphasized to parents and children the importance of asking for help.
“Young people hearing Maddy’s story are taking their mental health more seriously and getting help sooner. I feel he has saved lives.”
She holds gratitude for the platform that allows her to extend support to others along with profound sorrow over the loss of her son who embodied such joy.
“His story is both beautiful and heartbreaking because what we really want is our son. We miss him every single day.”
The Ash-Lignells are committed to supporting Cal Poly’s efforts to promote mental health and the well-being of all students and staff members in honor of Maddy. To stay updated and to learn more, visit welovemaddy.com.
Help is available
If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, please call 911.
Cal Poly Counseling Services offers mental health resources for Cal Poly students at chw.calpoly.edu.
If you are in crisis, call Cal Poly’s Counseling Services anytime at 805-756-2511. After hours, follow the prompts to speak with a counselor.
Call or text 988 anytime to speak to someone from the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. This line is open 24/7 and is free and confidential.
Find support and resources
Suicide remains a leading cause of death in the United States, but there is now more information and support available than ever for families concerned about a loved one or individuals facing their own struggles.
Interventions and treatments have been developed in recent years for those experiencing suicidal thoughts or who have made a suicide attempt, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or AFSP.
There are several brief interventions that supply tools for managing suicidal crises, including Safety Planning Intervention, Lethal Means Counseling and Crisis Response Planning.
“What we know is that bringing up the subject of suicide does not ‘plant the seed’ or make someone consider this,” Jordana Ash said. “Asking directly is often the first step in understanding the concern and assisting someone getting help.”
She encouraged people to learn about the warning signs and risk factors and to take concerns seriously.
“Just because someone you love has not had mental health struggles or suicidal thoughts in the past, like Maddy, a sudden, intense onset of troubling thoughts or feelings warrants support and action,” she said.
Longer-term treatments that focus on challenges people have with anxious thoughts or negative moods, substance use and social, occupational and health experiences can reduce suicide ideation and behavior. Such treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy-suicide prevention and attachment-based family therapy. Medications can also be integrated into a mental health treatment plan under a clinician’s direction.
Nonprofit groups such as the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Loss Survivors provide support and other services for people coping with a devastating loss to suicide. The group’s online forum operates like a 24/7 support group, and the website offers information on the survivor experience.
The AFSP also lists international suicide and bereavement support groups as a public service to loss survivors.
By Emily Slater