Survivor Stories: Ode To NinaJo

Lady in dark grey sweater, holding her hands close to her chest

In May of 19961 moved to Atlanta, Georgia from Chicago, Illinois not realizing why God had lead me there. The reasons for my move have become crystal clear to me now. An incredible woman whom I met here in Atlanta; Iris Bolton, has been a catalyst for much of my healing journey. I will never forget the time I saw Iris Bolton at my first S.O.S. meeting. I thought that Iris was losing it when she told us we would eventually find “a gift” in this dreadful experience. Well, thanks to my faith in God and Iris Bolton I am indeed discovering a gift and a part of that gift is my ability to share with you today!

I remember so vividly after the devastating loss of my mother, the void that I felt, and the longing to find ANYBODY who could even remotely understand what had happened to me and ONLY ME (so I thought). I found in my S.O.S. groups that this “family” of survivors could finish my sentences and comfort me in a way I never thought possible. My journey began very early on since my mother and father had both turned to alcohol to deal with the stress in their lives. I was the youngest child and proudly assumed the role of “nursemaid and caretaker” primarily for my precious mother, believing deep down that if I was good enough, my parents might stop drinking. This “responsible” role that I took upon myself helped me to fine tune the art of numbing all my feelings and being “strong”. (It felt pretty good at the time.)

In 1979, my mother became sober and I was in “2nd heaven”. I adored her; she was creative, funny and a wonderful friend (much more so than a mother). She divorced my father, and she and I moved to a condo across from my high school in Oak Park, Illinois. In September of 1980 I was off to college. We got together and talked often. I had three incredible years with “Nina Jo” for which I am intensely grateful.

The last time that I saw “Mum” was Saturday, February 6th, 1982.1 took the bus from school so that we could spend some time together. When Mom drove me to the bus station on Saturday, I knew she was incredibly sad because of a break up with her boyfriend. To this day, I could never tell you that I had any clue what mom meant when she told me “the scrimshaw artwork in the living room is worth a lot of money, just so you know in case anything ever happened to me.” I never made the connection. Now I believe that even if I had, I was helpless over my mother’s choices. I learned as a young child that you could not take away the “bottle” from the alcoholic because they would find a will and a way to get another one. Just as I know now that if I had taken away mom’s gun (which I had no knowledge of at the time), she would have found another way to end her pain. I am relieved that today I do not feel responsible for her decision. (That took me awhile.)

My tragic journey began on Monday. February 8th, 1982 with a phone call from my father, that has left a permanent scar in my memory. He said “they found Nina’s body, apparently she had bought a gun.” That’s all I remember. And then I went into what felt like a permanent state of NUMB. Being that I was closest to mom and that I was so good at “taking care of things”, my 63-year-old father decided that I should be the one to make all of the decisions about the funeral, etc. So, at the age of 20,1 stood there at the Oak Park Funeral Home, never having dealt with death whatsoever in my life, realizing that it was all “up to me”. My most difficult decision was choosing not to see my mother before she was cremated. I believe now, that even if I had just seen her hand it would have helped me find a small piece of closure to this surrealistic event. I regret that decision and feel angry that I let others convince me that it was best to have a memory of her as I had last seen her.
I spent the next 10 years of my life dealing with this “surrealistic event” in a complete daze. As a sophomore in college, I become rebellious and very much a “party” girl, trying to fill the void that mom had left. In 1986, I was using cocaine to numb my feelings. I then resorted to food as my “drug” of choice, and struggled with an eating disorder. I spent the next couple of years in very dysfunctional relationships, taking care of everybody, but myself (as usual).

My life vest and good friend, Rebecca sent me to her therapist, Sheila. I did some incredible healing work with her but didn’t give it enough time to really work through my intense grief over my mother. I realized in 1992 that I was failing in a relationship because I had spent so much time denying my own needs. My best friend referred me to a grief therapist. This was an incredible funnel for me in beginning to look at my mother’s suicide. Part of my therapy work was writing a letter from mom to me and from me to mom, since she had not left a note. . I also reluctantly read Iris Bolton’s book; My Son, My Son. I found it fascinating that someone else could feel the way that I did. Little did I know that my future husband, Michael would be transferred to Atlanta, in 1996, the year we were married.

Once in Atlanta it took me six months to call Iris and boy was I nervous. I made an appointment and went in to talk to her. Iris is an incredibly comforting person and very realistic, I liked that (I was finally ready for that!) She referred me to a therapist at The Link. This has sped up recovery. My journey has become a difficult yet also very wonderful road towards self discovery. I am intensely grateful to be able to share my story with you and feel OK with being vulnerable. The most important thought that I can leave you with is that You are not alone! (Thank God I found that out!)

By: Susan February

Survivor Stories: The Center of My Life

Man on a swing set overlooking sunset on a beach, he looks over at the empty swing set next to his

I lost the center of my life on Friday, July 13, 1984. Brenda, my wife often years, succeeded in killing herself during a full moon while I was at an AlAnon meeting (where I was trying to cope with her alcohol and drug problems). I had intervened on three previous suicide attempts, so I thought I was ready for the possibility of her death. However, nothing the many doctors and counselors we had seen, not the books I had read, prepared me for the devastating grief that overwhelmed my entire being.

For the first time since childhood, I cried bitter, angry guilt-ridden, frustrating tears for months afterward. I had virtually no energy, finding that grief demanded most of my physical, mental and emotional resources. My first wife, who also struggled with addiction, told me at the memorial service about Iris Bolton, her book, My Son… My Son, and The Link Counseling Center. Support from her book and her Survivors of Suicide group paced the way towards my eventual recovery and transformation, though too often I would ignore the loving advice given at those vital monthly meetings.
Survivors of Suicide and, at first, my Al-Anon group formed the backbone of my recovery. Talk and the expression of feelings openly in the groups were crucial to my one-day-at-a-time climb out of the black pit of my existence. Because of my background (strict family upbringing, Army training, and years in the corporate sales field), I was totally out of touch with my emotions. I found in the groups a living, non-judgmental acceptance of my needs. The group members who shared my pain, plus many caring and gifted counselors who coached me on letting my feelings out paved a winding, pot-holed, bumpy road back to feeling normal again. The road was often more like a roller coaster, though as I would sink back into self pity and denial in the early days, I had to learn about the phases of grief, and more importantly, the immense patience and forgiveness I needed to give myself.

There were precious few books then to ease my burden, but Iris’ book plus the works of Dr. Elisabeth Kubler Ross helped immensely. Since then, many new books have become available to those of us who have to live on after someone we love chooses to die, including Dr. Threse Rando’s Grieving: How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies, and James’ and Cherry’s The Grief Recovery Handbook. I was encouraged by Iris and others to write about my feelings and thoughts as a tool for recovery. I found great release in the exercise, which eventually grew into my book, Life After Grief and my now full-time occupation as a writer and speaker (one of the gifts that Iris said might come from my loss).

Long walks helped, as did extended soaks in a hot tub as I listened to quiet music. When I felt there was some pain needing to come out, I would look at pictures of us or play some of our favorite music, for I didn’t want to take the chance that suppressed feelings might cause physical problems. I treated myself to chiropractic adjustments and massages as my grief ravaged body cried out for relief. A lesson, and also another gift, became my program to eliminate or reduce, or just accept, some limitations in my own behavior. I learned of my own codependence (a compulsive need to please and help people, even though they don’t ask to be pleased or helped). I discovered how to get better rather than try to be perfect. Again with much help from supportive people, I rebuilt my very fragile self esteem.

Another important lesson I have learned: there is no right way to heal, just any way. All the advice from all the sources could not give me a timetable or prescription for my healing, I had to do it my own unique way, as all of us must. Even now, I sometimes talk to my wife, for another gift I received after her death was a firm belief in eternal life. She is alive in some dimension I cannot see, though I think she can hear me. Even if she can’t it helps me to be able to say what I must to her. Slowly, oh so painfully slowly, my world turned right-side-up again, as time healed my enormous psychic wound. Gradually, I could function again without the confusion so prevalent during deep grief. I began to date, probably too soon, but nonetheless a necessary step for me.

As the years passed, I discovered perhaps the most important gift of all from my wife’s passing. I found a new center for my life, the part of me that is a part of God.

By: Jack Clarke

Survivor Stories: Addressing Other Losses by Suicide

Lady with her back to the camera, looking out at a sunset over mountains

I am writing this for anyone who has lost someone they loved and cared about by suicide. I am a Survivor of Suicide, defined as anyone who has lost a loved one by self inflicted death. Eleven years ago on December 5, 1986, my boyfriend, Andy, shot and killed himself. He was 17 years old. At the time, no one seemed to doubt my pain or my significance in his life and his in mine. His family included me like one of their own in the memorial and funeral services.

I remember during that time, my life seemed to have no purpose or value, full of seemingly endless pain. Well intentioned comments such as “You’re young, you’ll have many more loves in your life” deepened the excruciating wounds they intended to soothe. How could I ever replace this dear person? I never will. I don’t want to spend my life alone, but risking love again? My love is no good, it only causes pain and despair. I felt broken. And who could I trust enough to love? Would they leave me too?
As time went on, the well intended comments turned to “You should be over this by now, after all, he wasn’t a relative of yours.” Causing me to feel more alone, crazy, and believing there was something terribly wrong with me. Everyone seemed to want me to be “normal” again. I wanted to be “normal” again. I would vacillate between putting on a brave face and a good act and shutting down in isolation. My continuous attempts to be what everyone wanted crumbled in my hands, feeding my belief that I was damaged and always would be.

My mother, sensing my extreme pain and desperately wanting to help, found the name of a woman at the local counseling center who had lost her son by suicide, Iris Bolton. I don’t remember much of our meeting, as I have lost memory if at least two months of that time, however, I remember feeling real hope for the first time in months. My Mother later told me I said two things when I left her office; that she thought she was going crazy too, and at least she knew the pain. Here was a woman who didn’t make me justify my pain, she accepted it to be real and valid. And in that simple acceptance, she gave me the gift of hope that I too would survive and one day live a happy productive life.

After that I entered therapy with a counselor she referred me to, went on to college, completed my Masters in Counseling, and began working with Survivors. Currently, I’ve been happily married for three years and coordinate The Link Counseling Center’s National Resource Center for Suicide Prevention and Aftercare. I still get the occasional well intended question or comment such as “What was so special about Andy that he made such a profound impact on your life?” And I think to myself “Please don’t ask me to explain … again.” You see, I don’t mind telling my story, because in the telling there is healing for me and education for others, but I refuse to justify my pain to anyone. I have learned that it is valid just because it’s mine. It doesn’t need to follow anyone else’s rules or guidelines based on how they think I should feel.

Whatever brings you to read this article, the loss of a parent, child, sibling, spouse, friend, or any other relationship, do not compare your pain to others, it is unique and different. For the person you lost was unique as was your relationship. There are common threads that bind us as we try to put our lives back together. It is not our old lives, but different ones. We will never be the same. We will create a “new normal” for ourselves defined by our own healing and growth. Know that your pain is real and valid. And that there are people willing to listen and be with you in your pain and not ask you to justify or explain.

By: Tracy T. Dean

Survivor Stories: My Brother Jay

A woman and man sitting on a lake dock, looking down and holding each others backs

In the years since I lost my brother, Jay, it is still hard to believe that the whole thing actually happened to me, to my children, to my family of origin. It remains only partially dealt with and only
partially believable. And of course, the pain continues.

I feel that I can remember every detail of every second of the afternoon I was told of Jay’s death. I can remember what everyone said and what their faces looked like. I can remember my Mamma wearing an orange cotton pants outfit with a scarf loosely tied around her neck. I found the scarf later that night after she left it lying in the driveway. I put it under my pillow that night as a way of being close to her. I remember walking up to the car to greet Mamma and my sister. Because of what a family friend had said earlier when he called looking for mother, I knew he had some very bad news to tell me about one of my brothers. I remember Mamma walking up to me and saying, “Something terrible has happened, Ann Marie. Jay is dead. It happened in the car.” I remember screaming out and thinking that the best thing for me to do would be to run. Somehow I knew if I could run away from Mamma before she finished telling me about my brother that I would be able to interrupt this thing and it would not have taken place. Mamma told me she needed me though, and I did not leave her.

We came inside the house to call one of my other brothers. It was during my Mamma’s conversation with him that I realized that Jay had killed himself with a gun.
It was too horrible to believe. I remember some weeks after the funeral calling the coroner for a confirmation wondering if it was really my brother that was dead. The casket had remained closed. Perhaps he was still really alive. Perhaps it was not him the police found in his car but a body some kidnapper had placed there. Or perhaps Jay was playing some awful trick on us. Or perhaps he had been murdered and the murderers were still at large. The coroner gently confirmed that the person the police found in the car was my brother and that he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

I remember the days after I heard about Jay as being heavy, filled with pain, and very confusing. I remember lying on the kitchen floor and crying and crying. I went to work, but driving was a tremendous effort. I canceled a few appointments at my partners’ insistence. There was such an element of unreality about it all. I had very little emotional support. I tried to contact a few old friends but didn’t get very far. One of my oldest and best friends immediately responded by saying she could not go to the funeral because of her busy schedule. I had not even asked her to come. Another very close friend was out of town and could not be located. My pastor was also going out of town. When he returned, he did not come to our home or call.

My relationships with my family of origin were tremendously affected. Immediately after Jay died, my role as sister became more important than ever to me. My parents had placed a significant responsibility for taking care of my three younger brothers and one younger sister on my shoulders, and at times I was sort of fussy and bossy towards them. I became bossier and fussier after Jay died and probably appeared critical of them but I was really concerned for their welfare. I can see now that this process was more an attempt at self-protection than anything else. I was trying to protect myself from losing another brother or sister. I have recognized that their are limits to what I can control, but I have to keep reminding myself of those limitations.

In retrospect, there are two experiences I wish we could have had as a family after we lost Jay. First I wish that we had all gone to family therapy. Not that anything was “wrong” with us, or that we were sick or evil persons who needed fixing. I believe that the power for the most thorough healing is found in the family context and that therapy for the whole, extended family would have been very helpful. Secondly I wish we had gone to the beach as a family unit and processed our grief together. The beach is a special place for my family of origin and my nuclear family. We’ve made many trips to the ocean and have always found them nurturing and revitalizing. I really cannot say that I knew Jay was going to kill himself- I didn’t. I knew that I was worried that something terrible was going to happen some day to someone in our family as evidenced by recurrent dreams. I still deal with feelings of guilt regarding Jay’s perception of my availability or unavailability when he needed me. Jay must have been in excruciating pain. That is what hurts the most now. That my brother was hurting so deeply that he killed himself to stop the feelings.
No one should hurt so badly.

The reason I have called this event “The Thing With Jay” is because for the most part, the subject is taboo and I have personally had such a hard time dealing with it. Also. I did not tell my young son about it, he was only two and a half when it happened. The phrase “The Thing With Jay”, to me, underscores the difficulty of actually pinpointing what happened and what meaning this event has had and will have in the future. Plus, the phrase sounds like the kind of perplexed comment a sort of bossy and fussy older sister might make about her younger brother’s behavior.

Survivors Stories: The Father’s Experience

Man sitting in a filed of dandelions, looking into the setting sun

I had the great privilege of knowing a son for 16 years. He was a total pleasure to me, and every day of his life I told him how much I loved him and how much I liked him. On the surface, he was the happiest kid I ever knew. I was a father. Part of a father’s job is to keep his family safe, so I kept a handgun in the house to protect my family. Once Billy used it to ward off someone breaking into the house, and the next time he used it on himself after a disappointment with a girlfriend. No prior attempts, no drugs or alcohol problems, no visible clues.

Left us a beautiful note letting us off the hook! Said he was “Just fed up. Simply that.” I will go to my grave trying to understand what “just fed up” means to today’s 16 year old. That was two and a half years ago, and I finally believe that I will survive it! And I can honestly say that more than half of my memories of him each day are sweet thoughts that make me smile, and then go on.

The worst day of my life was, of course, the day of Billy’s death. The next worst day came four months later when my wife and I read that Billy’s death at Roswell High had triggered at least four more attempts in the next ten days. We thought we had escaped the “cluster” syndrome, but we hadn’t. Inadequate post-vention, even in a school that had undergone training immediately before it! Next came the support groups, Compassionate Friends and Survivors of Suicide. As a businessman and scientist, I had always pooh-paahed support groups, and I went to the first one kicking and screaming, sure that it would serve no purpose to share my pain with strangers. After all, how could they possibly understand?

In my grandiosity, I firmly believed that nothing this bad had ever happened to anyone in the history of the universe! We got there early, as did two other new couples. As we introduced ourselves, we found that we had all lost a son, all within six months of the same age, all within a 15-day period, and all were buried in a 50- foot circle in the same cemetery. Suddenly, these strangers were my brothers and sisters, and we saved each other’s lives! In my opinion, support groups are a key element to surviving a suicide, along with one-on-one therapy for some people. I know now that support groups are for people with common experiences that can’t be shared with “civilians,” people without that experience.

Parents who have lost children scare the you-know-what out of other people, because it is a reminder that it could happen to them. We are the walking wounded who have to learn to walk and talk and laugh and love life again. Survivors are even worse. And as one said at a meeting, “The worst thing about this is that it forever removes suicide as an option to stop our own pain!” I am determined that my son’s life will still mean something, so I try to share my experiences in the hopes that some other family might be spared the terrible experience of the loss of their precious children.

By Bill Clover

Survivor Stories: A Father Speaks Up

An elderly couple sitting on the ground, holding each other and looking out at a pond

Trying to Talk about Mitch’s suicide in 1977, even more than ten years later, still brings many thoughts to mind regarding all of my feelings… then and now. The feelings are so personal, so private, so utterly my own, that the thought of sharing them with another is still difficult today. Surely nothing in my life has taken so much out of me and at the same time given me so much hope for others. My hope is that through the opportunity of talking about our loss, others may find that they too can proceed to make the journey through the pain and anguish that can be mastered.

I admit that in the aftermath of Mitch’s death there were so many questions that it is hard to bring them to the conscious level. One of the many was the “Who’s fault is it?”, and an anger that could not be easily put aside. There is the dichotomy I faced in trying to bring to terms the different feelings that racked my body and mind. Who could possibly know what I was feeling? No man, no woman, no priest, no counselor… No one knew.

I thought that everyone in the world knew that Mitch shot himself and that this father of his was about to enter a room, call on the telephone, or write a letter. To my surprise, a lot of people did not know, but those that did know, went out of their way to give me the support of love and comfort. My faith would tell me that I should expect help from our church… but I had no concept of the strength, love, and support that waited for me. This came form the church and others around us. It seemed that as soon as I could permit myself to express, to expose, I received the reinforcement to proceed.

Time became the major factor, slowly rebuilding the strengths that I knew I had, to overcome the agony. I found that time moved impossibly slow. When would I feel better, when would it be over? The truth is, that it is never over, but then it is not supposed to be over. The truth is that it will never be, but my growth and gaining strength will make it bearable. Years have passed since I went back to Mitch’s room to find him dying by his own hands. That image is with me today, and yet I find that I can look at that image and be at peace with myself. I know I did not plan, nor want, nor envision, that my son could or would take his life. But it is a fact, and I can live with it today, knowing that I have made it this far.

It was a gift Mitch has given us…a new knowledge of strength. Mitch has renewed our faith in God and the world. This was a faith, this was a love, this was a caring, and this was a friendship that I had taken for granted. NO more! Time is precious. Life is precious. You are precious. Each day is a new revelation of this gift, a gift from Mitch.

Survivor Stories: Losing Your Child to Suicide

A young man and women hugging tightly in black funeral clothes in a graveyard

On February 19, 1977, our 22-year-old son, Mitch, shot himself in his bedroom of our home with two revolvers. He was determined no to tail in the last act of his life. Apparently, he felt he had failed to reach the goals of perfection he set up for himself: I believe he saw death as a release from failure, loneliness, and hopelessness.
The afternoon of Mitch’s death, a psychotherapist came to our home and what he said had a profound effect on me personally. The first thing he advised was to use the upcoming days and weeks to bring our family closer in a way that is not possible under normal circumstances. He said, “Never close the door to your children or make decisions without including them.” He suggested we be honest with each other, share our feelings (both positive and negative) about Mitch. He also said, “There is a gift in his death if you can find it.” My husband, Jack, heard his words and said they had no meaning for him. But I knew instantly that someday I would find the meaning of his words and I have. I knew also that Jack and I would grieve differently and that difference must be honored and accepted.

Ultimately, you must go through you grief alone, but it can bring you and other family members closer if you choose to do part of it together. It is easy and natural to blame yourself, your spouse, or anyone else at this time, but to do so can be destructive and helps no one. Be careful not to blame in an effort to explain why this happened. It is hard to help other children with their pain when your own is so enormous. But they need to know that it wasn’t their fault, and it wasn’t anything that they said or didn’t say to the sibling that caused his death.
In our own family, we included our children and Mitch’s girlfriend in immediate decisions that needed to be made. We talked about Mitch’s good qualities and also about the times he overwhelmed us with his antics or his selfishness. Remembering him realistically helped us all and our family togetherness gave us much needed nurturing and support at that time.

It is important to experience the pain and get it out. People release their emotions in different ways. Crying is helpful and necessary. Sometimes it is helpful to talk about how you feel to your spouse or a friend. The world we live in does not support your hurting. Well-meaning friends may offer you a drink or a tranquilizer and say, “Don’t feel bad, take a pill… have a drink.” I believe that in this tragedy, as in so many others, you have to hurt and allow yourself to hurt, without judgment, in order to someday get beyond the intensity of the pain. I believe I will not get beyond it until I go right straight through it. There is no way to go around, over, or under it. To be with your feelings, to make no apologies for your emotions, is a very necessary part of the process. Then, one day, you will know that your healing has begun.
Many of our feelings may frighten us, but know that all feelings are normal, natural, and to be expected. You may think that you are losing your mind, but even that thought is normal. So is feeling nothing, feeling hopeless, or having thoughts of wanting to die.

It is important to know that survivors of a suicide often do not want to go on living for a time, and feel overwhelmed by these thoughts. This soon passes as the healing begins. Experiencing a sense of shame is common. For a few weeks, I felt “foul” to myself, to my family, and to the counseling center where I worked. But, in time, I realized that I was still me; I had the same values, morals, and principles I’d always had. I was me… but I was different. I would never be the same but I had the choice of surviving or not.

I have been a counselor at The Link Counseling Center since 1972, and have helped parents allow their kids to make choices and take responsibility for those choices. I have suggested that we, as parents, can only guide, advise, suggest, inform, persuade. We can only offer ourselves, our humanness- our best selves and sometimes our worst selves. What our child does with that is his responsibility and his alone. We cannot insure that our child will have our values, morals, or goals. Ultimately, it is the child’s decision regarding what he does with we offer him. He was responsible for his life and 1 am responsible for my life. I must stay aware of that fact. I can grow with this event and survive or I can go down with it and destroy my own life. It is my choice and I have chosen to survive. So has my husband, Jack, and so have my three other boys. We have chosen to get beyond the pain by going through it and somehow making meaning out of its meaninglessness.

I can grow with this event and survive or I can go down with it and destroy my own life. It is my choice and I have chosen to survive. So has my husband, Jack, and so have my three other boys. We have chosen to get beyond the pain by going through it and somehow making meaning out of its meaninglessness. There is a need to ask “Why?” The questions must be asked, even though you may never find the answers. It is an enigma and it is part of the process of healing that we all go through. But, ultimately, if there are no answers, you may need to stop asking the questions, for to continue only becomes an obsession, which can be destructive to yourself and those around you.

I found I only had partial answers and nothing really satisfactory. I will never know all the answers as to why my son chose to end his own life, but I came to the conclusion that I didn’t have to know in order to go on with my own living. I finally chose to let go of the question, but only after I had asked it over and over and struggled with the WHY. Had I not done that, I could have allowed mourning to become my life-style for the rest of my life.

by Iris Al. Bolton