Stressful Times May Increase Suicides – Now Is The Time To Learn To Prevent Them

April 28, 2020


Contact: Cheryl Wittke, Executive Director, Safe Communities

Stressful times may increase suicides

Many suicides are preventable: Now is the time to learn how

It is common knowledge that illness caused by coronavirus can result in death. Less known is that deaths by suicide also are likely to rise during this epidemic.

The recent suicide of a beloved emergency room physician, Dr. Lorna M. Breen, who treated COVID-19 patients in New York City is just one coronavirus-related suicide casualty. A recent article published in JAMA Psychiatry, “Suicide Mortality and Coronavirus Disease in 2019 — A Perfect Storm?” raised the alarm that suicides are likely to increase as a result of the pandemic.

Safe Communities, a nonprofit coalition of more than 300 government and private organizations, wants the public to recognize that helplessness and anxiety from the epidemic can lead to tragic

“People feel isolated,” said Cheryl Wittke, executive director of Safe Communities. “Many have lost jobs and worry about having enough money or food, and it feels like this is never going to end.”

It is important that co-workers, family or friends recognize when someone might be thinking about suicide and take action. Anyone considering suicide or family or friends concerned about them should contact the confidential Journey Mental Health Crisis Line by calling (608) 280-2600 or texting 741741. The service is free and available 24/7, according to Hannah Flanagan, manager of Journey Mental Health’s Crisis Unit.

Warning signs someone could be thinking about suicide:

  • A previous suicide attempt or loss of a loved one or friend to suicide
  • Recent crisis in job, relationships, finances or housing
  • Talking about suicide or wanting to die
  • Changes in eating or sleeping behavior
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Giving up contact with family and friends
  • Giving away prized possessions

Suicide prevention experts say that suicide often is a spur-of-the-moment decision. If deadly materials are not readily available when a person decides to attempt suicide, it can delay the attempt. This allows more opportunity for helpers to intervene, according to Rachel Edwards, nurse manager at UW Health’s adult psychiatry unit.

Edwards chairs Safe Communities’ Zero Suicide Initiative, a collaborative of all area health care organizations working to prevent suicide among their patient populations. “Working with patients to
keep lethal means out of reach — called Collaborative Safety Planning, and to identify reasons for wanting to live: for example, people they love and who love them; pets they need to care for; activities they enjoy — are all strategies shown to reduce suicide risk” she said.

Firearm and ammunition purchases in Wisconsin have skyrocketed during this epidemic, and to prevent suicide it’s important to store these guns safely. Firearms are more likely to be used for suicide than for personal protection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The increase in the numbers of new guns in homes where residents may not have had time to take the necessary precautions to keep them out of the hands of other family members can increase risk of suicide. Resources are out there to help, including your local gun shop” said Jean Papalia, Safe Communities Gun Shop project coordinator.

Medicines around home also can lead to tragedy. Wittke recommends prescription medicines, especially opioids, be locked up. Area residents can obtain a free lockbox by calling Safe Communities, at (608) 512-8328

Other steps that concerned family members can take:

  • Remove firearms temporarily from the home.
  • Ask a friend who can safely store the gun, or the local gun shop to store them until the risk is lessened.
  • Use cable gun locks and lock up weapons or ammunition still in the home.
  • Dispose of unused prescription medicines. Find out where to dispose of them through the MedDrop program at
  • Carefully monitor family alcohol and drug use.

Safe Communities is also offering a free, 1.5 hour suicide prevention course via Zoom called Question, Persuade, Refer — the CPR for suicide prevention. People who take this evidence-based class report feeling more confident that they will recognize signs that someone is at risk, and will know how to seek help for a friend, loved one or co-worker. Visit for class listing and registration.

“Nine of every 10 people who die from suicide have a treatable mental illness or substance abuse disorder,” said Wittke. “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, and although our current situation may feel hopeless, there is an entire community who cares and wants to help.”

Safe Communities suicide prevention activities are funded by Dane County and Sustaining Members of Safe Communities.

Safe Communities is a nonprofit coalition of more than 300 organizations working together to save lives, prevent injury and make Dane County safer. Funding is provided by federal, local and foundation grants, project sponsors, memberships and individual donors. For more information, visit

Additional Resources
Journey Mental Health Crisis Line:(608) 280-2600; text 741741
National Suicide Prevention Line:1-800-273-TALK (8255)1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)Veterans Press 1, En
Español Oprima El 2

Available for Interviews:
Jean Papalia, Coordinator, Safe Communities Gun Shop Project and QPR: 608 577 6200
Rachel Edwards, RN, UW Health adult psychiatry unit nurse manager 608-263-7528
Becky Eberhart, Media Relations, Journey Mental Health, (608) 280-2420

Cheryl Wittke
Executive Director
Safe Communities

Natural Gas and Carbon Monoxide Safety Tips

With winter on the way, it’s a good time to contact a professional heating contractor to have your natural gas heating equipment checked for safe and efficient operation. With heating systems typically operating six months of the year in our region, preventative furnace maintenance is as important as maintaining your car. Waiting until your furnace fails can result in costly repairs and even compromise the safety of your family.

Having an annual furnace check up is an excellent way to safeguard against equipment breakdown and spot potential safety problems associated with improper venting of flue gases. Improper combustion of fossil fuel burning appliances and improper venting may lead to dangerous carbon monoxide concentrations in the house. Carbon monoxide is a byproduct of the combustion process. Often called the “silent killer,” due to its odorless, colorless characteristics, carbon monoxide buildup in the house in the right concentration may cause dizziness, sickness or death. You can prevent problems by calling a professional heating contractor and scheduling a tune-up and inspection. If you ever smell a strong and persistent smell of natural gas, open windows and leave the house immediately. Call your utility’s 24-hour emergency gas phone line from a neighbors house and report the problem. Never call from your house. A slight spark may ignite natural gas. Your utility’s personnel have the experience and technical expertise to identify and fix gas leaks wherever they occur. Your safety is important, so don’t hesitate to call.

Natural Gas Safety Tips

  • Keep combustibles safe; store papers, fluids, paints, curtains and rags far away from any gas appliance or heat source.
  • Install and maintain smoke detectors.
  • Make sure gas appliances are installed and vented properly.
  • If you smell a strong persistent natural gas odor:
    • Open windows and doors.
    • Don’t use the phone or electrical devices.
    • Go to a neighbor’s house and call your natural gas utility (see emergency numbers
    • Keep appliance vents on the outside of your house clear of obstructions.
      • Never use your oven or grill to heat your house.
      • Don’t attempt to relight pilot lights if you lack experience.
      • Don’t purchase a new gas appliance without checking to make sure it meets strict
      safety standards.

Carbon Monoxide (CO) Safety Tips

  • Install a CO detector. If the alarm sounds, call the emergency number shown below.
  • Check that vent hoods and pipes on gas-operated appliances are clear and free of obstructions.
  • Have your gas-operated appliances checked annually by a professional.
  • Be alert for signs of CO poisoning— dizziness, headache, nausea, abdominal pain and fatigue.
  • Don’t use your oven or grill to heat your home.
  • Don’t operate your vehicle in a closed garage.

To report a natural gas or carbon monoxide-related emergency, call:

Alliant Energy Customers
1-800-862-6261 (24 hours)

Madison Gas and Electric Customers
608-252-7111 or 1-800-245-1123 (24 hours)

Are Your Kids Ready to be Home Alone?

One in four children ages 6 – 12 are regularly left home alone after school without adult supervision. Wisconsin children are even more likely to spend time home alone than the national average: one-quarter (1/4) of kids ages 6-12 are frequently on their own during the workweek. One study found that family income often isn’t a factor in the decision, particularly among families of 10-12 year old’s.

Children left home alone before they are ready are especially at risk for injury. Inability to lock or unlock doors, dial the telephone, solve problems independently, feel confident enough to ask another adult for help, or to recognize danger contribute directly to injuries among school-aged children. Most of these injuries occur between the hours of 3:00 and 7:00 pm, when many children are home alone.

There’s no magic age when children develop the maturity and good sense they need to stay home alone. Some children display these qualities around age 12 or even sooner; others do so when they’re older.

As spring approaches and the end of the school year looms, now is the time parents begin planning summer activities and child care. How can parents know if their children are ready to stay home alone? How can families protect children who are home alone from injury?

Parents who would like help deciding whether their child possesses the maturity to be alone can check out the Safe Communities’ brochure, Is Your Child Ready to Stay Home Alone?: Guidelines for Parents. Because there’s no magic age, this brochure includes a checklist that will help parents consider their child’s readiness.

Is Your Child Ready to Stay Home Alone?: Guidelines for Parents can downloaded in English and Spanish from Safe Communities’ website at

Bicyclists, Motorist Share the Same Road, Same Responsibilities

Summer is a great time to enjoy our community on a bicycle. Bicycling is not inherently dangerous, especially when everyone follows the rules of the road. What’s dangerous are the often-illegal interactions that occur between bicyclists and motorists every day, increasing the danger for everyone. More than 90 percent of bicyclist fatalities involve a collision with a motor vehicle. According to bicycle/motor vehicle crash statistics, when an adult bicyclist is injured, it is typically due to motorist error. When a child bicyclist is hit, it’s typically the child’s. Motorist-caused collisions with bicyclists occur most often when a motorist: (1) turns left (or right) into the path of a bicyclist at an intersection; (2) fails to stop for a stop sign or other traffic control device; or (3) exits a driveway or alley without first stopping and then looking.

To safely interact with bicyclists on the roadway, motorists must follow these laws:

  • Yield the right-of-way to oncoming vehicles, including bicycles, before turning left at intersections or driveways.
  • Stop for all traffic control devices (stop light/stop signs) and yield to all traffic before proceeding.
  • Leave at least three feet between you and a bicyclist (or any other vehicle) when passing.
  • Do not exceed posted speed limits, and reduce speeds when necessary (especially at night).
  • Do not drink and drive.

Bicyclists need to follow all the rules of the road – especially stopping for stop lights and signs. Parents can do a great deal to teach their kids to be safe bicyclists, and to help children develop habits to last a lifetime:

  • Don’t allow children to ride their bicycles unless wearing a properly fitted bike helmet. (A helmet should be parallel with the ground and fit snugly.)
  • Set a good example and wear a bicycle helmet too.
  • Only buy a helmet that has Snell, ASTM or CPSC approved labels. Hockey, football or other sports helmets are not bike helmet substitutes.
  •  Teach children to be safe bicyclists:
    • Look left, right and left again before entering the street.
    • Go to the edge of parked cars to search for traffic when crossing the street.
    • Look over your left shoulder before moving toward the center of the road.
    • Be alert for cars leaving or entering driveways or making turns across your path.
    • Obey the same signals and signs as motorists, e.g., stop signs, traffic signs, yield signs.
    • Warn pedestrians if you are riding on sidewalks and paths.
    • Be sure to use hand signals when biking.
  • Make sure children are visible. Use lights and reflectors at night. Wear bright-colored clothes by day.
(Information provided by Dean Health System, Madison Department of Transportation – Traffic Engineering, St. Mary’s Hospital Medical Center)

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: 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