It’s been more than four years since I encountered the life changing tragedy of losing my oldest son, John, to suicide. I honestly believed, in those first moments, that I wouldn’t survive even four days.
How could I? A mother’s job is to protect her children. To know their heart and see their pain, even when they do their best to hide that pain behind their smile. Mothers are supposed to have superhuman powers, to know our children, and be able to fix ANYTHING.
The call that morning brought me to my knees, and changed all of that forever. It changed me forever.
Many of the people in my community know of the work I’ve done raising funds and advocating for suicide prevention. What most of them don’t know about is the year prior to that: the first and toughest year after losing my son. The year that I buried myself in work, and in “life,” and in proving to the world (and to myself) that I was okay.
I had to be okay. I was still a mom to two other children. I had a job that needed me, and friends that included me in all that they do. There simply wasn’t time for me not to be okay. What would people think if I didn’t keep doing all that I was doing? I feared that I would look weak, and let others down. Those closest to me knew that what I presented on the outside didn’t truly represent what I was going through. They saw that, and they told me they saw it. I ignored them. “I was okay,” I told myself.
Yeah…no. I was so not.
It took having a complete meltdown at work about eight months after my son passed for me to finally realize it was time I had to reach out for help. I soon found a support group for parents who had lost children. While it definitely helped, it just wasn’t enough. Losing a child in any way is devastating. But losing one to suicide was something no one in the group had experienced, and so I still felt lost and alone. No one knew my shame: the blame, and the gut-wrenching guilt I carried. No one knew all the feelings I harbored that made it impossible for me to feel I even had the right to simply grieve for the tragic loss of my beautiful child.
A few months later, I stumbled across information about an AFSP Out of the Darkness Walk that would be taking place nearby in Portland, Oregon. It was within a month or so of the event, and I thought it was worth checking out. I had to do something. So I started a small team with a friend and my daughter. We raised a little money, put on our shirts, and showed up at the walk.
From the moment I stepped into that mob of beautiful people, my heart knew for the first time what real hope felt like again. I was home. I would never, ever feel alone in my loss again. Others out there shared my story. Others out there knew my heart.
That morning brought me back to being me. It turned a new light on inside of me, as well. Participating in the walk forced me to see that keeping my suffering to myself, as a secret, simply wasn’t right. That was what my son had done, and for nearly a year, I had done that as well. I knew that I had to help others see it, too: that it really is okay not to be okay.
From that morning on, I vowed to do more. I raised my goal for the next year’s walk to $5,000 and rallied for an even bigger team. I told my story to anyone and everyone who would listen. That year, our team raised nearly $7,000 for the Portland walk. More importantly, awareness was beginning to spread. People really wanted to help. Schools reached out to hear my story, and many who donated shared their own story of how suicide had touched their own lives.
People were finally talking about a complicated subject.
Last year, my friends laughed when I posted a team goal of $10,000. But I didn’t hesitate. I knew that even if we didn’t meet it, countless lives would still be saved. Go big or go home. We went big, and we raised nearly $12,000 for the Portland walk. More and more people were talking about suicide. The funds we raised were only second to the awareness that we raised.
This year, I am honored to be leading the charge to bring this lifesaving event closer to home, in Salem, Oregon for the very first time. To date, we have nearly 1,000 people registered. The outpouring of support from our community only confirms that together we can “Be the Voice” to #StopSuicide.
Nothing could have prepared me for the loss of my child to suicide. No one could have convinced me that I’d ever find even a speck of faith in this world, or in myself, again. Now I can say that faith lives on. That huge hole in me the size of my child? Yeah, it’s still there. But it hurts a whole lot less because I can feel that he is proud of my fight to save others, and that gives me strength when I need it most.
I began this crusade to somehow honor my own child. But I remain dedicated to it for everyone else’s.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in helping others.” No statement could be truer.
Through my work with the AFSP, I found myself again. Suicide is preventable. We don’t have to be doctors or therapists. We just have to care.