Life After Death

Group grapples with impact of suicide on those left behind


Sisters Franchesca Brooks and Natasha DeWitt talk about the terrible impact of their mother’s suicide on their family at a monthly meeting of Lost Loves as Willa Hart looks on.

Sisters Franchesca Brooks and Natasha DeWitt talk about the terrible impact of their mother’s suicide on their family at a monthly meeting of Lost Loves as Willa Hart looks on. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Down the hall, the music plays as people swirl and dance to oldies tunes. But in this small room the laughter must contend with sorrow and guilt. It is Feb. 7, a Thursday at the Senior Circle, time for both a dance class — and down the hall — the monthly meeting of Lost Loves, a suicide support group.

A dozen women sit around a lone memory candle flickering in the center of a long table, attended by boxes of tissues and chocolate. Each takes their turn recalling loved ones lost. Some take the group through the terrible lead up to suicide, others sit silently, letting the tears pour out their grief.

The group imposes no rules for sharing — no requirements for grief. But in this safe space, they can each speak openly of the experiences and feelings everyone else seems determined to forget.

Group founder Elizabeth “Bits” Siller leads the meeting with a quote, “Sometimes the hardest part isn’t letting go. It’s learning to start over.” Her daughter, Kim, took her own life three years ago.

“I was devastated — I still am,” she said. “As a mother, I do not believe I will ever be whole again. I cannot live long enough to be whole again.”

Piecing together why her daughter ended her life, leaving behind her four children and husband, rattles her every day. While she sought comfort and answers in Valley support groups, she realized early in her grief that Payson needed a support group for residents grappling with the same pain. She and Janine Affeldt, a bereavement coordinator at Hospice Compassus, launched Lost Loves more than a year ago.

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Founder Elizabeth Siller lights a candle of remembrance in meeting for people coping with unfathomable loss.

The group gathers every month for support and for answers to a seemingly unfathomable decision.

They invited the Roundup to the table so others could understand the lasting impact suicide has on loved ones. They hope that will save a life — and perhaps encourage those suffering alone in their grief to reach out for help.

Kandy Christensen believes her boyfriend of 36 years might have put down his gun if he had known how much pain his death would cause his family and friends.

“I know how depressed he was ... but I know he wouldn’t have wanted to cause this,” she said, tears in her eyes.

Experts say often people take their lives to escape pain — an illness, depression, grief, money woes. Many believe their death will also bring relief to their family.

Christensen said she heard her boyfriend say “you would be better off without me” just days before his death.

“If I had known that that is one of the biggest signals, that boy would have never been alone,” she said.

D, who asked that we not use her full name, said her son’s death has been far more harder to deal with than was his illness. He killed himself five years ago after a long battle with an infection.

While he finally got relief, he left his family with an incurable ache.

“They put this pain in your heart that never goes away,” she said. “I used to beg, God, he has been gone long enough and I want him back now, this is enough,” she said. “Now I don’t do that anymore. I know that he is gone and nothing is going to bring him back.”

D said the only relief has come from sharing at Lost Loves.

Nearly all of her family and friends refuse to talk about her son’s death. D’s husband won’t even acknowledge their son took his own life. Instead, he tells everyone he died of an infection.

While D understands her husband’s pain, failing to acknowledge his suicide at all has left D depressed and ashamed. When she dared to tell a friend about her son’s death, the shame only grew.

“When people kill themselves, there is a stigma that is attached to you,” she said. “I did share it with one person and I know they just spread it and then it’s like ‘She’s the one that her son killed himself.’ You feel like as a mother you weren’t a very good mother and it reflects on you.”

She buried her son’s death deep in her heart and only recently came out of hiding at Lost Loves.

“The pain doesn’t go away, but there are people out there that will support you,” she said. “Coming to this group, I learned to give them permission that they can mention his name and that he did have a life.”

Willa Hart and Kandy Christensen understand what D has been through. So does Darlene Farrell and sisters Franchesca Brooks and Natasha DeWitt.

They all carry grief — that chasm they can never fill.

But for one hour, the women feel heard and understood.

Brooks, 17, and sister DeWitt, lost their mother to suicide five years ago.

“This is hard,” Brooks said sobbing through her flowing brown locks as she recalled her mother’s death.

Their mother, she explained, had been in a bad relationship. They would break up and get back together constantly. Eventually, they got married. Later, when he told her he was leaving her for good, she killed herself.

For her five children, nothing makes sense.

But what torments Brooks most is that she is starting to forget: Starting to forget her mother’s smile, her smell and all her fond memories. She feels helplessly guilty: If she doesn’t remember her mother, who will?

Around her, the women echoed the pain in Brooks’ eyes.

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Willa talks with Lost Loves co-founder Elizabeth Stiller, a support group for people coping with the impact of suicide

“You wouldn’t forget your mother,” Siller said.

While they can’t explain why her mother killed herself, the group offers something she no longer can — love.

For DeWitt, this has meant everything. She struggled to raise her sister after her mother’s death along with her own children.

“Me and Fran are the youngest in here so these are all like mothers, you know in a small way,” she said. “This has definitely been good for us.”

“While the pain is still there, it lightens,” she added.

“But then it comes back,” Brooks said.

For Jeffie and Michelle Myers, the pain remains raw. Michelle’s father-in-law took his life recently and they have come for only their second meeting of Lost Loves. Her father-in-law had been in and out of the hospital for seven years for a mysterious illness. When he finally couldn’t take the pain, he took his own life.

They sat shocked for much of the meeting, not yet able to talk about his death.

“I know the feeling, you walk around like a zombie,” one woman said.

“We are glad you are here you guys,” Siller said.

Willa Hart lost her daughter in 2011, and Mary Ann, lost her only son in 2005. Although the shock of those deaths has worn off, both question whether they could have done something to prevent the tragedy.

“I didn’t know he was that depressed, but since then I have thought about all the things he would say,” Mary Ann said. “If I could have been there, could I have prevented it?”

Mary Ann learned of her son’s death Christmas Eve after police did a wellness check at his home. “Needless to say Christmas has never been the same since then,” she said.

Hart wonders what she has learned from losing her daughter.

“No matter what we do, what we say, it is not going to bring her back, it is not going to change anything,” Hart said. “The only thing is I hope that maybe there will be a change in me — that maybe I’ll be a better person.”

Siller said there is no rationalizing suicide. “It is a conscious decision they made to take their own life. That is one of the hardest things for us as a human race to understand,” she said. “Whether your parent or spouse has done it or your child, it is unfathomable.”

D said she lives in fear one of her other children will take their life. “Whenever a child calls and they are having trouble in their life, I get afraid, I get so afraid. I try to rationalize it, but I can’t. I live in fear.”

Christensen said she still has bad days.

“It is a horrible place to go where we have been sent because we have experienced someone we love committing suicide,” she said. “It is a bottomless pit you can’t climb out of.”

She said she decided to speak up about her boyfriend’s death to end the secrecy that surrounds suicide.

“I want to get the word out so it is not a stigma, so people can talk about it,” she said.

Only by acknowledging the problem can it be fixed. D encouraged anyone who knows someone who lost a loved one to suicide to open their hearts and their ears.

“Just listen to us. We don’t want you to fix us. Open your heart up and just listen to us,” she said.

Lost Loves meets the first Thursday of every month from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. at the Senior Circle, 215 N. Beeline Highway.

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