On October 5, 2005, I left Cleveland, Ohio to start a new life with my soon-to-be husband, Dan, in Western New York. Moving from a city to a rural area was a big change, and it took some time to adjust. As you can imagine, life in the country is simpler and a bit slower than city living.
On Friday October 7, 2007, I became a single mother to my 18-month-old daughter, Laken, and a widow. My husband, Dan, had died by suicide. Life as I knew it had changed forever.
Following Dan’s death, I was in a fog for approximately 6 months, just going through the motions to survive. I do not have many memories of that time. In November, I reached out to a local agency that specialized in grief counseling. The holidays were coming up, and I had no clue how I would navigate them. I was so nervous driving there. As soon as I walked into the room, I broke down in tears. I spoke to the counselor, I am not sure for how long, but I remember his words before I left: “Well, you are a strong woman, and it seems you are doing well. Call if you need anything.” I thought to myself, “WHAT? You call this doing well?” And then I left.
The closest support group for suicide loss survivors was 40 minutes away. It was winter in Western New York and traveling that distance at night with an 18-month-old baby was not an option. I needed answers, so I turned to the internet. Each evening, after I put my daughter to bed, I researched the topic of suicide for five to eight hours for about five years. I had so many questions that were left unanswered: Why does this happen? What is the cause? Does it happen to many people? Do other people feel the same way as me? I would read stories of other suicide loss survivors, and I knew I was not alone in my grief. There were others grieving just like I was.
That was not enough for me. There were no other resources for suicide loss survivors in the county I lived in, and I needed to make a difference by helping others through what I had experienced. I started by attending an Out of the Darkness Walk in Jamestown, New York hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The following year, I started the Raynor Memorial Golf Tournament in memory of my husband, Dan. The Tournament raises money to support our local suicide coalition and to support suicide loss survivors that need help with unforeseen costs after a suicide. In nine years, we have raised over $120,000 and have helped many families in our region.
I also started volunteering with our local suicide prevention coalition. I was trained by AFSP as a loss survivor support group facilitator and brought a support group to our community. I also became a trainer in many different suicide prevention and mental health curricula so I was able to educate my community about the warning signs of suicide, give mental health resources, and spread awareness. I did not want other people to have to go through what I went through and to feel like I had felt—alone and confused without support. This has become my passion and my mission in life. I am now the county-wide coordinator of the local suicide prevention coalition.
Last year, after the annual golf tournament, I opened an email from a man who identified himself as a director of a counseling center in the area. He said he was getting his hair cut and read an article about the Raynor Memorial Golf Tournament and that he remembered my husband Dan. “As you may know, Dan showed up to my office the day before he passed away, and no one was able to see him,” he said. “I was out of the office working at a local high school. I always wondered if I were there that day, if I would have been able to help him. Since that day, I changed the way I run the practice. I no longer work outside of the office. I make sure I am always available if someone comes in in a crisis.” I broke down in tears. I did not know my husband reached out for help and, fourteen years later, this man reached out to me to tell me that because of my husband’s death, he changed the way he ran his practice to make sure he was available to help people in crisis. I know that my husband’s death has saved many other lives.
When a person in crisis walks into a clinic, behavioral health hospital, an emergency department, or any other treatment center, the first point of contact could be the most critical. Front desk personnel should be trained to assess if the person walking in the door is in crisis. They are the first point of contact, and they could save a life. If the person that talked to my husband that Thursday afternoon had training, they would have been able to look for warning signs and ask four suicide assessment questions. Based on the results, they could have decided if he was in crisis and, knowing a counselor was not in the building, they could have called the Suicide Prevention Life Line, the local crisis line, or 911. Without this training, he was turned away. Anyone can be trained to look for warning signs and ask questions for a basic suicide risk assessment. The first point of contact should be able to keep that person safe until someone else arrives to evaluate them further. Our clinics, behavioral health hospitals, emergency departments, and other treatment centers should invest in training their front-end staff. They could save many lives.