4:02 a.m. January 12, 2008 is the day that my world changed forever.
Motherhood began at the tender age of 18 with the birth of my first child Brandon and again at 20 with the arrival of my son Justin. I was obviously a young adult trying to be the best mother I could. Flash forward 13 years. After a brief stint with my ex-husband, Justin came to live with my new husband and me. He was 12 years old and already a bit rebellious. His energy was sometimes misguided in school. Many teachers contacted me about his compulsiveness and tendency towards angry outbursts. He loved to act silly and be the center of attention. Other times would find him brooding. I chalked this up to simple “boy behavior” combined with hormones. I felt that we had an open relationship and that he could talk to me anytime about anything. Apparently there were some things that he didn’t share.
He moved out of our house just before the age of eighteen, letting me know that our rules were just too much for him to follow. At this point, I had no control over his life. Over the next year I suspected he was experimenting with drugs and alcohol a lot. Was it a phase or was it serious? I couldn’t be sure. I thought back to my own upbringing and thought his behavior was normal. The summer of 2007 was a wild one for him. Party after party all summer long.
November of 2007, Justin came to me and talked about the fact that he thought he was depressed. He couldn’t sleep without drinking. I told him I would take him to get help.
(Note: The next paragraph is a reconstruction of the week of January 6, 2008. These facts were made known to me later as I tried to put the pieces together.)
According to his friends, Justin had made several suicide attempts the week of January 6th. On Friday, January 11th Justin’s ex-girlfriend called me from a concert. She was concerned about him. I called Justin at his brother’s house. I asked him outright if he was suicidal. His answer was that she was crazy and he was fine. He left his brother’s house with a bottle of rum and after his friend got off work they met at his house. Justin bought an illegal firearm for $300.00. He then went to his current girlfriend’s house and she decided to drive his truck since he was obviously drunk. She did not know he had a gun. They drove around and parked in an undeveloped housing tract. The police pulled up behind them. He told her to keep driving. She finally stopped in a neighborhood. He turned to her, said “I’m sorry” and shot himself in the head.
I can honestly say that when the police showed up at my doorstep I thought that Justin was just in trouble. When they said, “He had passed” the world started spinning. I remember the crisis team showing up. I somehow had the presence of mind to have them wake up my neighbor to come take my four year old out of the house. Matthew worshipped Justin. How could I ever tell him?
I started frantically pulling every picture of Justin out of the closet. Hundreds of pictures lined my living room floor. All I could do was stare. I think shock is a gift from God so that you can take care of the business at hand. My husband made the phone calls. My friends started showing up. I asked for a pastor from a church that Justin and I had attended a few times. I contacted a funeral home. The wake was held the night before his memorial service. Words cannot describe the pain and agony of seeing your son in a casket. It is surreal.
The kids started showing up later. One by one they came. All dressed alike with the insignia “LF” for La Famiglia. You see they had formed their own family. I sat on the floor and held them. I comforted them. I reminded them that this was only the vehicle that Justin had traveled in here on Earth. His spirit was already gone.
My message at the services was for both the adults and the kids. I was only going to have this audience once. I talked about the fact that young adults have one foot in childhood and one in adulthood. They form their own family circles and have their own social norms. They feel that they can handle everything. They don’t need help. As adults, it is our responsibility to recognize when they are struggling and reach in. They also need to reach out. It’s okay to ask for help.
I can’t recall the next few months very well. I know that I went back to work three and a half weeks later and found little meaning in my job. The months passed and the therapy continued. I would have to take days off just to grieve. I can’t say enough about the suggestion to buy a wiffle ball bat. My bed was a great target. I screamed, I cried and I made sounds that I didn’t know a human being could make. It was all a necessary part of my process. I took my grief head on. I tried to find meaning in my life. Then the questions came: Why did this happen? What could I have done? Is it my fault? Are my other kids going to die? Where did he go?
I researched the Internet for support. I found some outreach services, Survivors of Suicide, but I didn’t want to do that yet. Perhaps later. Along the way I found a pamphlet for an “Out of the Darkness” walk . The day of the walk I stood in a sea of people who had been impacted in some way by suicide. White beads represent parents who have lost children. I saw many white beads. I wasn’t alone.
These walks occur around the country. They are the main source of fundraising for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. After the walk I looked on the website to find a local chapter in my home state of Arizona. There wasn’t one. I read about their mission and goals and was convinced that we needed a chapter here. After all, Arizona ranks 8th in the nation for suicide completion.
I attended their national leadership conference in January 2009. It had been just over a year since my loss. I stood in a room full of survivors who were not victims but who decided to turn their tragedy into something meaningful. We weren’t the first to lose people to suicide and we won’t be the last but we can make a difference in our communities through suicide education and awareness.
I want to close my story with a message of hope. You will laugh again. I have. You will smile again. I have. The pain will lessen. It has. You will love again. I do. No matter what your story, you must go on. Because when it is time, you will need to reach out your hand and comfort the one behind you. Converting tragedy into purpose is not an easy task but it has given the memory of my son something more than just the way he died.
Out of The Darkness www.outofthedarkness.com
Am. Foundation for Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org