By Joyce Bruggeman
For us in the survivor community, our stories are different, but we all understand the devastating pain of suicide. In our loved one’s attempt to end their pain, they made the worst mistake of their life. For them, the pain did end. But we all know the pain did not end; it has just been transferred to us. We now fight to heal from this trauma or we risk passing our unresolved pain onto our loved ones, and the next generation.
As I step into the role of Executive Director of SOSL, I would like to share why I am so passionate about the mission of this organization. In 2008, I lost my husband Ken to suicide after a prolonged battle with depression. His struggles stemmed in large part because he was a survivor of suicide loss. When Ken was just sixteen years old, his father took his life. Because of the tremendous shame and stigma about mental illness and suicide back then, he was never allowed to work through the grief and the trauma of suicide.
His father’s suicide that took place over 50 years ago still impacts my family today. Two generations bearing this unspeakable sorrow. As I began my own personal grief journey, I battled through many of the same dilemmas as you. Among my questions were: “Is our family doomed to a legacy of suicide?” “Was there anything I could do to change this?” Along the way, I found the “SOS Handbook” from American Association of Suicidology (available on our website). The author, Jeffrey Jackson wrote: “The person I lost is beyond my help now in every way but one: I can help them by working to ease the pain they have caused by not allowing their most enduring legacy to be one of tragedy.”
How could I do something to change this sad and painful legacy that was trying to define my family? The answer for me was to focus on life, and not on death. A deep passion grew inside of me to help educate others about mental illness and suicide. The purpose: to help others avoid living in this tragic outcome. In many ways, through the sharing of his story, Kenny’s death has helped others to find the courage to choose life.
It has also been important to recapture the life he lived, rather than focus on the death he died. Allow me to introduce you to Ken. He was a kind, good-hearted, intelligent man, and a farmer by trade. His kids describe him as a hippie cowboy. He loved kids, especially his own. As a favorite coach, he had the ability to coax the best out of everyone.
Ken was also quirky with a unique sense of humor. His cousin recalls the story of when Ken showed up at their farm one morning for breakfast. That particular day, his cousin Connie had overslept, and Ken insisted on waking her up by barging into her room yelling “GET UP!” Well, she didn’t appreciate the intrusion and countered by demanding breakfast in bed. So Ken immediately picked up one end of her mattress, told her brother to grab the other end, and they proceeded to carry her downstairs, step by step, bumping all the way down, depositing her, mattress and all on the kitchen floor!
This same cousin (the fellow mattress carrier) gave my family an amazing gift after Ken died. These are his words to describe how Ken lived:
“Ken would give you the shirt off of his back to help. It might be torn or faded, but he’d be there to help. Whenever we had crops to get out of the field, he’d show up and help as long as we needed him. He’d stack hay, thresh grain, pick corn and paint farm buildings. Although he usually ended up with more paint on him than on the barn! When our first born came into the world, he was there. When one of us got married, he was there. When my sister was having health problems, he dropped everything and flew to help. When our Dad died, he was at the funeral to offer comfort. My Dad thought Ken walked on water. Everyone who knew him loved him.
Ken was truly a one of a kind, and had his own style. We loved him that way. I was proud to have known him and I will miss him. Please remember whatever happens in life or death, you are always remembered for who you were and what kind of legacy you left.”
I want Ken’s legacy to be the life he lived, and not the way he died. I have found I have to be purposeful in my efforts to not let the suicide overshadow who he was. As each of us continues on this journey that we did not choose, we do have a choice in how our loved ones are remembered. It is the one last act of love we can do for them!
We at SOSL would love to hear what ways you help to ensure your loved one’s life is their legacy. Do you have a wonderful memory that you would like to share with us? Please email us at Michele@SOSLsd.org.