MOUNT VERNON — The grief caused by the suicide of a family member is intense and complicated. Mount Vernon native Mary Anne McKenzie Burke lost her son, Matthew, 7 1/2 years ago. Matthew killed himself in 2001, just before he was to leave on a six-month deployment on a Navy submarine. He was 21.
“You never really get over it,” Burke said of Matthew’s death. “You spend the rest of your life working your way through it. Even 7 1/2 years later, I sometimes have spent the entire day crying. It’s always there.”
Burke is not the only mother who’s experienced such a loss. Jackie, who lives in Licking County, said she still remembers every detail of the day over 15 years ago when she came home from work to find her 19-year-old son had killed himself.
“Everything in my life changed in that one moment,” said Jackie, who requested her last name be withheld. “Life is now divided into two categories — before Brad died, and since Brad died.”
Dr. Jennifer Ogle, Knox County coroner, said she is always concerned for the family members left behind by the person committing suicide. Ogle said she knows before she has even left the scene of a suicide that the event will have lifelong effects on every member of the family.
Luke Wallis of Newark said his father’s suicide when Luke was only 15 left him with deep scars — scars he has spent the last 25 years trying to keep hidden.
“When I was younger, I never wanted anyone to know how he died,” Luke said. “I figured people would be thinking, ‘How rotten were things in that family that the dad felt like he had to kill himself to get away from it?’”
Luke said that as he grew older, he realized his father’s depression and substance abuse were the true factors in his decision to take his own life. He said he has tried to work through his own misplaced guilt and shame about his father’s death, but still struggles.
Kathy Wantland, bereavement coordinator for Hospice of Knox County, said a new support group for loved ones who have been left behind by a family member or friend who committed suicide will begin meeting April 6.
Wantland said the recent increase in suicides in the county made the need for a survivors of suicide support group even more pressing.
“There’s a very big need out there,” she said. “At the moment, there isn’t anything else in the community specifically for survivors. We want to be able to help members cope in a positive way.”
Burke, who now lives in northern Virginia, said she and her husband have found their involvement in a support group for survivors to be incredibly healing. Because of the unique nature of some of the issues surrounding the grief involved with suicide, finding peer support and acceptance can be very healing.
Burke said that as much as others want to empathize and understand what survivors are going through, there is a bonding among those who share similar experiences that is impossible to describe to someone who has not lived through it.
She said that before her own son’s suicide, a friend’s daughter had hung herself at the age of 14.
“No matter how I had imagined it, it’s been much, much harder,” she said.
Wantland said giving survivors the opportunity to share their experiences can lessen the feeling of isolation many are experiencing, feeling they are the only ones to go through such a horrific loss. Burke said her husband has especially benefited from the group because of the freedom to express his grief with other men working through their own losses.
Jackie said individual counseling through her church has helped her cope over the years, as her grief ebbed and flowed. During the particularly hard times, she said, she contemplated taking her life as her son had.
“He was my only child, and many days I just couldn’t see a reason for being here,” she said.
Jackie now volunteers her time with seniors at a nursing home near her house.
“Finding a place I feel as if I can do some good has helped a lot,” she said. “At certain times of year, like Brad’s birthday and Christmas, I try to keep busy and spend time with people who miss their families as much as I miss my son.”
Burke said taking the overwhelming grief she has experienced as a result of her son’s suicide and turning it into something positive to benefit other families has helped her cope and honor her son’s memory.
She and her husband have testified in front of Congress about parity in health care, and they have been active with the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention.
“Matthew’s was not the first suicide in our family,” Burke said, explaining that depression has plagued generations of her family, including herself.
One of her missions is educating the public about the importance of treating depression and other mental illnesses with the same diligence and urgency with which other diseases, such as diabetes and cancer, are treated.
“Suicide is the loss of life due to a disease just as any physical disease,” Burke said. “The brain is an organ of the body and it can suffer illness just the same as the heart, lungs or kidneys.”
Burke said she believes making the treatment of depression a top priority will help people lead happy, successful lives, and prevent tragic deaths such as her son’s.
She said her doctors have successfully treated her depression with medication, which does not take away pain or grief, but does restore the body’s brain chemistry enough to make coping possible.
Wantland said the Knox County support group will provide a safe place for family and friends left behind to be able to speak freely, work through their grief and support one another.
The group will be facilitated by Wantland, Lynne Agapi-Gillian of Moundbuilders Guidance Center and Dodie Melvin of Mental Health America in Knox County. It is open to adults and teens who have lost anyone to suicide.
“They are going through a wilderness of grief, but talking about loved ones helps keep a part of that person with you and honoring their life and your time with them,” Wantland said.
Burke said that by opening the lines of communication about suicide and encouraging people to talk about it and develop strategies to prevent it, she has found a way to honor the son she deeply loves.
“We feel that if we hide behind closed doors and don’t tell our story, then our son will have died for nothing,” she said. “If we can take our pain and channel it into making a difference in just one person’s life, then good will come out of this tragic loss.”