The phrase you never want to hear as much as our family has in the last couple months.
“There are no words” is what those people who love and care about you say to you when there are truly no words. No words to represent the sudden unexpected loss of a child. No words to represent the confusion and devastation the family is experiencing. No words to represent the grief that encompasses that place in your heart that houses your love for your child. No words to represent the anger that any hopes and dreams you have for that sweet child have now vanished. No words to represent the worry you have for your other children and their suffering in this grief. No words to express your frustration you have with the stigma still attached to mental illness that may have prevented your child from getting the real help he needed. No words to describe the feelings you have as a parent wondering what you missed and how you didn’t see it. No words to describe depth of your sorrow as a parent who had so many happy times with your son when he was a child. No words to describe your disappointment in this the vacancy left behind by your child.
There are simply no words.
On March 24, 2019 our beloved son took his life while in his freshman year at college.
The evening of Sunday, March 24 is one we will never forget. It started with a Shakopee police officer at our door. That is when we were delivered the news a parent never wants to hear in the kindest way possible. To put it mildly, the officer told us our son is no longer with us and took his life in his dorm room on campus. It was in that moment that our world changed forever. We were completely broken in the most helpless way. All the thoughts in your mind just become completely clouded with confusion and despair. You also have other children in your house who are processing the same news and seeing their parents’ raw shocking grief on display.
Questions fill your mind; Why? How? When? Where? But one question keeps coming back like a nagging voice in the head of a parent who experiences this: Why? There is no answer to the question why when it comes to suicide but more often than not the answer involves mental illness.
As we went through his stuff, we found journals he had left behind and in them we discovered that he started to suffer with clear signs of depression his senior year of high school. When alone, he would write to himself trying to talk himself out of these feelings. Feelings of self esteem struggles and sadness. He did not involve us in his turmoil or anyone for that matter. We believe that sadly he thought moving out and going off to college would “fix” it. The social pressures of college added to the suffering he was experiencing.
He also had an additional issue: anxiety. Anxiety about the unknown, his career choice and if he would be happy. He did reach out for help without our knowledge but unfortunately for our son, the help may have come too late or wasn’t extensive enough for the depth of his suffering.
Why keep it from us? While this question is a haunting one for parents, we believe Joey didn’t want us to experience his sadness and felt the need to protect us from it. We believe in the end he assumed he was too sick to be helped.
There is help. There is help out there for everyone but you just must be vigilant in making sure your help is adequate. Joey maintained his normal self around us just 10 days before he passed away while home on spring break. He took his brothers for a Shamrock Shake and went down to Mankato to see his sister. We believe that he wanted to make sure he connected with them one last time in case his darkness set in again.
Sadly, we now believe he was usually lying to everyone, including a therapist he was seeing at school. He did reach out a couple of occasions trying to send signals out for help but it just wasn’t caught.
Why would he hide it? Possibly because he just assumed he was beyond repair and no one could fix this. His mind-consuming darkness was beyond anyone’s capacity and in his mind couldn’t be mended. He was being treated medically at school for depression but there wasn’t anyone deeply connected to his issue and therefore he was isolated in his struggle.
With the right help, I believe my child would still be here today. Joey needed an extensive valuation and treatment for his depression. If that would have happened, he may have realized more about himself and how to live with his illness for a very long time.
Where is help? Mental illness with depression and anxiety are real issues affecting all ages. Society likes to make us believe that it isn’t as common as it really is. Young people often have so many outside factors to deal with along with their internal struggle. While education has improved on this topic, there is still a stigma attached to it.
If you or someone you know needs help, please reach out. NAMI Minnesota is the National Association for Mental Illness. They have a very good website with many resources. Their number is 651-645-2948. The suicide hotline 1-800-273-8255. If my son would have called that number he would be here today.
Where to go from here? As a family we will take a step at a time, one day at a time and one moment at a time. Our family is grieving and will continue grieving for a very long time.
We are now a family of five and will have to learn to adapt to that in a healthy way while still honoring his 19 years with us.
It is our hope that if you know someone who may be suffering from mental illness, have a conversation with them. Reach out to them and ask them if they have a sadness that is ever present and worse when they are alone. Are they continually working to mask this turmoil to maintain normalcy?
If they are a teen, I would encourage you to get them help. Once they turn 18, your ability to help them as parents is limited without their consent. You have no ability to get any information at all.
Joey’s independent, protective nature let him believe he had to be a man and handle this on his own. I would encourage you to have your child sign the HIPPA release form when you drop them off at college. Most of the services that the college offered in his case were covered by his tuition, therefore our insurance was not billed.
If we knew he was seeking help from them in the fall we could have done more to make sure he was getting the help he needed but without access we had no idea.
We hope and pray that Joey’s story is one that could somehow help or save someone else suffering like he was. We loved our Joey and will cherish every moment of the 19 years we had with him. That being said, we do not wish this devastation on anyone. It is a very difficult valley we find ourselves in but in that valley we are seeing new landscapes. Suicide doesn’t have to be the answer. The landscapes we are experiencing are educating us on this struggle with mental illness and how to live with it.
There are so many around each and every one of us that may have this struggle and can help others. Other parents who have walked in our shoes are now reaching out to us knowing where this takes you as a parents. We hope to do the same for others one day. We live in an incredible community that has lifted us up with prayer and support like none other. This community is a community that is about family and has embraced ours to the fullest. We will continue to walk this path by faith knowing that Joey’s story may help someone else.