by Dawn Whitcomb
Suicide touched my life on the crisp clear morning on Friday November 6th , 2015 at 10:30am. The day my beautiful 18-year-old son Dylan took his life.
That morning the self that I knew took flight and another one emerged.
Dylan was a compassionate, kind and lover of all things. Although Dylan struggled with anxiety, which manifested in headaches, stomach aches and not wanting to go to school. He was also diagnosed with ADD at the age of 7. Dylan however absolutely loved being around his family and friends and overall was the protector of those that were having a bad day. He didn’t like to see people unhappy, yet deep down he was the one struggling.
He knew how it felt to be sad, yet Dylan
and most of us, including myself didn’t know the depth of his sadness. And a culmination of bad grades, not knowing where he thought he was going in life, and lack of hope, he made the decision on that morning to not live any longer.
Due to suicidal ideations in May of 2015, we had Dylan admitted to the Psychiatric Unit at Blessing Hospital, where he stayed and was what the staff called him, the “model patient”. Describing him as helpful with the younger patients, wanting to assist the staff etc.. Which was no surprise to myself and his father. After this ‘stay’ in the hospital, we felt that things were getting better, but Dylan was using marijuana, and even with constant monitoring he refused to stop. He told me one day, that the marijuana made his brain slow down and that made him feel better. Even through much discussion on the effects of marijuana on a teen brain, he still was sneaking it.
At times I felt I ‘lost’ my son way before he left his physical body.
Now on to how did I get through it? Getting ‘through’ it describes those first several years. Just trying to figure out how to navigate this ‘new’ or should I say ‘different’ life. Well let’s just say, getting up out of bed was a start. I took off 3 weeks of work, but after Thanksgiving made the decision to go back, I felt that staying at home was not serving a purpose, and that by going back, maybe I could start ‘feeling’ again. It was a very slow process, I discovered many books on the loss of a child, the loss of a child to suicide, the loss of an only child. Anything I could get my hands on, just to know that I cannot be the only one out there. And I did find many books, yet I still felt alone. That’s when I started researching Retreats, specifically for parents and grief and those that had that loss by suicide. I came across one back in 2017, hosted by two women that had loss of relatives by suicide but not a child. However, the Retreat sounded so healing, I decided to book it and make my way to Northern California to a town called Mt. Shasta. A week prior to the retreat fate would step in, and a call came that they would not be hosting the retreat due to lack of participants. But then by no coincidence the ladies, gave me the name of a life coach and spiritual guide by the name of Andrew Oser, who took me on a spiritual hike and mediation session (complete with snowshoes) up the mountain. They also suggested that I stay at a healing place called Stewart Mineral Springs in Weed CA, located just 15 min from Mt. Shasta. This retreat that I cultivated on my own was THE BEST experience of my life since Dylan’s death. Taking time, for ME and exposing all my fears and opening up was not only healing but life changing. I took what Andrew taught me in the short two hours that I was with him and the beauty that surrounded me and brought it home and applied it. It was also around this time (actually in 2016) that I found a book and author by the name of Tom Zuba, who also held online and in person retreats and support groups for anyone with loss of a loved one.
Tom’s book Permission to Mourn; A New Way to do Grief
saved my life.
It was as if Tom knew me. It was the only book that I could read and comprehend those first couple of years. And in 2018, I went to North Carolina and attend one of his Retreats and met other moms, and moms who also were dealing with the death of their sons by suicide. It was so refreshing to actually be in the presence of these women and know that I could tell them what I was feeling and that they ‘got it’.
As I have moved through my grief journey, I’ve come to believe that we all suffer some sort of loss in our lives, whether it’s a sudden death, a death where the person struggles for years, such as cancer, but we all feel the loss of the physical presence of that person. That time doesn’t heal, but it’s what we do with that time. Grief is hard work and takes herculean effort on some days. Knowing that healing is not a destination, knowing that I’m not going to wake up one day and be healed, but that it requires setting the intention and requires work every day.
It is possible to live a Radiant life not in spite of the death of your beloved BUT because of the death of your beloved.
Life doesn’t happen TO me; Life happens FOR me!
Did I notice signs of suicide in Dylan? There were signs, the lack of sleep, stomach aches, headaches, marijuana use, sometimes reckless behavior such as speeding his car and wrecking it, making statements about he didn’t care about things. But I chocked it up to teenage behavior, nowhere in my thoughts would I have believed that Dylan would take his life, by all accounts he was showing us his love of life, most of the time. His friends had no indication of any struggles that Dylan was dealing with, at least they never let me know.
If I was speaking with someone that was suicidal,
the first thing I would let them know is that
they are Loved;
that they are Heard and Seen.
In the case of someone in crisis, I would drive them to the ER, where they can be placed in a safe environment. However, there is a lot of work that needs to be done at the Psychiatric unit. I feel that specifically kids are slipping through the cracks. If they are patients like Dylan, then I feel that they aren’t being truly given the opportunity to delve into what truly is going on.
Sometimes it becomes to what I would call ‘cookie cutter’ such as in Dylan’s case.
He did what was asked and diverted by being ‘helpful’, but I feel that staff ‘should’ have been more in tune with patients like Dylan who do a brilliant job of masking their feelings. I feel that a mix of anxiety, lack of hope and shame (bad grades and the potential of not graduating) all played a role in Dylan’s suicide. It was what I call “The perfect storm” that morning
of November 6th .
I believe that ‘breaking down or stopping the stigma’ means many things. I think first and foremost, we ALL need to know that most suicides are not from a diagnosed mental illness. Most occur from the devastation in the sudden loss of a job (finance), sudden loss of a boyfriend/girlfriend (betrayal) and shame. There is a difference between mental ‘health’ and mental ‘illness’. We all need good mental health, and if or when we are struggling, then we need to let those know that it’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to seek support, whether through a counselor, pastor/priest, friends, parents etc..
By breaking down the stigma that surrounds those feelings of sadness, shame etc.. We allow people to open up and feel safe, seen & heard. Those days of seeking help for our mental health and then society putting labels on people, like ‘crazy’ must stop. We need to be a kinder society. I also feel that social media plays a huge role in how our teens process things.
Teens are subjected to constantly being judged on social media.
If they aren’t posting great things, then something must be wrong. They are also subjected to name calling and bullying and in most cases the teen doesn’t tell anyone for fear of retaliation from the bully.
And it can be relentless, until it’s too late.
Currently, Dawn is a member of the Adams County Suicide Prevention Coalition, where she is also a member of the Steering Committee and the Behind The Mask committee, where they raise money for the Coalition to monetarily provide support. Dawn has also served as a post member of the Illinois Suicide Prevention Alliance, which is a statewide alliance. As a survivor of suicide loss and a Veteran of the US Navy, Dawn is currently a member of the newly formed Together with Tri-State Veterans, serving Veterans by providing suicide awareness resources and education to local veterans in the area. She also co-chairs suicide awareness classes at several local schools.
Link to the Adams County Suicide Prevention Coalition: acsuicideprevention.org