The numbers surrounding suicide are shocking — and the most shocking part may be that no one knows precisely how prevalent the problem is. Last year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that slightly fewer than 43,000 Americans died by their own hand in 2014 — the highest number in 30 years.
As sobering as that is, no one – least of all the CDC itself – believes that number to be anywhere near accurate due to sketchy reporting. In fact, a recent West Virginia University study suggested wide disparities in the number of overdose deaths listed as accidents versus suicides, particularly in the South.
Whatever the number, it pales in comparison to the millions upon millions of family members left behind to cope with a loved one’s final act. What follows are stories of three such families and one community coming to terms with who they lost, what they’ve learned and how they face each new day.
November 26, 1999 – January 28, 2016
Barbie Merrick keeps a photo of her daughter, Jordan, on her Facebook page; the girl is onstage, one of the places in the world she loved best. The photo shows Jordan with eyes cast hopefully upward, face lit by the bright stage lights, mouth open and smiling in song.
“She was just so talented, even from the time she was just little bitty,” Barbie says. “She loved to sing and entertain people. She really had a gift for it. Boy, she could pick up on anything.”
The picture also shows an intense skirt of darkness enveloping everything just beyond the footlights, an equally fitting metaphor for the Cabot teen.
“Something she told me one time was, ‘You know, Mom, I don’t think I’ve ever been just really happy. I don’t think I have the capacity to be happy like some people are happy,’” Barbie says.
Barbie’s voice never reaches beyond conversational, but the “why” is still in her tone. Jordan was the polar opposite of the stereotype of a person at-risk of suicide: She had friends, a stable home life and good grades; she was active in her church. Every part she tried out for seemed to go her way; every award she set her sights on found its way to the family mantle.
It was only after Jordan’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that her parents discovered the darker influences in her life.
“In the last two weeks before this, she had joined some groups and Googled different things,” Barbie recalls. “One of them was called The Tracks and it’s this group of kids who talk about how to kill yourself by sitting on the railroad tracks. They encourage each other to do it. And we found a couple of texts that she had sent out to friends saying ‘I’m just sitting here on the tracks. I’m going to do it today.’”
Jordan would have been a senior this year and the milestones that her classmates experience are hard for her mother to watch. She wants to support the kids who used to hang out at her house and fill it with laughter, but she can’t bring herself to. The loss is too raw.
“The thing I’ve said over and over and my husband and I have talked about is we know we will see Jordan again,” she says. “I can’t fathom a parent who has lost a child who doesn’t have faith when we barely get by day to day. Inside you feel like you’re just dead emotionally, physically, spiritually, but to the outside world you just keep smiling. Nobody knows that that’s how you are.”
July 26, 1989 – October 17, 2008
Cindi Blackwood still experiences every emotion regarding her oldest child and only son Alex, nearly 10 years after he killed himself on fall break from the University of Central Arkansas. She allows herself to feel them all.
“A key word that I’ve learned is ‘permission’ and giving my permission to feel whatever,” says Blackwood, who, with her husband Steve, has since become a grief recovery specialist to help others cope with loss.
“When our daughter graduated from high school, I got mad because Alex should have been there. And I may have verbalized that out loud, ‘You rotten kid, why are you not here?’ But that’s OK that I do it and its OK that I’m angry with him that he’s not here sometimes.”
Neither Cindi nor her husband Steve were equipped to deal with their son’s depression, much less to understand how it would ultimately contribute to Alex’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“There were lots of warning signs, none of which I knew at the time,” Steve says. “Hindsight being 20/20, it’s obvious Alex died from undiagnosed depression, something I was completely ignorant to.”
As a way of dealing with his grief, Steve committed himself to learning everything he could about depression and suicide, and today he is a leading prevention advocate, pushing for better promotion of resources and other state services dealing with depression and suicide.
“Most of our suicide prevention efforts is the identification of those at risk so that we can respond and intervene and get them to safety,” he says. “In addition to that, we need to be addressing here at the bottom and educate people before they become suicidal.
“I honestly believe that as Alex began being sucked down into this black hole, he didn’t know what it was. The more he would try to overcome it, the harder he would be on himself because he wasn’t getting his [act] together, you know, bow up, get over it. Isn’t that what we tell them?”
Even as all three of the Blackwoods share what they’ve learned of mourning and healing (daughter Ariel has worked for nonprofits focusing on suicide awareness), the sadness over Alex’s death still has a place in their midst, albeit a less disruptive one.
“Recently I was really missing Alex and then it hit me that missing him is a gift,” Cindi says. “Yes, it may be painful, but I don’t ever want to stop missing him because if I stop missing him then that means I’m not thinking about him. Even though it’s painful.”
March 6, 1992 – December 9, 2010
Even as the eighth anniversary of her death approaches, Rachel Rutledge is still dropping her mom hints that she’s OK. A cardinal outside the window, a book falling off a shelf, simple kindnesses from strangers who turn out to be named Rachel: These are all hidden postcards affirming she’s there, watching over the family.
“I don’t believe in coincidences,” Kathy Rutledge says. “I believe there are signs for you if you look for them and if you’re open to them.”
Kathy’s home office is crammed with mementos of Rachel: photos, trinkets and other bits and pieces that she held or created or loved. After Rachel died, her aunt had a collection of her writings bound into a book. The poems and essays give a narrow glimpse into the teenager’s innermost thoughts.
“I’m not sure how much longer I can deal with all the ups and downs that I go through every minute,” Rachel writes in “Wishful Thinking.” “It’s getting to be a little too much to handle.”
“I think what scares me, what absolutely terrifies me is that there is so much potential,” she writes in “Precipice.” “And one single choice is all it could take to wipe it all away.”
“With the manic part of bipolar it’s word vomit, basically,” Kathy says. “Then, toward the end of Rachel’s illness when she got into the depression part and never came out of it, she couldn’t write anymore. That’s what killed her because that’s who she was her whole life. She was a writer.”
Kathy says time doesn’t erase the pain of loss; she’s just punched it into a shape that’s slightly easier to hold onto while carrying it around. Grief counseling and a new faith community have also helped, but only so much.
“I look back and I see how far I’ve come,” she says. “I know moms and dads, especially moms, that have stayed in bed for a year after their child died. I’ve always gotten up and just faced the day.
“But I also saw myself sitting in my car at the river once, because it’s not uncommon for parents to be suicidal after they lose a child, not matter how they lose a child. And I still have guilt to this day and I always will because I didn’t save my child.”
Andrea Fortner, alumnus, mother of two students and a counselor at Carlisle High School knew that the deaths of two students less than a month apart last year would impact the small, close-knit Delta community. She just didn’t know exactly how.
“We’re 300 students, 7th through 12th grade. Really small, really close,” she says. “From my recollection, we’ve never had someone die by suicide who was school-age. We have had some who were out of high school. But this was different in that it was our kids.”
As with other administrators, Fortner had to suspend dealing with her emotions to help minister to the needs of others. Additional counseling support was brought in to assist students and all the school’s contingency plans were revamped. Grief would have to wait until late summer and thus has lingered throughout the current school year.
“It was a very difficult end of the year last year,” she says. “It impacted every single person in our town in one way or the other. Either you were grieving heavily or you just felt this kind of heaviness. The halls were quiet; everyone was handling grief in different ways and different stages at different times. It was pretty hard to navigate.”
A year later, administrators are treading lightly, staying particularly vigilant and sensitive to the needs of students as the anniversary approaches. Fortner has become more informed on awareness and communication techniques surrounding suicide and will be implementing a student mentor program next year to help peer-to-peer prevention efforts. There are already signs the extra efforts are paying off.
“I’ve noticed an increase in kids who are willing to drop by my office and say, ‘Hey, I’m worried about so-and-so,’ or ‘My friend posted something on Facebook,’” she says. “There’s been a shift here of wanting to help each other. I’m very positive and excited about that.”