Note: The following was given at the 2015 Wyoming Suicide Prevention Conference on September 10, 2015. The term suicide survivor refers to someone who has lost a friend or loved one to suicide.
Thank you for the introduction and thank you all for the warm welcome. It’s nice to be back in Casper. My family moved here in the summer of 1992 just after I graduated from high school and I attended Casper College for two years after that. And though I only lived here a short time, the city of Casper and the State of Wyoming hold a special place in my heart.
I appreciate the invitation to speak at this conference. Though I do speaking engagements back home, this audience and conference is different than those I usually present at. There are people here with mental health and law enforcement backgrounds, educators, and suicide survivors. You all have difference experience when it comes to helping those who are suicidal or those who are left behind.
I’ve thought carefully about what I could give you, how my experience could help such a diverse group. After much thought, I’ve decided to share my story with you. Now, I believe you all received a copy of Room for Two. The first part of this story I’m going to tell you is in that book. But that book is just about the first year of my life after my late wife took her own life—an event happened 14 years ago this November. However, when one is in the middle rebuilding their life sometimes it's difficult to see the decisions, the people, and the miracles—if you want to call them that—that help us find lasting happiness and peace. Time, however, gives us a unique perspective. It allows us to look back and see the key moments, choices, and events that helped us prevail over difficulties and challenges that at the time seemed insurmountable.
Because I have this perspective of time, I'm going to share some stories with you that I've never told publically before. I share them in the hopes that they can help you in your jobs or in your personal life as you deal with those who are teetering on the edge as well as those who are left behind and have nothing but unanswered questions. Maybe the story of how I rebuilt my life will speak directly to some of you in this audience who are struggling. Wherever you find yourself, I hope and pray that there is something I can share today that you can use going forward.
My story begins on the night of November 9, 2001. It was a Friday night and I was tired after a long week of work. After the 45-minute, congestion-filled drive home from Salt Lake, all I wanted to do was relax and spend time with my seven-month-pregnant wife, Krista. However, when I came home I discovered that my wife had left earlier in the day gone to her grandmother's house in Ogden—a fifteen minute drive north. There was a note waiting for me that said she wanted to spend the night there. I was upset at this change of plans and my wife's increasingly bizarre and unpredictable behavior. I didn't want to drive any more after the long commute to and from work that day. I just wanted to spend the night at home. Despite my reservations, I packed an overnight bag and headed out the door.
As I put my bag in the trunk of my car, I stopped and looked back at the apartment. I had a strong feeling that I should go back inside and get my handgun and give it to my brother for safe keeping. I thought it was a strange feeling to have. My wife and I had moved into our apartment the week before and the gun was locked away in a case. I looked back at the door to our apartment. I was tried and was running behind schedule. I didn't feel like I had the energy to walk back up the stairs and get the gun. I shrugged off the feeling and drove to Ogden.
The next morning, I left Krista sleeping in the bed and got up early to run errands. The night before we had agreed that after I ran the errands we'd head back to our apartment together, finish unpacking, and spend the rest of the weekend alone. As I got in the car to leave I had a second strong impression. This time I felt that instead of running errands I should drive back to our apartment. I didn't understand why I should do that. There wasn't much food in our apartment and the car was overdue for an oil change. There were other things that needed to be done. For the second time in less than 12 hours, I ignored the feeling and spent the morning running around town and crossing things off my To Do list. When I returned to her grandmother's house, I discovered that Krista wasn't there. While I was gone she had taken her car back to our apartment instead of waiting as planned. I called the apartment to see what was going on. There was no answer. I waited a bit and called again. Still there was no answer. After a few other attempts to reach her, I got in the car and drove to our apartment.
When I arrived, I was frustrated and angry. As I headed up the steps and took the key to the apartment out of my pocket I had another strong impression come to me. This time I felt that I should enter the apartment as quietly as possible. I stood outside the door for a moment wondering why on earth I should do that. I realized that it probably wasn't best idea to come home with anger in my voice so for the third time I ignored the feeling. I opened the door and called out for Krista in a somewhat nice voice. A second later I heard a gunshot come from our bedroom.
The police and paramedics that responded to the scene weren't able to save Krista but they got her body to the hospital fast enough to deliver my daughter, Hope, via emergency surgery. However due to the trauma and oxygen deprivation Hope had experienced before she was born, my daughter's condition deteriorated. Nine days after she came into this world, I made the hardest and the most difficult decision of my life and removed her from life support.
Now, I'm going to stop the story for a minute and say that most of the people I work with, those I worship with, and most of my neighbors don’t know this story. Some of them know I'm a former widower but they don't know the details surrounding my late wife's death. They don't know I’m a suicide survivor.
And that is how it should be.
Why don't they know this? It's not like I hide this story from the world. I have a memoir that tells this story in great detail. I have a website where they can find this information too. But I suspect the main reason they don’t know because I'm happy and I lead a pretty normal life. Like most of them, I get up and go to work in morning. Me and my wife, Julianna, socialize with neighbors at neighborhood BBQs and movie nights. I worship with many of them at church on Sunday. I coach my kids and their children on city league basketball and soccer teams. I have a good life and feel that I am blessed with much more than I deserve. On the outside, there's nothing to indicate that I'm a suicide survivor.
Now occasionally a neighbor, co-worker, or member of the congregation I attend with will come across my website or memoir and read about my story. Usually when this happens they express sympathy for my loss and sometimes they ask what I did to make it from losing a wife and a daughter to the life I live right now. My standard answer to that question is something along the lines that I took things day at a time and figured things out as I went along. There's some truth to that. Early on I had to take things one day at a time and with no "How To" manual on rebuilding a shattered life, I had to figure things out on my own.
But the real reason is a little more complex than that. And looking back with nearly fourteen years of hindsight I want to share with you seven things I learned that allowed me to move forward, rebuild my life, and have life I have today. Again, please keep in mind that I share them in the hopes that they can help you or those who you come in contact with contact with as part of your jobs or personal life.
The first thing I learned was the importance of getting out of bed every morning.
In the weeks and months after Krista's suicide, the hardest decision I faced every day was whether or not to get out of bed. I would wake up and stare at the ceiling and have this mental battle of whether I would stay in bed and sleep for another couple hours or get out of bed and go for a run.
I knew if I made the decision to stay in bed it would eventually lead to calling into work and taking a day off. And with no job to go to, I'd sit around all day watch TV and surfing the internet. I'd probably eat a lot of junk food. Maybe I would get around to taking a shower. Maybe.
The choice to get out of bed didn’t involve getting ready for the day but included running four miles. Doing that run would give me 30 minutes to be sad or work through things that were weighing on my mind. By the time I got home, I'd feel good enough mentally that I could get ready and go to work and make it through the rest of the day.
Now some days making this choice was easy and it would take less than a minute to decide for me to throw of the covers and start running. Other mornings it was a five to ten minute struggle on what decision I was going to make. Those mornings just making that one decision left me mentally exhausted. But every morning, I made the decision to get out of bed and run.
This all came to a head on a freezing winter morning. As I lay in bed, I could feel the wind shake the house and listened as bits of snow and ice hit against the window. I knew if I went for my four-mile run it was going to be near or below zero outside. I paused and thought about getting back under the covers for another hour or two. But inside I knew I had to run—even if it was only two or three miles—because I knew if I made the decision to stay in bed, it would be easier the next morning or the morning after that to come up with an excuse to stay home and wallow in self-pity.
I couldn't let that happen.
So I got up, put on extra layers of clothing, and headed out into the cold. Forty minutes later I completed my four mile run. Even though the run took longer than usual and I was chilled to the bone, I felt like I had just climbed Mount Everest. I realized if I could get out of bed under those conditions and run, I could get out of bed any morning.
Getting out of bed may seem like a small, trivial thing but the fact that I did it day after day allowed me to lay a foundation that I could build a new life upon. If I had not been able to do that, I probably wouldn't be living the life that I have. I don't know what I'd be doing but it probably wouldn't include a family, a good job, and or standing here before all of you today.
The second thing I learned was the importance of being grateful.
I lost Krista and Hope just before the start of the holiday season. It was a hard time to be alone. While everyone else appeared happy and excited for the upcoming holidays, I had nothing to look forward to. Then one afternoon just as I was getting ready to leave work for the day, I overheard a coworker talking to about the divorce he was going through. The whole process was bankrupting him and it was looking like despite his best efforts, he was only going to see his four children every other weekend. As I listened to him choke back tears, it made me realize that I wasn’t the only one with problems and difficulties. Other people had their own challenges they were facing.
During the hour-long drive home that afternoon, I thought about what I had overheard. I realized that even though I had lost much, I had much to be grateful for. I thought about the friends and family that had stood by me and supported me during this difficult time. I thought about my friend Brent who had invited me to spend an extended weekend with him in Phoenix so I could to get away from the cold and the memoires that were in Utah. I was grateful for my friends, Ryan and Suzie, who invited me over for dinner once a week I could enjoy some company and a good home cooked meal. I was thankful for my job. Even though it wasn't the best or most exiting job in the world, it paid the bills and kept me focused on something other than my loss for most of the day. I was also grateful for an understanding boss who was patient with me as I tried to make it through each day at work. I was grateful for my good health, good books to read, and small but wonderful home to live in. By the time I got home I realized that despite my loss, I still had many good people and things in my life. After that, whenever I felt sad or depressed, I tried to find at least one thing to be grateful for to cheer me up.
It's something I still do it today.
Whether it's stress at work or something else that gets me feeling down or angry or frustrated, I try to think of the blessings in my life. And to be honest, all I have to do is think of where I was thirteen years ago then think of my wonderful wife Julianna and our six children and suddenly life doesn’t seem so bad.
The third thing I learned was the healing power of serving others.
One spring morning I was sitting in church and a member of the congregation said that they were moving that Saturday and needed some help loading the van. I volunteered to give them a hand. Now, I have to admit my motives for helping were a little selfish. I volunteered because without a job to go to, Saturdays were long and empty and I figured that this would help pass the time. So I showed up and for two hours helped move boxes from their home to the moving truck. When it was all done my muscles were sore but I felt good inside. It wasn't just the a good feeling of knowing that I had done the right thing, but I found I was a less angry at Krista, that I was a little happier inside. I felt a little more normal.
Now the concept of serving and helping others wasn't new to me. The importance of helping and serving others was something I had been taught since I was little and something I had done many times before. But where I was in that time in my life I was able to feel the healing power of service firsthand.
At first I wondered if it was some kind of fluke that I had felt that way. Yet I found the more I served and helped others, the better I felt about myself. When others in the congregation needed help with something, I was usually one of the first to volunteer. As I felt this healing power in my life, I started to look for ways I could serve neighbors. I mowed and edged the lawn or shoveled snow for a widow in the neighborhood who was too frail to do it herself. Sometimes the act of service was as simple as spending thirty minutes with someone who just needed someone to talk with. Each time I focused on the needs of others instead of my own feelings, the more peace I felt about my situation and life in general.
The experience also humbled me.
I'm a very independent person and like to think that I can get through life without the assistance of others. I realized that there were times after Krista's death where it had been hard for me to accept the service from others when it was offered. From that moment on it became easier to let others serve me even if I was sure it was something that I could do for myself. I realized that those performing the service might need the healing power and the peace that comes with helping their fellow man. So when opportunities arose for others to serve me, I let them do it.
For anyone here today who is struggling or hurting I encourage you to look around at friends, family, co-workers, and loved ones and see how you can use your time, your talents, and your abilities to lighten the burden of others. If you do it, I promise you that you will experience amazing healing results in your own life.
The fourth thing I learned was that it’s okay to not to have all the answers.
After Krista's suicide there were a lot of unanswered questions. I saw them in the sad faces of family and friends. I saw them every time I looked in the mirror. Why Krista had done it? Was mental illness? A chemical imbalance? Depression? Something else? How could I not known she was suicidal? Everyone looked to me for answers. I had none.
I still don't.
I have my suspicions why Krista did what she did but the truth is I’m not going to get answers in this life and I'm okay with that. We only have so much time and energy to spend every day and the more time I spent worrying about things I'd never have the answer to, the more it held me back from progressing and moving forward.
When I was dating Julianna, I learned that I couldn't get to know her if I was constantly thinking about the past and why things turned out the way they did. When shifted my focus to Julianna, I was able to open my heart to her.
Today, my time and energy is focused on my family, on my work, and my writing—not the unanswered questions of the past. It’s better spent figuring out how I can help my 11-year-old son with his social studies homework or my eight-year-old daughter refine her basketball skills. It’s better spent on figuring out the next plot twist in my novel, honing my marketing skills for my job, or looking for ways that I can help my wife, Julianna, around the house. There are a thousand things that I can work on that will make me a better father, a better husband, a better neighbor, a better Christian, and a better writer. Focusing on the past doesn't help me do any of these things.
The fifth thing learned that forgiving others is essential to moving forward.
The afternoon after my daughter's funeral, I said three words to Krista that I never thought I'd say to her. Those three words were "I hate you."
Now, Krista wasn't around to hear them, of course, but I remember sitting in my car alone pounding the steering wheel with my fists until my hands hurt and screaming those three words over and over again.
"I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!"
I also remember how good it felt to say them. And inside I found that Krista was the perfect person to channel all my anger and frustrations. Anytime something went wrong—no matter how small or insignificant—I found I could blame her for it. And even though all those feelings of anger or bitterness didn't solve any problems, it made me feel better for an hour or two.
About five months after my late wife's death I started dating again I found I couldn’t emotionally connect with the women I was dating because of the anger. As I started to have feelings for Julianna, I learned that if I was going to fully open my heart to someone else, I couldn’t have feelings of anger or bitterness toward Krista. I had to forgive her.
Now, it would be so much easier to forgive Krista if I could just talk to her. But she wasn't around to do that. No one could do that. I had no doubt that wherever Krista was, she was aware of the consequences of her actions and regretted what she had done. However, she wasn’t in a position to explain why she had done it or to tell me how she was sorry for the pain and anguish she had caused. It would be so much easier to forgive her if she could just apologize.
But that wasn't an option.
I tried brushing off the feelings or channeling my anger in a different direction but nothing seemed to work. Finally, I figured out a solution. Every time I found my rage and anger being directed at Krista, I tried to think of something good and positive about her. Despite all the good memories, it was easy to wipe them all away simply by thinking what she had done with one act. Thinking good thoughts instead of bad ones was difficult and progress at times seemed agonizingly slow.
But eventually it paid off.
It happened on autumn afternoon. I was standing in the kitchen doing dishes and looking outside at the fall colors. At that moment I was filled by this peaceful feeling. It was warm and strong and filled my whole body. It was one of the best feelings of my life. At that moment I realized I had made peace with Krista. I was no longer angry at her. After I realized what had happened I tried to be angry at her. I thought of what she had done and I wasn't angry or upset.
I was at peace.
I can stand here before all of you today and tell you that thirteen years later I still have no anger or ill will towards her. It no longer matters to me why she killed herself or the pain and sorrow that I and others felt as a result. From that moment I was truly able to start a new life.
I sixth lesson I learned was that I had to forgive myself.
The hardest part in this process of moving forward was forgiving myself for not listening to those promptings I felt in the hours leading up to Krista's death. Even though my life was coming back together one piece at a time, I knew that in order to fully heal I had to forgive myself for my inaction. It was so easy to beat myself up over it. There were days when I wanted nothing more than to go back to that November morning and do everything differently.
It would be so much easier if I could just talk to Krista and express my remorse for my inaction. If I could just tell her how sorry I was for not listening to those promptings and have her forgive at me or yell at me, or do whatever she wanted in order to help her feel better, then that would go a long way to helping me forgive myself.
But that wasn't an option.
After a lot of thought and prayer, I realized that I needed to do two things in order to forgive myself. The first was to let go of the past. By letting go, I didn't mean forgetting about what had happened or erasing it from my mind. Rather, I couldn't dwell on it and beat myself up over it. It meant learning my lessons and moving forward. It was about building a new life from the ashes of the old one and not repeating the mistakes that I had made in the past.
And so I did.
Though I never thought I would rebuild my life quickly, I married Julianna fifteen months after Krista's death and together we started a new family. We've been married twelve years and she has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. With her I've tried to be a better husband—one who is more responsive to her needs than I was the first time around. I haven't been perfect but I think I've done a good job over the years.
Now there was a second thing I had to do in order to forgive myself. And that was I had to make myself a promise. And that promise is the seventh and final lesson I would like to share with you today.
And that is: Always listen and obey those promptings.
Back at the beginning of my story, I told you all about three distinct promptings that I ignored. I like to call them promptings but you can call them whatever you want: gut feelings, hunches, impressions, an inner voice. Whatever you want to call them I believe that everyone has them from time to time. It's the feeling that knowing that we need to do something even when we don't know why we should do it. We can have them when it comes to members of our family, our jobs, our friends, and our neighbors.
The consequences of not following those impressions was a brutal lesson and one I had to learn the hard way. Since then whenever a prompting or impression has struck, I have always followed it. A prompting was a reason I asked Julianna out on our first date. It was promptings that has guided Julianna and I where to look for work or where to live. Those promptings have helped when it's come to issues raising our children and knowing how I can best help them when it comes to their education and other problems they may be struggling with.
Sometimes the reasons for these feelings have been obvious but most of the times I don't know why I'm being told to do a certain thing. But even if the reason is never known, I have peace in my heart knowing I followed those promptings.
And that peace is priceless.
For those who are feeling the sting of a friend or loved one who has taken their own life, I want you to know that life does go on and we can find peace and happiness in this life again.