PLATTSBURGH — To keep herself going, Angie LePage has to believe her son Michael is in a better place now.
He died by suicide in 2005.
“There’s no road map for this kind of grief,” the Peru woman told those gathered for Healing After Suicide Loss, a recent American Foundation for Suicide Prevention event at SUNY Plattsburgh hosted by the MAPP Community Education Subcommittee.
It’s normal to have good days and bad days, LePage said.
“It doesn’t get better; it just gets different.”
The event in Angell College Center began with a video of a group discussion among people who have lost someone close to them to suicide.
It addressed common emotions they, as survivors, feel and how to cope with feelings such as anger toward the loved one who died and the inevitable “what if” questions.
One woman said anger is a common reaction at first but is often twisted into regret and blame.
A significant factor in healing is that everyone grieves differently, Mary Gillen said.
“Every day’s a process,” she said.
She had thought her son Justin was depressed, but his pediatrician didn’t take her input seriously, she said, as her son was popular, athletic and came across as a happy kid.
He ended his life by suicide in 2006.
The Plattsburgh woman said she felt isolated because people turn away when suicide is talked about.
“I was blessed because Josh (Murchison), Justin’s best friend, and Justin’s other friends didn’t run away after he died,” Gillen said.
“I didn’t have to totally lose him.”
‘A KIND PLACE’
Staying in touch with Justin’s friends and knowing what is happening in their lives made her think about what her son would be doing if he were there, too.
While she didn’t feel anger directly toward Justin at first, it came later on because she saw how negatively it affected some of his friends.
Three dropped out of college, and two ended up in jail, she said.
Gillen said that, after a few years, she began coping by masking her hurt and putting on a happy face, which she said is exactly what Justin had done.
A teacher and counselor, LePage said it was hard for her to go back to work after Michael’s death, because she felt as if other parents would not trust her to care for their kids, considering what had happened to her son.
She was gratefully surprised when she received a warm welcome back.
“The world really can be a kind and gentle place,” she said.
‘NOT HIS LIFE’
Murchison, also on the panel, said that Justin had told him over AIM messenger that he was going to kill himself, but they had talked through it together.
“He showed his soul to me, and we were brothers from there on,” he said.
He also believes Justin was suffering from a disorder that proved fatal.
“People don’t kill themselves because their life sucks,” he said. “They kill themselves because there’s an anatomical imbalance … it wasn’t his life — it was his brain.”
Marianne Cox, a clinical social worker at National Alliance on Mental Illness: Champlain Valley in Plattsburgh, said in a separate interview that it is vital to seek help if someone confides he or she is suicidal.
“We always tell people, especially the young people, this is not a secret you can keep,” she said, “because the aftermath of living with someone’s death is too horrible.
“You can’t take that responsibility of evaluating the seriousness of the situation — you need someone trained in this, and you’ve got to tell an adult, a teacher, parent, somebody ...”
As well, she said, “it is also very important if you lose someone to suicide to try to get some support from clergy, a counselor, a support group.”
No one can indicate the healing time for someone else, but by talking, said Bonnie Black, director of employee assistance services of Behavioral Health Services North, it helps suicide survivors to come out of the darkness.
“Your new normal is setting your pace,” she said at the forum.
There were 39 participants that day, with many new faces. The turnout showed awareness is growing, Black said, but that success was bittersweet because it meant more people have lost loved ones to suicide
Another significant factor in healing is to remember those who died for who they were in life, not for how they died.
For some, doing so helped provide the strength to attend the event to share and support the others dealing with similar loss.
A candlelight vigil was held after the panel session — the names of those who died by suicide were spoken as a family member or friend lit a candle in their memory.
“I don’t believe everything happens for a reason,” Murchison said, “but I do believe your greatest pain can become your greatest purpose.”
— News Editor Suzanne Moore contributed to this report.
WHERE TO GET HELP
If you're considering suicide, instead get help by calling the following numbers:
- Clinton County Mental Health, 565-4060; Essex County Mental Health Clinic, 873-3670; after-hour emergencies, (888) 854-3773.
- In northern Franklin County, around the clock, 483-3261; southern Franklin County, 891-5535.
For emotional crises:
The toll-free Clinton County suicide hot line number is (866) 577-3836.
- Out-of-county calls are accepted but other options are the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-TALK (8255) and the Essex County Mental Health Association Hope Line, (800) 440-8074. That last number is staffed 24-7, but the phone system handles limited calls. If there's no answer, hang up and try again.
- Or call 911 or go to your closest emergency room.
- Mary Anne Cox holds a Suicide Survivors Support Group in Plattsburgh the second Wednesday of the month. Register with her ahead of time at 563-1141.