And So We Walked…

Today marked a milestone for our family. The Haags and Hoffas got together in Kansas City to participate in the Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Prevention and Awareness.  Looking back at at life so far, everything has been split into two parts- Before John Died and After John Died. Today, all I could even think about is how much he meant to us and how things will never be the same.

This photo should show all of us having fun together at a family reunion, birthday, or holiday, but there’s one very important person missing here. It’s John. He’s the reason we all came together on this cold and windy October day in KC.

Team John L Hoffa KC

John was absolutely with us in spirit.  Never far from our thoughts and close to our hearts as he always is these days, it’s comforting to know he’s here. Still, it’s incredibly difficult to reconcile the fact that he is no longer here in a tangible way. Since that terrible day in April, not a day goes by where I don’t think of him. I know that no matter how hard it is for me, it’s a million times harder for his parents, his sister. I can’t even begin to imagine the hurt. Because of that hurt, it was important for all of us to come together today- to walk for him, for us, for the many people who have been through the same thing and for the ones who are going to have to cope with suicide in the future.

This website was built as a legacy to my cousin. I wanted the memory of him to live on somehow and he would have gotten a kick out of this (he was a nerd like me). It didn’t seem fair for his passing to go unmarked and for a long time I was mad that the world kept spinning when mine had come to a complete standstill.  The birds sang, the sun came up and life for everyone else went on as usual. In the stillness that followed his death, we were stuck with varying degrees of the pain, the questions, the anger, the guilt and possibly the shame. Coming from a traditional Catholic background, suicide wasn’t exactly something we talked about.

After my cousin died, all I wanted to do was yell at the top of my lungs for people to start paying attention. Can’t everyone see that something is terribly wrong? I couldn’t whisper about it anymore. All of a sudden I was noticing all the news reports about people committing suicide, locally and nationally.  It didn’t matter whether you were famous or ordinary, old or young- suicidal tendencies don’t discriminate. Even worse, it felt like death by suicide was becoming common, everyday news.

Perhaps I have become hyper-sensitive to it but it just FEELS SO WRONG. The number of suicide deaths are on the rise- and I want to know why people aren’t talking about it more. Is it because it’s unpleasant or could it be because we simply don’t understand? I feel a burning need to find some answers. It’s clear we need to fix this. I know I can’t do it alone.

Trying to Understand Suicide

Honestly, one of the hardest things for me to come to grips with is – why? Why did he do it? The only person who can answer that question is not here to tell me- so all I can do is speculate, which gets me nowhere.  I can go through the motions of questioning.  I deal with the grief.  I’ve felt the anger.  I’ve experienced the guilt… was there something I could have done? What if I had tried to stay in touch more or sent a birthday card every year?  Would it have made a difference?  Could I have helped? Then of course comes the regret, because I truly wish I WOULD have called him more and done more on my part to stay in touch. I didn’t realize how sick he actually was. When it’s all said and done,  I’m usually back where I started. The questions haven’t and won’t ever be answered. But I do know one thing. I know that it must take a tremendous and overwhelming amount of pain to make someone contemplate, attempt and/or succeed at taking their own life.  I know I’m one of the lucky ones… I’ve never had those kinds of feelings. It tears me up inside when I think of all the people who do.

I’ve read the statistics- every 15 minutes someone dies of suicide.  Every minute someone makes an attempt. It’s mind boggling to me. Until this point, I had never really noticed much- but now? Suicide has my full attention. I don’t like open ended questions so I had to find a way to understand and wrap my brain around it.

I’ve read a lot of articles and I keep track of the tweets, posts etc. I’ve thought about it a lot and I have come to the conclusion that mental illness is a lot like cancer. To me, it is actually worse. Unlike cancer, mental illness cannot be seen. I think that’s what makes it so difficult to handle. How do we know that it’s there, how severe it is and how do we treat it if we can’t see it? While the marvels of modern medicine don’t have all the answers, for something like mental illness I think it starts with each and every one of us. We have to pay attention. We have to get out of our comfort zone, figure out the symptoms and find a way to take action. Suicide is very real, it’s a national health issue and we need to start talking openly about it and learning more so that we can spot the signs and prevent the loss of life.

Did I know that my cousin had difficulties and severe mood swings? Yes. But even knowing what I knew, I had no idea how to work with it nor did it occur to me that he might need serious treatment. None of us had a clue. I just figured he would find a way to cope, to get by like we all do with life’s hardships. Never in a million years did I imagine it would end this way. Not one of us understood how deeply he was suffering. There was no tumor, no bleeding wound that could signal to anyone that my cousin was suffering from a terrible, invisible disease that would eventually cause him to take his life. He hid the symptoms well, he went through the motions and then he left us. If only I had known then what I know now.

Riding on the rollercoaster of all these emotions made me think about the loved ones I have lost. The one thing they all had in common was an answer. If their passing was questioned, there was definitive answer on why they died.  Renal failure. Cancer. Accident. Old age. Anyone could easily comprehend why they were no longer with us on this earth. Did it hurt to lose them? You bet. Does it still? Some times more than others. You know how they say “time heals all wounds”? When it comes to grief, I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to LET time heal those particular wounds when you have an answer. With suicide, it’s so different because the first question we all ask is, WHY? The question keeps repeating which keeps that wound open, fresh and very painful. There is no answer and no easy way to find closure which makes it hard to sleep at night. For me, that closure came in the form of forgiveness. I had to let go of the emotional baggage that comes standard issue with being a survivor and make peace with it.

I know I don’t have the answers, but I would certainly like to try to help find them. If we share what we know about spotting the symptoms, where to get help or how it makes us feel, the better our chances of finding a way to prevent suicide. There are a lot of us out here who have been touched by it in some way and we want to help. If speaking out would spare even one family from going through this kind of hurt, it will be worth it. It seems like a good place to start.

Our family is closer than ever now. We make the calls, send the texts and check in with each other despite the busy lives we lead and the separation of many miles. We pick each other up when one of us falls, and we are moving forward the best we can without our Johnny. Losing him to suicide has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life, he was like a little brother to me. There is a void left by him that will never be filled, and that hurts.  Because of John, I want to help others who might be in the same boat and if speaking out helps spread the word, then I will be an open book.

And so we walked today… to honor his memory. We walked to show others how important he was to us. We walked with the hope that we can help make a difference and change those statistics one step at a time.

author: Michelle Haag  – John’s cousin  [I often tweet about suicide prevention/awareness – you can follow me on twitter at @Spark4Creative]

8 Responses to And So We Walked…

  1. Thanks for sharing your story. I too lost my cousin in April and we walked the Modesto Out Of The Darkness in September. I am thankful for people like you sharing your stories and walking the walk to help me deal with my pain and loss.

    • Hi Tara, my sincere condolences on the loss of your cousin. I’m so glad you came across my story and hope that it helped- it was difficult to write but I felt so many things needed to be said and I needed to commemorate our walk somehow- so it kind of wrote itself. Hugs to you and your family as you cope. Hang in there. Hopefully by sharing, we will be able to make a difference and perhaps help spare others from dealing with what we are going through. (((hugs)))

  2. you’re great with words 🙂 I lost my daddy to suicide July 26, 2012. My family and friends and I will be participating in the Cincinnati walk on Sunday. Thank you so much for putting this out there, you really are making a difference.

    • Hi Nicki. I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your Dad. 🙁 Sending you big hugs. Will be thinking of you and him as you walk in Cincinnati tomorrow, hopefully you will have good weather! Thank you for reading my story, be strong and hang in there.

  3. […] near and dear to my heart for obvious reasons. If you read any of my previous posts, you know that suicide was not something we really talked about in my family before. Yes, I’m hypersensitive to it now. I never joke about it, I don’t like to hear jokes […]

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