After tragic loss, hope: Stories of suicide and healingA few families tell their stories of life after a loved one has committed suicide.
By: Ryan Johnson, Forum Communications
FARGO – Stephanie Goetz may be a local celebrity now, but the TV news anchor took a backseat to older brother and “it guy” Cameron while growing up in Red Wing, Minn.But behind his popularity, athletic abilities and seeming adoration from all of those around him, Cam endured a private struggle with mental illness that led to his suicide on Aug. 11, 2002, just one day before his 20th birthday.
“He was the last kid on the planet that you would think would take his life or was struggling with depression,” Goetz said. “That was the biggest challenge for him, I think.”
Goetz, then a 17-year-old high school student, said she spent five years trying to bury the loss, afraid of what her brother’s struggles meant because she shared many of the same genes that predisposed him for mental illness.
“Time does heal,” she said.
Now, with more awareness and the realization that people with mental illness can lead full, healthy lives – including her father, who has dealt with low-grade depression for decades – she participates in local suicide awareness events and works to end the stigma mental health still carries.
“Now I feel like it’s just something that God for some reason said, ‘Alright, I think you can handle this; I know you can handle this, and I want you to be able to bring this to light and bring this forward and help others,’ ” Goetz said. “If I can help one person with my story of moving forward, I’ve accomplished everything that I set out to do.”
Easier to lie
West Fargo resident Tavia Smith said she spent years lying about how she lost her father, Ed Bommersbach, when she was 19. But the lies were mostly for the people around her.
“I’d have to explain my dad wasn’t living any longer, and sometimes I’d just say he died,” she said. “If they didn’t push the issue, sometimes I lied and said he had cancer or something because I didn’t feel comfortable enough in the relationship yet to say what really happened and then to get the looks, the pity and then the ideas of ‘are you crazy like your dad?’ ”
Smith said her relatives didn’t talk about it. The one time her pastor brought it up, he told her the way her father died was the only unforgivable sin.
She got married and had a baby, moving from Larimore in an attempt to run from her past just months after her father killed himself on July 7, 1987.
That didn’t work, and Smith said she felt defined in some ways by the mental illness and alcoholism that contributed to her father’s suicide. It wasn’t the first such loss for the family – her grandfather and great-grandfather also died by suicide.
She said her path to healing started by chance about eight years ago when she took a call at work asking if her employer, Gate City Bank, would make a corporate donation to the community’s first “Out of Darkness” suicide awareness walk.
Mary Weiler shared the story of losing her daughter Jennifer to suicide, and Smith felt ready to open up about her loss. She got involved with the effort and now leads a support group for other survivors through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Finally, she said she could allow her father’s death to define her – in a positive way.
“When you go through things like that, it makes you a more compassionate person,” she said. “It makes you more understanding of things.”
It also taught her it’s better to deal with mental illness early when it’s easier to treat, Smith said. She used that lesson to help herself while facing depression on and off through adulthood, and she stresses the importance of talking about these problems with her two daughters that have their own mental health struggles.
“I’ve always felt like it’s my legacy to teach my kids the lessons I’ve learned that were bad and good,” Smith said. “If I didn’t talk about it, then it was just going to lead to another bad era.”
No more memories
Jill Lund said she knew something was wrong Nov. 3, 2009, when she hadn’t heard from her 23-year-old son Derrick Yates. She came home and heard the dog barking in his room above the garage, and he didn’t answer her phone calls.
Lund sent her husband and son to make sure Derrick was alright. Instead, they found him dead by suicide just a month before he would have graduated from North Dakota State University with a criminal justice degree.
For Lund, the hardest part is knowing the unusual silence from Derrick’s room that night is something that will continue the rest of her life.
“People say, ‘Oh, but you have a lot of good memories,’ ” she said. “But I don’t have anymore. I won’t get to build anymore memories, and memories hurt. It’s hard because I loved him and he brought me a lot of joy.”
Lund said Derrick was a “character,” an outgoing young man who had many friends and was dedicated to whatever he set his mind to.
“What people really remember about him is he was always there for them,” she said.
Derrick was never diagnosed with mental illness. But Lund said he had difficulties sleeping for years despite trying several medications, and he suffered from a seasonal mood disorder that made him dread the winter months.
Still, he didn’t want to talk about it with friends and kept it a secret from most of the people in his life.
Lund said her son’s lack of sleep, mood disorder and the stress of making post-college plans seemingly added up to an “insurmountable” problem that caused his death.
She’s never blamed Derrick, and said she mourns for his loss, not the way that he died.
“It was a terrible moment in time, but it’s also actually just a lethal dose of life coming down on him and all the circumstances that led up to it,” she said.
Taking off the mask
Smith said her relatives and most of the residents of Larimore described her dad as a happy-go-lucky guy, the kind of person who would “give you the shirt off his back.”
“But behind closed doors, he was totally different,” she said. “That’s that mask that people put on.”
Smith said he turned to alcohol to battle his depression. But when he drank, he’d tell her about finding his own father dead from a self-inflicted gunshot at the age of 7, something he never recovered fully recovered from.
“He was my dad and he loved me, and he was a very caring person,” she said. “But there was this bad side that I saw that others didn’t. I guess the first thing that comes to my mind is just a constant struggle with life.”
Smith said she spent years wearing that same mask trying to hide her suffering. But when she turned 40 five years ago, she realized she didn’t need to keep up the façade.
“I always talked to my oldest daughter about the importance of learning that early in life instead of waiting until you’re older, and not caring what other people think as long as you’re a good person,” she said. “We spend so much time worrying about other people, and it’s just so much easier in life just to be who you are.”
Goetz said she endured a different kind of grief with the loss of Cam than the death of her other brother, Brandon, who was killed in a car accident in 1997.
“You just have this strange feeling about it,” she said. “You don’t really understand how to wrap your mind around it, because it’s something that’s so foreign. The saddest thing is just knowing how much hurt he had.”
Cam was diagnosed with depression and was in the early phases of figuring out treatment. Goetz believes he may have been battling bipolar disorder.
“We don’t know exactly,” she said. “But when he took his life, it was not Cam taking his life; it was his illness.”
He was afraid of the stigma, and he refused to talk about it with his friends. Goetz said it’s important to recognize that anyone could face mental illness – about one in four Americans will develop a mental health condition in their lifetime.
“If you have a brain, you are at risk for mental illness, just like having a heart, you’re at risk for heart disease and having lungs puts you at risk for lung cancer,” she said.
Goetz said it’s hard to get over the stigma, and she still sometimes struggles to understand the “intangible” mental illnesses that aren’t as obvious as the blood sugar levels of a diabetic or the tumor of someone battling cancer.
She’s made it a mission to talk openly about what mental illness has taken from her in the hopes of avoiding more tragedies like the death of Cam.
“Some people I think like to hear that people can come out on the other end happy, healthy and have hope and move forward and know that, yeah, of course there’s days when you’re grieving or when it hurts,” she said. “But there are more days that are better, that’s for sure. And there are many, many more days that are hopeful as you move forward.”