Local families share stories, hope for healing during National Suicide Prevention Week

  • Tammy Grenier holds a photo of her daughter Sheena Burgess while sitting on Burgess' memorial bench at Grenier's Peterborough home. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Tammy Grenier holds a photo of her daughter Sheena Burgess while sitting on Burgess' memorial bench at Grenier's Peterborough home. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Tammy Grenier holds a photo of her daughter Sheena Burgess while sitting on Burgess' memorial bench at Grenier's Peterborough home. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Tammy Grenier holds a photo of her daughter Sheena Burgess while sitting on Burgess' memorial bench at Grenier's Peterborough home. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Sadie Halliday with husband Bradley Jackson and their two daughters, Lucy and Sarah. Courtesy photo—

  • Bradley Jackson with his daughter Lucy. Courtesy photo—

  • Sadie Halliday and her children at their home earlier this year. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/7/2020 5:45:56 PM

Tammy Grenier keeps her daughter Sheena Burgess close in her memory.

Even though it’s been six years since she died by suicide, Grenier’s artistic and creative little girl is always a presence. There’s the memory bench in the yard of the family’s Peterborough home that includes the quote “Together as one, we’ll always be” from a poem Burgess wrote about the family. There are countless pictures, her journal writings and poems and what Grenier calls her “Sheena CD,” filled with songs that meant something to both of them, along with what she described as the best smile in the world and an infectious laugh.

Never in her darkest nightmares did Grenier think her daughter would take her own life, she said. There were mental health struggles dating back to her pre-teen years, but there were also happy times along the way.

Then there were the six months before Burgess died when Grenier was very afraid for her daughter’s safety.

Burgess developed anxiety and depression as a pre-teen. The first indication something was wrong came in the form of an eating disorder. Early on the family found ways to mange, using therapy and medication to help Burgess navigate the way she was feeling.

“We wanted to get her talking about it more,” Grenier said. “And that helped.”

Burgess was successful in her studies and dancing growing up, and was really feeling better during high school, Grenier said. But right before heading off to college at Keene State, Burgess stopped taking her medication and going to therapy. Midway through her sophomore year, “she started really struggling again,” Grenier said. She took a semester off and then made the Dean’s List each year once she resumed her education. But the struggles were always there.

“It was just an ongoing battle and got more difficult instead of easier,” Grenier said. “And when someone is battling mental illness they have to try and accept that’s going to happen.”

The things that typically bring joy, like landing the perfect job, just didn’t for Burgess, her mother said.

Just two days before she passed at the age of 27, Burgess went to the emergency room at Exeter Hospital. What Grenier learned after her daughter’s death was that she was evaluated, sent home and told to call her doctor, even though she answered “yes” to the question that she had considered suicide in the past.

“She never should have just been sent home,” Grenier said. “It’s really difficult to find help.”

When the police knocked on Grenier’s door, she thought maybe her son had gotten into some trouble. Never did she think it was going to be about her daughter.

“Somehow you just never think it’s going to happen. No matter what, it’s unexpected,” Grenier said. “But one piece of advice is don’t ever think it’s not going to happen or can’t happen.”

Grenier found some of her daughter’s journals after she died “and the struggle was more than I ever realized,” she said. There were writings about suicide.

“She felt a lot of pain and just extreme sadness. She didn’t like herself very much. She had so much, but she couldn’t see it,” Grenier said.

Grenier said she would like to see people to normalize the topic of suicide. There needs to be a way to talk about it more, she said, which she hopes will lead to more avenues for helping people with self-harming thoughts.

Awareness of the issue

One endeavor that helps shine a light on the issue is World Suicide Prevention Day, held every Sept. 10. On Thursday, The Samaritans, based in Keene, will host its fifth annual candelight vigil at 7 p.m. in Central Square in Keene. Carmen Trafton, executive director of the Samaritans, said the vigil is to honor those that have been lost to suicide, those who’ve lost a friend or loved one to suicide, and those who struggle.

“We do it this way because we feel as though the prevention and support for people who have lost someone to suicide are equally important,” Trafton said.

Trafton said that the goal is always to prevent people from getting to the point where suicide is an option, but for those left behind the grief and what-ifs are something that need to be a focus.

“It’s so hard to survive the loss of someone to suicide,” Trafton said.

She said it’s so important to end the stigma around mental illness and suicide and this is The Samaritans way of bringing it to the forefront, instead of allowing it to remain in the background as a dark secret.

“Thankfully we’ve come a long way,” Trafton said. “And the more we talk about it, the more we can help.”

Participants will be given candles, there will be speakers sharing stories about how suicide has impacted their lives and people are invited to bring pictures of loved ones. For those who don’t feel comfortable attending, The Samaritans will broadcast the vigil on Facebook Live.

Loss of a husband/father

Sadie Halliday remembers Feb. 17, 2011 like it was yesterday. Every single little detail from that day are permanently etched in her mind. It was the day that changed her path in life forever, the day her husband Bradley Jackson took his own life.

For the previous few months, Halliday was worried about her husband.

“I was scared for his safety. Things he was saying and doing that were very unlike him,” she said. “In so many ways, it wasn’t like him.”

Jackson had sought help, going to talk with a counselor and a period of hospitalization.

“Even though he was struggling, he was taking steps,” Halliday said.

Despite everything that was going on, Halliday never envisioned her husband would get to a point where suicide was the only choice that remained.

“I never thought he actually would. That it was a real option for him,” she said. “I just never thought in a million years he would.”

Whenever someone dies by suicide, there are so many questions that will go unanswered. It’s the people left behind that have to live with the scars created by that final decision.

“The what-ifs are what are never ending,” Halliday said. “Anytime anyone dies by suicide, you always want to come up with a reason and survivors, from my experience, really beat themselves up.”

But it was a conversation with a police officer following Jackson’s death that put things into perspective.

“He said you’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to figure it out,” Halliday said. “But there are no clear cut answers. You’re not going to find one. And I think it’s something you can never fully get your head around.”

Early on it was tough because “it feels like time stands still for you, but the world around you moves forward,” she said. “And people don’t know what to say or do.”

It took many years before Halliday started to feel like herself again, even though she’ll never be the same person she was before her husband’s death.

“You become a different version of yourself,” she said.

When Jackson died, the couple’s two daughters, Lucy and Sarah, were just 4 and 1.

“Hands down, the most difficult part has been trying to explain it to my kids,” Halliday said.

They were 8 and 4 years old when Halliday finally decided to tell them what actually happened to their dad. It was at that moment when Sarah said “Wouldn’t it have been easier if he died in a car accident? At least there would be some closure.”

There have been countless conversations since then and hard questions to answer, like did he not love me enough to live, Halliday said. It doesn’t come up as part of every day life, but more around milestones, birthdays and school events where other dads are a part of it.

“The information they want to know changes,” Halliday said.

Since neither Lucy or Sarah really remember their dad, Halliday reached out to family and friends to write stories about Jackson and she put them all together in a scrapbook.

“All the things they wouldn’t know otherwise,” Halliday said. “They never got the chance to know him.”

And it was family and friends that helped Halliday deal with Jackson’s death.

“What got me through is my kids and my friends and my family that continued to show up and love us,” Halliday said.

She remembers that first Easter, a little more than two months after her husband’s suicide, when she hadn’t even thought about Easter baskets for her girls. Then someone showed up with one for each.

“The number of people that did things like that for me, I’ll be eternally grateful,” she said.

Getting help

The Samaritans have two crisis hotlines, one locally (603) 357-5505 and another statewide (1-800-273-TALK). Before COVID-19, Trafton said she had 50 active volunteers available to answer the phones, each of whom had completed the required 26 hours of training. But since March, the hotlines have been under the direction of Lifeline, based in West Lebanon, due to The Samaritans offices closing down during the pandemic. 

“People need to share with someone what’s going on who doesn’t know them or won’t judge them,” Trafton said. “And a lot of what we do is just really listen because it’s not the end of the world. I know it feels like it, but it’s not.”

Gary Barnes, executive director of Maps Counseling Services with offices in Peterborough and Keene, said most of the time, suicide is not something that happens overnight. There are often warning signs and the most important thing is for those around someone to speak up if they notice something just isn’t right with a loved one.

“Just be point blank and say you’re worried. It may be that little opening they’ve been looking for,” Barnes said. “It’s better to act and be wrong than not act at all.”

Warning signs include, Barnes said, sharing feelings of being overwhelmed, trapped, hopeless or being a burden, withdrawing from social situations or stopping activities they enjoy, or increased substance abuse or anger.

“If you get a sense someone is suicidal, pay attention,” Barnes said.

One of the main issues is that suicide has been a taboo topic.

“Public education is critical to desensitize people to the fact suicide is a very real problem,” Barnes said. And getting help is paramount to preventing someone from taking their own life.

“A huge amount of people with mental health issues don’t get help,” he said. But when an individual expresses thoughts about harming themselves, Barnes said the first thing you do is show them that you care.

“And that their life is important to you,” Barnes said. “Because people who are suicidal feel unwanted, unloved. But you want to help people understand they’re not alone in this.”

People who are suicidal are often focused on the moment they’re in, Barnes said, and can’t see the bigger picture, that what they’re going through will pass.

While Maps is not a crisis center, Barnes said he doesn’t know of any therapists who haven’t been affected by suicide, including himself.

“You go through a lot of guilt, you do a lot of soul searching,” Barnes said. “And it’s really critical for health care providers to take a look at how they take care of each other emotionally.”

For those who have made a suicide attempt in the past, Barnes said they are at a greater risk of doing it again.

“That’s a person I take much more seriously,” he said.

“Most of us can deal with pain if we know there’s an end,” Barnes said. “Those things you’re struggling with will pass.”

Barnes said he recently saw a survey conducted by the CDC that reported since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic one in four young adults have seriously considered suicide and 11 percent of adults. And the risk for feeling suicidal in health care workers has him very concerned.

When Barnes was in boarding school, a friend of his made a comment that was concerning. He decided to say something to the dorm master and his friend got the help he needed. A note from the boy’s mother told Barnes that he saved her son’s life.

“It was that experience that prompted me to become a psychologist,” he said.

The problem with identifying someone who is considering suicide, Barnes said, is that it can often be the person who appears to have everything going for them.

“It’s not always the person who is lonely or bullied,” he said. “It literally could be anybody. You can’t predict who will be overwhelmed by those feelings.”

Support

Trafton said they have continued their weekly Monday support group for survivors through Zoom and will eventually get back to meeting in-person when it’s safe to do so.

A Safe Place Support Group, run by The Samaritans, is confidential and open only to survivors. For times and the Zoom link, email Trafton at director@samaritansnh.org or call (603) 357-5505.

Grenier went to the group and found it comforting to share and grieve with others who also lost a loved one to suicide. But even to this day, Grenier never knows when the grief will hit. Some days are harder than others, but she always tries to remember something.

“I’m so grateful for the time we had together,” she said. “And I wouldn’t trade the pain for not having her at all.”

Further resources

The Grapevine – https://grapevinenh.org/suicide-response-and-prevention/

The Samaritans hotline – (603) 357-5505

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Parenting Stress Hotline – 1-800-632-8188

Crisis Text Line – Text 741741 from anywhere in the US

NAMI New Hampshire – www.naminh.org

The River Center – https://rivercenter.us/help-in-a-hurry/




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