It is truly our desire to spare other families from bearing the hardships and pain that our family has endured since Ben’s suicide. While we can’t change the outcome of Ben’s decision, we feel strongly, that by sharing our story, it will open the ears and eyes of others. And if by speaking on this tough topic of suicide we can educate others, bring awareness, offer support, and reduce the stigma; then we’ve accomplished much. We also believe our efforts may be the saving grace some are seeking – maybe even someone you know and love.
“One Year Later”
On November 11, 2014, our family was blindsided by the death of our 27-year-old son/brother/grandson/nephew/cousin/friend, Benjamin, who took his life by suicide. Suicide happens to others, or so we thought. We found ourselves in a place, we never dreamed of being. We realize now more than ever, that if our close knit loving family can be touched by this devastation, no one is immune to suicide.
As we muddled forth in the days following Ben’s suicide struggling with our grief, we questioned where to turn. We wondered who would understand these circumstances and have answers to our many questions. As we searched the Web for ideas, we found support on The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) website. AFSP is a leading not-for-profit organization exclusively dedicated to preventing suicide. We found a Survivors of Support (SOS) group held at Journeys Mental Health Facility in Madison, WI. We attended our first meeting just four weeks after Ben’s suicide and bimonthly thereafter. While these meetings were truly our Saving Grace, the 3-hour commute and two hour meetings took a toll. We longed for support in our area. It was then Terry and I found another link on the AFSP website that seemed to be the answer to our prayers. We found a kit on Facilitating a Suicide Bereavement Support Group. After reviewing this booklet and video and trusting in God, we held our first SOS meeting in Platteville March 10, 2015 with 25 people in attendance. The attendance validated a need for this type of support in our community. Since then, we have held meetings the second Tue of each month at the MCB Motor Branch from 7-9 PM – free of charge. Participants are invited to share their stories or just come and listen. Newcomers are provided with a folder containing relevant information for survivors of suicide. We also provide name tags, tissues, bottled water and mints – life savers – because we feel these meetings are just that – life saving. We also have a variety of relevant books we purchased that we loan out to interested participants to provide resources that may assist them on their journey, as they have helped us.
In addition to the SOS meetings, we have reached out to our community sharing our story. It is our intent to reduce the stigma associated with suicide and promote awareness and offer support. Our efforts have been well received. We have been guest speakers at the Optimist and Kiwanis Clubs and will be speaking with the Rotary Club November 17, 2015. We completed interviews with representatives from Queen B Radio, the Platteville Journal, the Telegraph Herald, and the University of WI Exponent with write-ups placed in the respective papers. On National Suicide Awareness Day, September 10, 2015, we accepted an invitation from Pam Brookens of SW Behavioral Services to speak at SWHC. Our presentation was interactive with the attendees. We answered delicate questions, including those of emergency personnel inquiring on what to say to families following a suicide loss. We also provided BENS HOPE brochures, which these individuals can offer families who find themselves in this unfortunate position. Our efforts are to reassure survivors left behind, they are not alone.
Meghan Skemp was introduced to us four weeks after Ben’s death through Jenny Opgenorth, Terry’s sister. Meghan has been instrumental since meeting us and has introduced us to a number of people who have helped us along our journey. Among them, Barb and Justin, our acquaintances from the Center of Suicide Awareness in Kaukauna, WI who encouraged us to hold a suicide awareness walk. Initially questioning whether or not this would be something we had the strength to accomplish, God placed the right people in our paths validating that this walk should become a reality. We decided to host the first annual BENS HOPE SUICIDE AWARENESS 5K run/2mile walk on September 26, 2015. It was our hope to have 50 people participate for this event. Imagine our surprise when we learned that we had approximately 250 people pre-register for the event and over 100 more who signed up the day of the event. We were overwhelmed by the tremendous outcome which obviously exceeded our expectations. The BENS HOPE event was held as a tribute to Benjamin but also to recognize the many other families and friends who have lost loved ones to suicide.
The event would not have been possible without some key players who made this happen, including: Biddick’s, Inc. of Livingston, WI coworker/friend Ashley Riniker and her husband Jake for their donations; Mike Markivee, Ben’s former coworker and buddy now living in Missouri who created the bens-hope.com website; coworker/friend Barb Winkler who created the beautiful logo for BENS HOPE; our dear friend Meghan Callahan from Oshkosh, a graphic designer who offered her tremendous talent and services to create templates for posters, registration forms, brochures, thank you cards, thinking of you cards and business cards; Scott Morrissey from Morrissey Printing graciously assisted with printing items we needed as well as the support we received from friends, family and our community. The event to us, validates the need for this type of support in the community.
Terry and I traveled to Kaukauna Sat, Sept 12, to participate and support their sixth Annual Suicide Awareness 5K walk with hundreds of others. We were excited to see Barb and to meet Justin, who has helped tremendously with BENS HOPE efforts. Participating in this event was eye opening. It was incredible to see the number of people touched by suicide.
On October 3, 2015, Ben’s grandma-Ann Weigel, Terry and I traveled to an RTI Ceremony in Marshfield WI, hosted at the Marshfield Hotel/Conference Center. RTI Donor Services is a not-for-profit, American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB)- accredited tissue recovery network dedicated to serving donor families and the donation community in perpetuating the circle of life. They help enhance the lives of others by working with organ and tissue agencies to provide the gift of donation. My sister/also Ben’s godmother, Pam Greenhalgh and her husband Bruce joined us for this event to honor Benjamin. It was amazing to see the number of people who have lost loved ones. We provided a quilt square to the Eye Bank that Gram made in Ben’s memory. These squares will be sewn together and the completed quilt will be displayed so others can see who some of these donors are. Candles were lit, memories shared and tears shed. It is so moving to hear how even in tragedy and loss, people desire goodness for others by graciously donating. Becoming a tissue donor as Benjamin and many others have graciously done, will impact the lives of hundreds of others and in some instances be life saving. This experience was yet another time for us to reflect on the kind and giving person Benjamin was, not only in his life, but in his death through his generous donations.
Terry and I previously met with Deirdre Dalsing and her department from the UWP Counseling Services Department and offered to assist them any way possible to educate on suicide awareness, reduce the stigma associated, ensure others they are not alone and offer them support. On October 5, 2015, Adam Artz and Teresa Millerwere invited us to an open forum at the Nohr gallery/UWP Ullsvik Center, to speak on this National Day without Stigma. We had approximately sixty people in attendance. To us, this again validates the interest and need for this topic of conversation.
On October 9, 2015, Terry and I met with Adam Artz at Russell Hall in their studio as requested and were interviewed in an effort to prepare a Suicide Awareness video. It is the intent that this video will be placed on the UWP website to share our story. We want others to know that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary situation and that there is support available. We want others to know they are not alone. It is our hope that we can save others from living the devastation and aftermath of a loved one who completes suicide.
On Wednesday, October 28th, Terry and I received an invitation from Marketing Manager, Cindy Sergent of the Madison, WI Lions Eye Bank, to speak in Stephens Point at a Coroner/Medical Examiner Conference. While initially we contemplated bypassing this offer, we were guided by God, through my daily devotion, that we need to offer support in our community, but also by reaching out to others, so we accepted the invite for this speaking engagement. We shared with the participants that we appreciate their profession, but cannot imagine being in their line of work and the traumatic news they must deliver to families. The only thing we can imagine that would be more difficult than providing this news, is being the family on the other end receiving this news…and that’s where we come in. I shared an analogy of how it must be hard not to take on the emotions in this line of work. I compared it to working in banking and how money to a teller was like monopoly money. I then went on to commend Tim Candahl the LaCrosse Medical Examiner who was in charge the night of Ben’s suicide, and his team for the compassion shown that terrible evening. He was amazing! Kind, considerate and compassionate. It meant and still means so much to us. We are grateful Tim was in attendance and we were able to give him accolades for his efforts.
Tonight, November 10, 2015, the eve of Ben’s suicide, we will host our ninth SOS meeting. We continue to work hard on a daily basis to recover from our tragic loss. We knew since the night of Ben’s suicide, that it was our intent to find goodness in this tragedy and we’ve made that our mission. In the days ahead, we hope to continue sharing our story, reduce the stigma associated with suicide, offer support and plant seeds of hope. What better way to pay tribute to our loving son/brother/grandson/nephew/cousin/friend Benjamin, who will remain in our hearts forever.