January 16, 2019
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Mary's Story: Claiming the Right to Live Her Life
- Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D .

Since many suicidal people do not seek help, the prevention of their deaths is difficult. But since not seeking help is a known symptom of suicidality, the task of prevention lies more with those persons in the sufferer’s existing social network than in the person contemplating suicide.
-Paul Quinnett, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO, QPR Institute

I interviewed Mary twenty years after her husband and son died in a small airplane crash. While the grief over the loss of her husband and first born child was nearly unbearable, the sense of hopelessness for her future caused her to want to end her own life. Mary's mother, family members, and friends wanted the old Mary back. Left with very little money, Mary was unable to support herself and two small children in the lifestyle her husband, a successful banker had established. With no emotional or psychological support from her inner circle, Mary believed that her two small children would be better off without her.

Mary put a plan in motion to die by her own hand. When the details were worked out, and she was ready to leave, she had a dream. Mary awakened from the dream with courage, unknown to her before. She then had the strength to start a new life for herself and her children—and started on her path. She had to move cross country to do this, but when I interviewed her, she spoke with pride about how she had educated herself, put her two children through college while working as a family counselor in private practice for years. Those who failed her, never knew how close she had come to ending her life in the first year after her husband and son died.

The Crash
Mary became a widow in her early thirties, left with two young children to raise. Her husband Bill, Sr. died along with her older son in a small plane crash. Bill and their teenaged son, Bill, Jr. were away from home on a ski trip with Bill Sr.’s best friend, a private pilot, and his son, near the same age. Both teens had never skied the Rocky Mountains before and being able to fly on a privately owned and operated aircraft, made the trip even more special.

A couple of days before they were supposed to return from the ski trip, Mary began to feel a sense of dread. She had an eerie feeling that Bill, Sr. and Bill, Jr. would not return from their trip. Even though she had talked on the phone with them daily, she could not shake her fears. On the day they were due home, when the doorbell rang, Mary knew why the two police officers were approaching her front door.

The aircraft crashed on takeoff in bad weather. All four of those on board died on impact. There was nothing Mary could do except bury her husband and son and try to figure out a way to go on living. If for no other reason—for the sake of the two young children left behind.

The Aftermath
The week after the funeral, the human resources manager at the local bank where Bill had worked, shared with her the details of her husband’s insurance and other benefits. There was life insurance that would allow her and the children to get by—for a while. It was enough to support them for 12-18 months, at the most. With a large mortgage payment, children in private schools and a lifestyle that went along with this, Mary had no idea how she would make it, financially.

Mary sought help from Bill’s cousin, a local real estate attorney. While this was hardly his field of expertise, he promised to look into any potential payout from the accident. He told her that it would probably take a few weeks—even months to figure out, but he would try to help. Within less than six months, Mary was devastated to learn that there would be no payout. The insurance was grossly inadequate, and the only way that Mary might receive money from the crash would be to file a lawsuit against the pilot's wife. Mary could not do that. The pilot's widow had lost her home within a short time after the accident and was struggling to make a life for herself and her children.

For Mary, it was difficult to know what was worse. The grief over the deaths of her husband and son seemed at times, impossible to bear—but her biggest problem pertained to finding enough money to raise her son and daughter. With no formal education and no way to command a large salary, her future looked hopeless.

Mary was a homemaker. She dropped out of college when she became pregnant with Bill, Jr. and because Bill Sr. had always been a great earner, she never imagined needing to work. But things were different now. At night after the children were in bed, Mary looked in the newspaper at job ads. Some jobs required no special skills or training, but the hourly wages were not even close to what she needed to earn to keep the house and support their lifestyle. 

Mary sought advice from the parish priest and a local social worker. The priest was supportive of her grieving process, but had no practical advice. The social worker asked her to think about what she wanted to do with her life as a single parent. She knew in the back of her mind that she would like to become a counselor, but she was afraid to respond truthfully. She knew she would have to enroll in college and attend classes. She could not see a way to make that work. Starting over and building an entirely new life did not seem feasible. She did not know how to do that. There was such a disconnect between her life before, when Bill, Sr. was alive, and her life now, without his support and income. The despair continued to grow.

Months went by, and money continued to dwindle. Mary knew that she was on a downward spiral. The state of helplessness and hopelessness was worse than she ever could have imagined. Her mother accused her of feeling sorry for herself. The dark circles under Mary's eyes and the weight loss were hard to ignore. It did not help when her mother would tell her that she needed to pay attention to her looks. She would remind Mary of the importance of her appearance.  It was necessary to "look good" to attract another husband who could support her and her children in the style that they were accustomed.

Mary decided to come clean with her mother about her deep-down desire to attend college and pursue a counseling career. Her mother let her disapproval show. “You do need to get a job and go to work, but you can’t go to college at your age and pursue such lofty goals. And besides, who would look after the children? They must be your priority." 

Mary found no better support in her sister and friends who made up her previous social circle before her husband died. Her sister was busy with career and her family and never had time for Mary. And one-by-one, each of the couples she and Bill once socialized with, left her out of dinner parties and family outings. Mary understood that she was no longer part of a couple, but it left her genuinely alone. Mary's depression and sense of isolation grew.
Suicide prevention is not so much the stopping of a self-inflicted death as it is the restoration of hope in the hopeless before the fatal planning begins.

-Paul Quinnett, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO, QPR Institute

The Plan
With no one to support her in the life fate had handed her; Mary began to plan her suicide. She received advice from a public legal aid counselor about how to set up a will and make arrangements for her children, should she die while they were still minors. She set up a document that would protect her children from her mother, after her suicide. Bill Sr.'s parents who lived in a nearby state would have custody over her young children. She knew that Bill's parents would take care of them. While they had not offered her financial assistance up until now, once she was out of the picture, she trusted they would come through for their only son’s two living children.

Mary planned to end her life on the anniversary weekend of her husband and son’s deaths. She made arrangements for her son and daughter to attend a church-sponsored overnight event that weekend—thus the corresponding date. She had asked a neighbor to let a maintenance worker into her home at a particular time. Her neighbor would find her on the floor in the kitchen, and no doubt call first responders. She set the times up so that there would be no way the children would come in and find her first. She would carefully place her will and the paperwork on the dining room table in full view—labeled "Open upon my death." 

With no support for creating a new life in a chosen career field where she could support herself and her children, Mary’s dying, seemed to be the best solution for all of them. Mary would slit her wrist and quietly slip away on the kitchen floor, all alone in the beautiful home she was about to lose. She had just missed the first mortgage payment.

The Dream
The day before Mary was to execute her plan, much to her disappointment, she was hospitalized for clinical depression. Unbeknown to Mary, her mother had called her doctor, and asked that she be evaluated. She knew that her daughter’s weight loss and personality change had reached an alarming level. When the doctor saw her, he immediately admitted her to the local hospital.

In the early hours the morning after her hospitalization, Bill, Jr. came to her in a dream. He told her that he knew what she was planning and that she must change her mind. He reminded her that no matter how much she tried to put a plan in place, she would be abandoning her dependent children. “Somehow, Grandmother will control their lives the way she has yours. You can’t do that to them.” Bill Jr. also told her that he and his father were fine. “You are in charge now, and you have sufficient strength to carry on, and you must do it."

New Life
Mary awakened after the dream and to everyone’s surprise, ate a hearty breakfast. When her mother and sister came into the room, they commented on how the color had returned to her face. After the psychological evaluation and the anti-depressants prescribed, Mary was discharged.  

Mary went home and put a new plan in place. Without discussion or waiting for anyone’s approval, Mary called a realtor and listed her house for a price guaranteed for a fast sale. It no longer mattered that selling now would cause her to lose too much of the equity. Mary would no longer remain frozen because of others’ advice, no matter how well intended.
She then called an estate sales company. Within twenty-four hours, her home and all of its contents were up for sale. While all could see the for-sale sign in front of her home, she was able to ignore the criticism the sign immediately generated. Bill Jr. had left a firm imprint on her mind, more powerful than those who had failed to support her when they might have.

What others did not know was that behind the scene, everything she owned was being sold, other than hers and the children's clothing, her car, and a few household items needed for a small apartment. Mary was raising as much money as possible to support her new life—one that she could afford.

Within one-month, Mary moved cross-country into a small apartment and enrolled her children in a public school. She found a job that could support her and the children while she attended junior college and began to work toward her dream as a family counselor. Her children were able to see their grandmother and other family members during summer visits--but when they returned home, their lives went on according to their mother’s plan.   

If this social network is even minimally trained to recognize and respond to teachable suicide signs, and the symptoms of an emerging life-threatening crisis, lives can be saved through a simple, timely intervention.
-Paul Quinnett, Ph.D.
Founder & CEO, QPR Institute

Mary’s family recognized the physical signs indicating that she was at a crisis point, and reached out to a physician and saved her life. However, had the family not become more educated, Mary believes she would have gone home and continued her original plan. The environment they created around her, even after hospitalization, was absent of the emotional and psychological support, sorely needed.

Most survivors of traumatic loss, like Mary, wish they could go back to life as it was before the tragic loss. Mary did not want to raise her children miles away from their grandmother, and other relatives, but they gave her no choice. When those in her personal life, refused to understand her need to embrace the losses and discover a way to live her new life, she was left in a hopeless situation. To find the will to live, Mary had to follow her own dream, bolstered by the literal dream and advice of her deceased son.

In the interview, 20 years post-crash, the pride in her voice, made it clear that she had no regrets. Once she regained her power and started on her own path, Mary never had thoughts of suicide again. How the dream of her son came about is open to discussion. But it did happen, and it saved her life. 
If you are interested in learning more about how to become a Gatekeeper and becoming part of a more extensive network that is dedicated to suicide prevention, see  www.qprinstitute.com . To learn more about the training classes offered by the Family Assistance Foundation, and for information about upcoming Gatekeeper classes and how you can become a trainer within your workplace go to  fafonline.org . You can also contact Cheri Johnson at  [email protected] .

Upcoming Gatekeeper Trainings

Hong Kong Gatekeeper Training
January 22, 2019

Burbank Gatekeeper Training
April 3, 2019

Burbank Train-the-Trainer
April 3, 2019

Atlanta Gatekeeper Training
Dates to be determined, Fall 2019

Atlanta Train-the-Trainer Training
Dates to be determined, Fall 2019

QPR Gatekeeper and Train-the-Trainer Training will be offered at additional locations when additional dates for Foundation Member-Partner Meetings are announced for 2019.

QPR stands for Question, Persuade and Refer and is a research-based intervention that anyone can learn. The Foundation works with the QPR Institute to customize this successful intervention for cruise lines, aviation companies, human resources professionals and other workplace groups. Please contact  [email protected]  at the Foundation if you would like to know more about how you can learn to be a QPR Gatekeeper in your organization. You can also learn how you can become a certified trainer of the QPR Gatekeeper model. Contact the Foundation to discuss your interests.

© 2018 QPR Institute Inc./Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation