By: Barbie Collins Young
It’s been 3 years since I lost my dearest friend, Kate, on September 10th. September 10th, ironically, is suicide awareness day, and it was a day that completely turned lives upside down, yet guided me to a deep-seated passion to do the work in mental health that I do now. It’s hard to imagine losing a loved one to suicide, and even tougher to journey through the reality that it happens.
We were standing in the kitchen at Kate’s daughter’s 13th birthday party. She was struggling, and I asked her quietly “Are you Okay?” Kate turned and looked deeply into my eyes “No, I’m not. I am just not long for this world.” A feeling of sadness and lack of knowing how to help came over me, and I simply hugged her as tears rolled down our faces. I didn’t know where to turn for help or where she could turn for help. She was endearingly known as “Mommy Kate” to my son, and I was “Mommy Barbie” to her daughter. Our kids were the same age and we had gone through our pregnancies, divorces and tough times together, and we shared a bond with co-parenting our children as single mothers. She had more than once picked me up off the floor to ease my own struggles. It was hard to believe that less than a month after that birthday party, she would be gone. She started to withdraw, shut down, and quit responding to my invitations and phone calls. I knew things were getting bad. She had a partner who was also experiencing these same tough times, and they wrapped themselves up in the emotional pain and shut out the rest of the world. I saw the signs but didn’t see a solution and didn’t know the words to say. She was so loved, so talented, so bright and had the ability to provoke joy in all she encountered. But, what was happening inside her head that stopped her from acknowledging the beauty of her own life?
September 10th, she wrote a note to her daughter telling her how proud she was of the woman she was becoming. She wrote a note to her partner, Danny, apologizing for not being truthful about where she was going or what she was doing. Then she drove to Deception Pass. They found her car parked along side a road, and her body at the bottom of a cliff. I got the call from her ex-husband the next day at my tennis lessons with another dear friend. I fell onto the floor and sobbed with emotions I had never felt before. My friend and I sobbed together, shaking and letting it soak in. I was filled with disbelief, compassion for her daughter, fear, and anger at myself for not being able to help her. I drove to her daughter and sat and hugged and cried with her as tears flowed for hours. She believed it was an accident, that she fell. Maybe it was? But, maybe it wasn’t?
The most painful and uncomfortable talk I have ever had with my children was telling them the truth. Without the truth, they couldn’t heal. We had discussed how to present this information, going over the notes, going over the situation, determining if there was any chance it could have been an accident. We read through the glaring obviousness of the notes she had left. We talked with professionals about the necessity of being honest with them. We sat around the dinner table with Kate’s ex-husband, my fiancé and the two kids. Then I said it “Your mom wasn’t planning on coming home from her trip. She wrote a note.” A thick silence fell over everyone and her daughter sank down in her chair onto the floor, got up and did some yoga on the floor, and then got back into her chair. “Ok, I understand” she said.
I would like to say that the journey ended here, but it didn’t. I turned my compassion towards Kate’s boyfriend who was struggling with PTSD and not doing well with Kate’s death. He talked openly about not wanting to go on, and we had long conversations for hours about it. He promised me that he would get help and wouldn’t end in the same way. He felt he couldn’t afford to see a therapist, so we offered to pay for it, but there were long waiting lists. I researched and found NAMI Eastside, which offered support that he desperately needed. He finally found a support group that he wanted to attend, but sadly didn’t make it. I had invited him to our family Thanksgiving, where he was to bring ice. His chair sat empty, and we had no ice. When we got home that night, there were storage boxes with all of Kate’s belongings stacked up on our porch with a note “I’m so sorry, I just can’t do it.” He was found dead in his apartment having taken his own life a while later. He had two small kids of his own. There was already so much pain; now it was a hurricane of pain and grief. The effect of losing someone to suicide is like throwing a stone in the water and watching the ripple effect touch everything and everyone with intense pain. All their friends and loved ones were hurting and feeling intense unknown emotions, and I wondered how people were managing to cope with the pain. How would I cope, because I couldn’t escape my own anguish? I was a literal mess, and life felt too fragile.
It was that moment that I vowed that I would do something to protect these children and all of our youth and educate myself to be able to do so. It enabled me to turn my grief into something productive most of the time, while still crying myself to sleep at night. I got certified in youth mental health first aid, became a trainer for it, went back to school for Psychology and Sociology, became a founding member of the Balance in Mind team for Lake Washington School Foundation, and used my emotions as fuel to make a difference. I discovered NAMI Eastside and am proud to be working hard as their Executive Director to ensure that other families and children can avoid this sense of loss and grief.
It’s been three years now, and I still have moments where I sob, where my emotions feel too strong to manage, and I feel incredible fear. I have walked in the darkness of anxiety and depression, and I have huge compassion for those who are in that place now, but know there is hope. Kate’s daughter is now 16, and a part of our family. She still has her dad and has found female mentors to support her. She knows that she is loved, and we will always be there for her. She is probably one of the compassionate, resilient individuals I know, and she seems to be okay for now. My son is more stoic, but also sensitive and has been a great friend to her. We all talk openly about mental health in our household. I encourage you to do the same. Please put mental health as a priority above all else. It is because of the supporters that NAMI Eastside has that has allowed us to expand during a time when mental health services are needed so badly. Thank you to everyone who has worked together to create a safety net of support and education to balance out the increase in needs.
About the Author
Barbie Collins Young is the Executive Director at NAMI Eastside. She is a trainer for Youth Mental Health First Aid and serves as a Trustee on the Lake Washington School Foundation. She is a founding member of Balance in Mind, powered by the LWSF, working with students and parents on mental health support.
The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of NAMI Eastside. NAMI Eastside will not be held liable for false, inaccurate, inappropriate or incomplete information. The content should be used for general information purposes only.