Franklin James Cook

Archive for the ‘Grief’ Category

Catholic “Day for Life” in U.K. Will Focus on Suicide

In Grief, Prevention, Stigma on July 9, 2009 at 7:40 am

UPDATE 07/10/2009: A London Telegraph story today features an interview with the Rt Rev Bernard Longley, who explains that “church teaching on suicide had not changed but its understanding of mental health had altered.”

“Suicide is a grave sin, but an individual must be mentally healthy to be fully aware that what they are doing is a sin. When a person commits suicide, they are generally so clouded by confusion and despair as to be no longer in full control of their mental faculties. God does not condemn anyone not fully aware of what they are doing: His mercy is without end.”

Bishop Longley said the families and friends of people who committed suicide suffered “acutely” and suicide should never be romanticised or encouraged.

But he said attempting suicide was “typically” the act of a desperate person and it should be greeted with compassion rather than with blame.

Original Post 07/09/2009: The Bishops’ Conferences of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Scotland, England  and Wales are working together this year during the annual “Day for Life” observance to take an in-depth look at the church’s point of view about suicide. According to a press release,

Day for Life — the day in the Church’s year dedicated to celebrating the dignity of life from conception to natural death — will this year focus on the theme of suicide. The main emphasis of Day for Life in 2009 will be on the pastoral dimensions of this difficult and sensitive subject.
It will highlight why the Church believes that every life is worth living and look at the reasons why people contemplate suicide, including acute mental illness and the possible spiritual factors involved. It will also point towards the support that the professional services can bring and hopefully help to reduce the stigma too often associated with mental illness and depression.

The online coverage of the topic includes  a blog section featuring posts from “people whose lives have been touched by suicide and mental illness.”

[Editor’s note: Does anyone know if a similar observance is happening (or has happened) in North America? Please comment below.]
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Canada’s Prime Minister Eulogizes MP Lost to Suicide

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on July 6, 2009 at 9:10 am

A momentous occasion unfolded on Saturday when a head of state spoke both insightfully and eloquently about depression and suicide. The occasion, sadly, was the funeral of Dave Batters, a Member of Parliament who died by suicide the end of June, and the speaker the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, who told Batters’ family and the other mourners gathered in Regina, Saskatchewan,

We need to know that mental illness like Dave’s is shockingly common in our society. It affects the great and the small alike despite the stigma that still too often surrounds it.

Other politicians have carried the same burden. In fact, perhaps the two greatest English-speaking politicians in history, Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, struggled with depression.

Harper also spoke of Batters with an emphasis on how he lived not just on how he died, a point many survivors of suicide suicide feel is missed by society as they grieve the loss of their loved ones.

This we know: in his struggle, Dave achieved a life worth living, a simple but profound truth, a goal we all aspire to, and he reached it. Dave’s family can take great pride in this.

For Dave made a significant contribution to the lives of others. Another great goal in life, and one he achieved so ably.

When he ran for public office, Dave did not do so for selfish reasons. He responded to the tragedy of another, the murder of his friend Michelle. He heard, and answered a call to service and he did so with conviction, distinction and success.

Depression didn’t stop that. It was his decency that drove him forward, that defined him in life, that will define him in death.

The Prime Minister also reached out to everyone who suffers from depression or who has been touched by suicide, declaring that “Dave is not alone” and recognizing the thousands of others who die by suicide every year.

The science has progressed, but we still don’t know enough about depression, and less about suicide.

But we know this much: depression can strike the sturdiest of souls. It cares not how much you have achieved nor how much you have to live for …

Unlike its myth, depression is not a function of character except that to fight it summons a strength of character, and a great strength of character like Dave’s to fight it as long as he did. Dave dealt with his illness head-on. That takes courage.

To Dave’s family, we mourn and share your loss. But so too do we share your pride in Dave’s life and in the greater good he served through elected office and through his public battle with depression from which we can all learn.

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Judge Overturns Verdict in Cyber-Harrassment Case

In Grief, Media, Prevention on July 5, 2009 at 8:59 am

Lori Drew — the Missouri woman who created an online hoax that triggered a series of events ending in the suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier — will be acquitted of the charges for which she was previously found guilty. The Los Angeles Times reports that

The decision by U.S. District Judge George H. Wu, which will not become final until he files a written ruling, was a blow to prosecutors who had hoped to send the message that cyber-bullying is a crime. Wu had repeatedly delayed sentencing to consider a defense motion to dismiss the entire case.

U.S. Atty. Thomas P. O’Brien, whose office prosecuted the woman, said after the decision was announced that the law needed to be strengthened. “We call it cyber-bullying and we don’t have a law to address it,” he said.

A Wired News article by John Abell summarizes the point of view of those who support the judge’s decision:

Drew could be ostracized, she can be sued for damages in a civil proceeding, she can become a pariah. I would not like to know her. I am not a lawyer, but for the state to deny her liberty for lying when she created an account on a social network would be excessive and chilling and imperil hundreds of thousands of people who, while doing the TOS [terms of service] version of jaywalking, set themselves up for selective prosecution if some chain of evidence or events can associate them to someone else’s tragedy …

Wu was correct to conclude that conviction would have made unelected legislators of the people who create the terms of service for any site, conditions almost nobody reads and which are chiefly aimed at indemnifying the owners for the behavior of their customers and only consequentially enabling nice sandbox play.

“It basically leaves it up to a website owner to determine what is a crime,” Wu said on Thursday. “And therefore it criminalizes what would be a breach of contract.”

MSNBC’s “Today Show” on Friday features an interview with Tina Meier:

“As Megan’s mom, I wanted to see her go to jail, because I think it needed to set a precedent. I think it needed to let people know: You get on the computer, you use it as a weapon to hurt, to harm, to harass people, this is not something that people can just walk away from.”

Still, Meier said, her daughter’s death focused attention on cyber-bullying and led to several state laws and a proposed federal law to address the growing problem. In that sense, she said, there is some justice for her tragedy.

“For me, because we’ve continued to be able to get the word out and hopefully share the story and hopefully make changes in households, making teens maybe think once or twice, absolutely I think there is justice in Megan’s name.”

For important background about children and bullying on the Internet, see the previous SPNAC post “Cyberlaws Are Coming into Play around Internet Safety,” which features an insightful discussion among experts on cybersafety for children, “Protecting Kids in the Digital Age,” a roundtable from the 2008 Tech Policy Summit.

Also see the related SPNAC post “Verdict Shows Parents, Internet Should Both Protect Kids.”

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2,000 Walkers Light the Way at Out of the Darkness Overnight

In Advocacy, Grief, Prevention on June 28, 2009 at 9:23 pm

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

As in years past, the 2009 AFSP Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk ended with the final few hundred yards of the walkers’ path being marked by rows of small lights in hand-decorated receptacles. Each of the 2,000 lights represents a loved one who has died by suicide or someone who survived an attempt or someone who struggles with the kind of pain that might cause suicide. SPNAC readers may view the video“‘Out of the Darkness’ Path Illuminated with Thousands of Lights”, which shows the lighted path from this morning’s walk (Sunday, June 28 in Chicago).

At the conclusion of the Walk, Bob Gebbia, AFSP Executive Director, announced that Overnight walkers in 2009 had thus far raised $1.2 million for suicide prevention research, training, and education.

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Additional videos about a few of my own reflections on the Overnight Walk are available at .

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I’ll Be at the Out of the Darkness Walk on Saturday in Chicago

In Advocacy, Announcements, Grief on June 26, 2009 at 6:41 am

I just wanted to let SPNAC readers know that I’ll be traveling to Chicago early tomorrow morning (Saturday, June 27) to participate as a Crew Member in AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk. This will be my fourth Out of the Darkness Walk (I walked in Washington, D.C., at the first Walk in 2002, then at the second walk in Chicago in 2005, then I started volunteering as a Crew Member in 2007 at the Walk in New York City). My community, the Black Hills of South Dakota is having its first AFSP Community Walk in October of this year (Rapid City, where I grew up, is in the central Black Hills, about 20 minutes from Mount Rushmore).

SPNAC readers may view a video sharing the stories of some of the people who took part in the walk last year in Seattle.

Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

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Links to Suicide Grief Stories: June 3, 2009

In Grief Stories Series on June 2, 2009 at 11:06 pm

[Editor’s note: “Links to Suicide Grief Stories …” is a SPNAC series featuring stories of survivors of suicide loss–about the effect their loved one’s suicide has had on them and how they are coping with their grief. FJC]

In “Glitterati help erase mental illness stigma,” Society Editor Frank Brown interviews Sam Bloom, a long-time suicide prevention advocate in California, who reflects on recipients of the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center’s “Erasing the Stigma” leadership award. Bloom and his wife, Lois, lost their son Sammy to suicide in 1982.

“Stigma prevents people from seeking help,” said Sam Bloom … “The way we reduce stigma is to make the public aware that mental illness is a brain disease much like cancer is a cellular disease or diabetes a disease of the blood.” (Palos Verdes Peninsula News)

In “One person can help prevent suicide, forum hears,” writer Julie Slack reports on a forum held in Peel, Ontario, Canada, where David Harris, a survivor of his son’s suicide in 2005, told the assembled crowd about CameronHelps, the teen suicide awareness organization he launched.

In an emotional presentation, Harris said he turned to friends who are there to guide him through his grief. He made a pact to run 19 consecutive Mississauga Marathons, one for each year of Cameron’s life. After last Sunday’s race, he has 14 more to go. Harris also decided to hold what he hopes will become an annual five-kilometre run/walk in Port Credit, as part of the Mississauga Waterfront Festival. Called “Find a Way,” the first run is slated for June 21. (The Missauga News)

In “Amid grief, love blossoms,” reporter Claire Martin recounts how an Aspen, Colo., couple were brought together by their grief over the deaths of family members. Art Daily’s wife and two children died in an accident in 1995, and upon hearing of the tragedy, Allison Snyder, who had lost her brother to suicide, sent a gift to Daily. The two corresponded, and …

After a courtship that swung between caution and impetuousness–what about their 25-year age difference, would Allison always dwell in the shadow of Art’s grief?–they married, roughly 15 months after the Glenwood Canyon accident.

Now, more than a dozen years later, Daily and Snyder have written a book, Out of the Canyon, which “is devoted to the singular story of how Art and Allison met” and includes “an afterword, ‘Grief Has No Rules,’ sharing their thoughts on mourning and on the best ways to comfort someone in the wake of a death.”  (The Denver Post)

In “Friends honor Seibert, raise awareness about teen suicide,” Gracie Bonds Staples reports on how a half a dozen of a young suicide victim’s friends launched The Seibert Foundation in his memory.

More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. For Kyle Murphy and six of Ben [Seibert]’s other friends, those statistics translate into human lives.

“Suicide is not inevitable, and the only thing you can do wrong is nothing,” Murphy said. “Everybody can do something to participate.” (Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

In “Parents reach out through their grief,” reporter Cathy Dyson covers the journey of Todd and Michelle Brown, whose daughter, Carol Anne, died by suicide in April.

Carol Anne’s obituary spoke of her many attributes–her smile and her ability to accept people for who they were. It hailed her as an accomplished equestrian, lacrosse player and actress, a young woman who accumulated 300 hours of community service with groups that help animals and handicapped children, and whose organs were donated after her death.

Then the obituary mentioned something not found in most death notices–that “Carol Anne suffered from the destructive illness of depression and bipolarism.” The Browns encouraged others to seek medical attention for loved ones who suffer from “this dreaded illness, especially teenagers during these most fragile years.”

Dyson’s report is accompanied by a video by Rebecca Sell, “Reaching out for Carol Anne,” in which the Browns talk about their daughter’s struggles in the last three years of her life. In the end, says Todd Brown,

“This can happen to any family, and we have to just be more diligent in looking for it.” (Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star)

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TAPS Reaches Out To Military Families Grieving after Suicide

In Grief on May 25, 2009 at 10:55 pm
Connie Scott displays a picture her son, Brian Williams, who died by suicide when he was 20 years old. (Sarah L. Voisin, The Washington Post)

Connie Scott displays a picture of her son, Brian Williams, who died by suicide when he was 20 years old. (Sarah L. Voisin, The Washington Post)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Never before has suicide by U.S. military personnel and veterans caught the nation’s attention as it has since the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Thankfully, the plight of the families left behind after a loss by suicide is also getting some much-needed attention, as was evidenced during the Memorial Day weekend at the National Military Survivor Seminar put on by TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. The seminar was covered for the Washington Post by reporter Steve Vogel.

Mirroring a rise in suicides in the military, many of those participating in the 15th annual TAPS seminar are families of service members who took their own lives.

“A third of the calls we’re getting now are from families with suicides,” said Bonnie Carroll, executive director of TAPS.

Suicides in the Army, already at a record rate in 2008, surpassed the number of combat deaths for the month of January. As of the end of April, the Army had lost 64 active-duty soldiers to likely suicides.

Several survivors at the seminar were struggling–even as they view their loved ones as having died in the service of their country–with the stigma related to a death by suicide.

Mary Clare Lindberg’s son, Army Sgt. Benjamin Jon Miller, was home in Minnesota on leave from Iraq in June when he shot and killed himself. In March, Lindberg made a pilgrimage to Fort Campbell, Ky., to visit the post where her son served with the 101st Airborne Division. While it was comforting to meet with the soldiers with whom her son had served, Lindberg was upset when she saw the unit memorial. The names of two soldiers from her son’s brigade who were killed in combat were on the memorial, but Ben Miller’s name was not.

“Because my son was a suicide home on leave, his name was not on the memorial wall at Fort Campbell, and that’s just not right,” said Lindberg, who said her son was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from his experiences in Iraq.

Crying as she spoke Friday, Lindberg was comforted by several other women who had lost sons or husbands in the military to suicide.

“Our loved ones are casualties of the war, but they are not remembered,” said Connie Scott, whose son, Pvt. 1st Class Brian M. Williams, also killed himself while home on leave from Iraq.

In an Army Times article earlier this year, staff writer Karen Jowers reported on how TAPS is reaching out to suicide survivors, using the approaches it has always used with families who lose a loved one in war.

“TAPS has seen a tragic increase in families whose loved ones lost their very personal battles,” said Bonnie Carroll, the group’s founder … “We embrace these families with a wide array of programs offering comfort and care …”

TAPS offers peer-based support, crisis care, casualty casework assistance, and grief and trauma resources, all free. Unlike most programs offered through the military, TAPS provides ongoing help to anyone grieving the death of a loved one in the military, regardless of the relationship to the deceased, where they live, or the circumstances of the death.

TAPS can also help connect service members, families and others to free, confidential … counseling through partnerships with the Veterans Affairs Department’s Vet Centers, Give An Hour, and the Association of Death Education and Counseling.

During the past 40 years, peer-led support groups across America have become a mainstay of the grief services available to people who have lost a loved one to suicide. The experience of those groups shows that, for many, there is no better help available than spending time with others who have also suffered the death of a loved one by suicide. In a similar fashion, it looks as if TAPS is using its experience with peer outreach to help military families who are bereaved by suicide.

“It’s brought me back to square one,” said [Kim] Ruocco, whose husband, Marine Corps Reserve Maj. John Ruocco, killed himself in a hotel room near Camp Pendleton, Calif., three months after returning from Iraq. “I’m exhausted with the subject of suicide, but I can’t rest because there’s too much to be done.”

Ruocco and another widow of a Marine suicide, Carla Stumpf-Patton, have begun coordinating TAPS’ nationwide peer support group program specifically for survivors of suicide.

The TAPS 24-hour crisis line is 800-959-TAPS (8277).

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Links to Suicide Grief Stories: May 4, 2009

In Grief Stories Series on May 4, 2009 at 12:11 pm

[Editor’s note: “Links to Suicide Grief Stories …” is a SPNAC series featuring stories of survivors of suicide loss–about the effect their loved one’s suicide has had on them and how they are coping with their grief. FJC]

Dying To Change” by Scott MacDonald of the University of Idaho’s Argonaut begins and ends with the story of freshman Amitti Mackey’s loss of her father to suicide and also informs students about the problem of suicide in Idaho and on campus.

Thinking about the future can be difficult, [Mackey] said. “I don’t get to have my dad walk me down the aisle, or have that first dance.”

“You move forward … It’s not going to be normal like you knew. Just talking about it helps. You can’t keep it all bottled up and compartmentalize it. You won’t get rid of it.”

In a first-person essay, “Suicide: A New Beginning for Those Left Behind,” Michele Cole of Colorado looks back 20 years after her older brother, David, died by suicide and shares how his loss has affected her spiritual growth.

While being ‘left behind’ is never easy, it is a dramatic beginning to what can be a larger than life opportunity to grow in spirit … To learn how to fully grieve without giving into depression and to learn how to honor a life regardless of the mental and emotional anguish they have laid at your feet. The lessons of those left behind from suicide are like no other, and as with every experience in my life, I honor it … David provided many lessons that have helped me find my path–the path that has lead me to being the woman I am today.

Suicide Prevention: One Family’s Story,” by reporter Sarah Barwacz of WMBD TV in Peoria, Ill., is an interview with Sara Davis and Rachael Myers, who are preparing for Chicago’s Out of the Darkness Walk this summer in memory of Jason Hooker. Rachael, who is Jason’s sister, says in the interview that suicide “changes everything. Your life is never the same.”

[Jason’s girlfriend Sara says,] “If we can touch one person’s life and save them from having to go through the tragedy that our families have been through, then it makes it all worthwhile.”

Those Grieving after a Suicide Forever Wonder What They Could Have Done To Save a Life,” by reporter Tim Chitwood of the Ledger-Inquirer of Columbus, Ga., tells the story of a woman who lost both her husband and oldest son to suicide.

“The effect is would’ve, could’ve, should’ve, I think, which is a normal reaction in probably every death, but especially suicide, because in most cases, the writing’s not on the wall, and you don’t really think that could ever happen to you or your family — even when you’re going through treatment for depression and doing all that you can do to help the individual,” said Debi Dinwiddie-Johnson of the local support group Survivors of Suicide.

Suicide Creates Lifetime of Hurt for Loved Ones” by reporter Megan Loiselle of the Wausau Daily Herald covers the efforts of survivors in Merrill, Wis., to promote prevention through a billboard campaign that focuses on the aftermath of suicide.

Katarina Miller, 16, of Merrill said a lot of people knew about her father committing suicide in 2007. When she showed up at school the next day, many of her friends gave her hugs.

“People (who take their own lives) think they’re taking the problem away, but they don’t know how many people it affects,” Miller said.

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Christian Writers Push Back against Suicide Stigma

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on April 30, 2009 at 7:00 am

[Editor’s note: Two recently published articles written by Christian authors give perspectives that push back against the stigma about suicide to which Christianity has historically contributed. The ideas they touch upon reflect a trend over the past century–and increasingly in recent decades–for Christian churches to be more understanding about mental illness and suicide and less judgmental and prescriptive about related behavior.]

In a story in Christianity Today, journalist Christine Scheller writes candidly about her religious faith in relation to the death of her son by suicide.

For nearly two decades, love gave rein to Gabriel, his brother, my husband, and me as we galloped prettily through life. Then we hit a rough patch … Our church experiences alone had left my husband and me limping and our sons jaded … Just about the time I thought we might regain our family stride, Gabriel died by suicide. He was 23 …

Early on, the suicide felt like a cruel cosmic joke. It was as if God, or the Devil, or some Job-like combination thereof, was mocking and toying with us.

The family received comfort from a psychiatrist Scheller had recently met, Aaron Kheriaty of the Psychiatry and Spirituality Forum, who assured them that their son’s death was not their fault and “firmly insisted that the death would never make sense: suicide is inherently an irrational act.”

Kheriaty was a safe person to invite into our moment of horror, unlike some pastors who later described the suicide as an “unwise choice” and simple spiritual failure.

Kheriaty delivered the homily at Gabriel’s funeral, explaining that

“For reasons that are quite beyond our comprehension, God allowed Gabriel to suffer a terrible illness … Gabriel’s death issued from an unsound mind that was afflicted by a devastating disorder.”

In the end, Scheller writes as a survivor who needs “time and space to come to a realistic self-assessment”:

I trust that for me, the crucible will forge a better person, and lead to peace … When I think of all that Gabriel suffered in this life, I do not understand. I find it difficult to trust God or engage him with the intimacy I once enjoyed. And yet every day, I inhale moments of grace. I am immeasurably grateful for the privilege of being Gabriel’s mother.

As Gabriel was walking out the door of this life, I called out after him, “I love you.” Love is as strong as death, wrote Solomon. The love of God is stronger.

The latest column in The Citizen (Fayette County, Georgia) by Pastor Justin Kollmeyer of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fayetteville is titled “Suicide and Heaven.” According to Kollmeyer, not merely “the truth” but “the truth with power and conviction” is that

[Suicide is] wrong. It’s horrible. It’s cruel. It’s regrettable. It’s not the answer. It’s not God’s will. It is never an acceptable solution. It’s an atrocious wounding of all those who love the one making this decision, especially the family …

But I believe there is more to committing suicide than just making one bad and damnable decision for all time …

Kollmeyer first accounts for those who die by suicide because of clinical depression, which he says “is a disease, just as a heart attack is a disease, and cancer is a disease, and diabetes is a disease.”

Health care professionals remind us that suicide is not an inevitable or acceptable outcome of depression. None of us “accepts” suicide as a result of depression, but in hindsight we can see the disease at its most destructive when we see suicide. Death by disease? Unfortunately yes.

Then he goes on to answer the question of suicide being an “unforgivable sin” from a Christian point of view:

Fortunately no! God declares in His word through scripture that He loves His creation, especially His human creation despite the “fallen-ness” and “brokenness” of human sin … God can disagree totally with the decision of one of His dear children, who commits suicide. But at the same time, He keeps His promise to grant salvation and receive sinners into eternal life. Ultimately, we all get into heaven the exact same way. Not earning it, not deserving it, but by trusting in and believing in the sheer grace of God. Can someone who commits suicide go to heaven? Simply, yes. By the grace of God.

Kollmeyer tosses suicide on the pile with all sin (including the Christian concept of “original sin”)–which is contradictory, for one must ask, Is being sick a sin?–but nonetheless, he asserts the belief that Christian doctrine does not condemn those who die by suicide to hell.

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Poet Sylvia Plath’s Son Dies by Suicide in Alaska at Age 47

In Grief, People on March 23, 2009 at 8:57 am
Sylvia Plath and her son Nicholas

Sylvia Plath and her son Nicholas

[Editor’s note: The stories linked to below include brief descriptions of suicide.]

The well-known depression and suicide of poet Sylvia Plath in 1963 has been grievously followed this week by the suicide of her son Nicholas Hughes, 47, an evolutionary biologist in Alaska.

A statement by Hughes’s sister, Frieda Hughes, is quoted in a story in the [London] TimesOnline,

“It is with profound sorrow that I must announce the death of my brother, Nicholas Hughes, who died by his own hand on Monday 16th March 2009 at his home in Alaska. He had been battling depression for some time.”

The TimesOnline story covers Plath’s legacy, including her literary career, her struggle with mental illness, and her marriage to Ted Hughes, who became England’s Poet Laureate. It also includes an insightful observation from Paul Farmer, who directs Mind, a U.K. mental health charity.

“Suicide is a much more complicated event than simply being a question of genetics, but there is some evidence that if a member of your family has taken their life there can be a higher risk of people doing the same. However, it is often absolutely to do with what’s happening in the here and now rather than any urge that is more deeply rooted.”

There is also a story in the New York Times about Nicholas Hughes and his family.

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Father Crusades against Cyberbullying after Son’s Suicide

In Advocacy, Grief, Prevention on March 15, 2009 at 8:40 pm

ORIGINAL STORY — Reporter Allison Pries, writing in The Hackensack Record, tells the story of John Halligan’s participation in a New Jersey middle school summit, where “the father of a Vermont teen recounted his son’s suicide and put a face to the problem of cyberbullying.”

“Mr. Halligan’s story brought out the emotional side of bullying,” said Nick Schifano, a Ramsey student council officer. “It shows it doesn’t just hurt one person. It hurts family and friends.”

As young people spend more time instant messaging, texting, e-mailing and using social networking sites, the peer harassment that once occurred in hallways and schoolyards has followed them into cyberspace, experts say.

“It’s so much a part of their life,” said Richard Wiener, the Smith School principal. “So we have to equip them to use the technology in a way that’s going to be productive, not destructive.”

Halligan, after a 23-year career with IBM, is delivering the message about Ryan and cyberbullying full-time.

“The schools need and want this,” he said.

In his presentation, Halligan urged the middle school students not to be the folks who laugh at the teasing of others. “A bully wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the power trip he gets from bystanders,” he said.

The message from Halligan, explaining how Ryan’s abuse had forever changed his entire family, was particularly poignant.

“(Bullying) is probably the No. 1 assembly topic,” said Spencer Lambert, an eighth-grader from Ramsey who attended the summit. “But hearing it from a firsthand witness — and the emotion — definitely made a difference.”

Halligan’s outreach includes administering the website, which “is dedicated to the memory of our son Ryan and for all young people suffering in silence from the pain of bullying and having thoughts of suicide.” One of the final paragraphs from the introductory message on the site’s homepage is a moving summary of cyberbullying’s causes and the sources of its solution:

We have no doubt that bullying and cyberbullying were significant environmental factors that triggered Ryan’s depression. In the final analysis, we feel strongly that Ryan’s middle school was a toxic environment, like so many other middle schools across the country for so many young people. For too long, we have let kids and adults bully others as a right of passage into adulthood inside a school building. We place [accountability] for this tragedy, first and foremost, on ourselves as his parents … but also on Ryan’s school administration, staff and the young people involved. As parents, we failed to hold the school accountable to maintain an emotionally safe environment for our son while he was alive. But accountability and responsibility should be shared by all involved — parents, bullies, bystanders, teachers and school administrators … basically the whole system.

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Author’s Widow Gives Fresh Perspective in “Stories Left To Tell”

In Grief, Stigma on February 24, 2009 at 5:34 am

Spalding Gray

Spalding Gray

ORIGINAL INTERVIEW — In an article in the Boston Globe, staff writer Megan Tench interviews Kathleen Russo, survivor of her husband’s suicide in 2004, about the dramatic presentation “Spalding Gray: Stories Left to Tell,” which “is her way of giving his words a new voice.”

With a four-person ensemble and rotating guest speakers … the show draws on both Gray’s acclaimed monologues and his unpublished writings. Audiences will laugh wildly, says Russo, radio producer for an NPR affiliate in the Hamptons – and perhaps they will see a greater humanity and the deep sense of humility that defined her husband’s life.

In the interview, Tench asks Russo, “How have you coped with his suicide?”

Well, there’s no manual. You just get through it somehow in your own way. What helped me most was that I had my children that I had to be responsible for and care for. I had no choice. If it was just Spalding and myself, maybe it would be different. But I had these kids to still raise, so I needed to be as strong as possible.

And then she asks, “Did you see it coming?”

Of course. He was sick for almost three years. One thing your readers need to be absolutely clear on and we do make clear in the show was that he was suffering from brain damage from the car accident. So, yes, he was prone to depression. Yes, he had bouts of depression and episodes. But this was really because he had brain damage.

In the end, Russo gives voice to the experience of many survivors who hope to counter the stigma of suicide:

I think it’s really important to talk about suicide because the more you talk about it, you realize everyone you know has been touched by it. It’s something that should never be swept under the rug like it was when Spalding’s mother committed suicide and no one talked about it. I don’t want my kids to be embarrassed by how their father died.

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Oratorical Skills Help Teenager Cope with His Father’s Suicide

In Grief, Mental Illness, Stigma on February 13, 2009 at 11:03 am
Brandon Kapelow shares a photo of him and his father (Rachel Shaver, Jackson Hole News & Guide).

Brandon Kapelow shares a photo of him and his father (Rachel Shaver, Jackson Hole News & Guide).

[Editor’s note: The story referenced includes brief descriptions of several suicide attempts.] Last month, reporter Kelsey Dayton learned she had won first place in feature writing from the Wyoming Press Association for a story last April in the Jackson Hole News and Guide. The story is about teenager Brandon Kapelow, whose …

… journey creating what would be an award-winning original oratory for this year’s high-school speech and debate season started in spring 2002 when Brandon was 8. That was the first time his father tried to kill himself.

The speech Brandon delivered is as helpful as it is courageous, for it reveals not only what it is like for a child to survive his parent’s suicide, but also what it is like for him to live with a parent’s mental illness, including several nonfatal suicide attempts.

Brandon celebrated his ninth birthday while his dad was hospitalized for his second suicide attempt. His father admitted trying to buy a gun to kill himself. In the hospital, he refused to eat, hoping to starve to death.

Brandon began to understand bipolar disorder and how people who loved life could be so sick they tried to end it, when his father made a third attempt. Loren [Kapeolow, Brandon’s mother] tracked him to Carbondale, Colo., by intercepting the trademark suicide notes he sent by FedEx. He was in a storage unit, his wrists slit, trying to asphyxiate on carbon monoxide from the running car and barbecue grills he had lit in the small space.

After Stephen’s fourth attempt was thwarted, when he had planned to jump off a building in Indianapolis, it was beginning to seem like routine.

Dayton’s story tells about Brandon’s development as a high school orator, about his yearning to talk about the subject that had shaped his young life, and about the assistance and understanding he received along the way.

His first speech was clinical, full of statistics. Mark Houser, his coach, knew Brandon would have to add emotional gravity to the story to be competitive. But Houser, who coincidentally is a member of Teton County Suicide Prevention and had a friend who killed himself, stepped back. He saw Brandon’s speech wasn’t just about trying to win ribbons.

This was a kid on a journey who needed to go at his own pace.

As Brandon confronted his first competitions in qualifying rounds, he he “worried about using his dad’s story.”

He didn’t want sympathy points. He felt unprepared the first time he presented the speech, at a meet in Rock Springs. He felt exposed when he nodded, “Judge ready?”

[Afterward,] The judges’ comments read: “Excellent grasp of facts and statistics … Good use of personal story without making it a pity party … You have the ability to make a difference concerning suicide because of your insight and because of your excellent communications skills.”

Brandon’s mother watched her son’s progress from the sidelines as he spoke publicly about their family’s tragedy, crediting his oratorical endeavors with helping him with his grief.

Losing a father to suicide is something Brandon probably will never fully recover from, his mother said. Instead, he must learn to cope. Through speech, Brandon was coming to terms with his father’s suicide. His mother knew he was healing or he wouldn’t have decided to talk about it publicly day after day, she said …

Brandon’s no-holds-barred message has an unquantifiable potential to touch lives, Houser [the speech coach] said. Stigma is the biggest issue with suicide, leaving survivors feeling alone and preventing people from getting help, he said. It inspired Houser in his own prevention efforts.

“If there is a teenager that can be so brave, I should try to work through some of my own barriers,” he said.

His presentations are also having an effect on the audiences he has been speaking to.

His speech is not just about how losing a father changes the life of a son. It is a call to action. Be aware. Talk about the taboo. Break the stigma.

In the hallway of Jackson Hole High School, during the national qualifying meet, a girl stopped him … She wanted to thank him. She was depressed. She had seen his piece in Rock Springs. She realized she wasn’t alone … She would be OK now, she said. His speech – his life – had changed hers.

SPNAC readers can also read more about Brandon’s family’s experience in a 2006 News & Guide story in which his mother is quoted extensively. She says, for instance

“Mental illness is a fatal illness, just like cancer.”

“My life is an open book … If I close that book, then it’s like saying I’m not going to help somebody else. … I think that if people don’t talk about it, if we make it taboo, then how are we going to help each other? How are we going to help each other heal?”

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SPNAC Back after a Brief Pause for Special Task, Special Guests

In Announcements, Grief on February 8, 2009 at 1:44 pm
Carol Graham shares the I.D. tags memorializing her sons Jeff, left, and Kevin. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post)

Carol Graham shares the I.D. tags memorializing her sons, Jeff, left, and Kevin. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson, Denver Post)

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Today marks the longest hiatus between new postings on SPNAC (one week) since its launch. Please accept my apologies, but I had training duties to attend to that required my full attention, namely delivering the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Suicide (AFSP) Survivor Support Group Facilitator Training in Denver, Colo., last week, which was co-hosted by the Veteran’s Administration.

I facilitated the training with Joanne Harpel, AFSP’s Director of Survivor Initiatives. It was the second of two such events (the other was in New York last fall), through which AFSP and the VA have explored providing resources focused on strengthening grief support services for survivors of suicide loss.

More than 25 people attended the training in Denver–most of them survivors of a loved one’s suicide who are either now facilitating a support group or who wish to start one–representing 10 states and including veterans, family members of veterans, and caregivers who, whether or not they themselves have lost a loved one to suicide, are interested in contributing their efforts to the cause.

On Day One of the two-day workshop, we have a working dinner, and last week, we enjoyed a first in the history of the facilitator training when we were joined by two very special guests, Gen. Mark Graham and his wife, Carol, who both delivered brief personal remarks and then spent half an hour answering questions and fielding comments from the workshop participants to give us a better idea of the specific needs of soldiers, veterans, and their families when it comes to surviving the loss of a loved one to suicide.

Gen. Graham is the Commander of Fort Carson, Colo., and Mrs. Graham is a board member for the Suicide Prevention Action Network, SPAN USA. They are the survivors of one son’s suicide and, seven months later, of their other son’s combat death in Iraq. To learn more about the Grahams, here is a Denver Post story about them, and here is recent interview with Gen. Graham from KOAA TV in Colorado Springs.

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[Related SPNAC post: “National Youth Prevention Workers Praised by Survivor Leaders“]

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Two Random Acts of Speaking Out Are Brought Together

In Advocacy, Grief, Stigma on February 1, 2009 at 10:19 pm

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

Separate items published over the weekend in two different newspapers–one in California and the other in New Jersey–coincidentally brought together the voices of two people who have lost a loved one to suicide. From opposite sides of the continent, each of them was speaking out against stigma .

The first voice comes to us courtesy of Brian Hamilton, sports editor of the Nevada County Union in Grass Valley, Calif., who last week “watched one of the most courageous performances I have ever seen on a basketball floor.”

It came at halftime, with no ball nor hoop necessary. As he grabbed hold of the microphone and [a] thousand or so basketball fans were sitting in absolute solemn silence, Mike Bratton began to tell a story no parent should ever have to share.

“My son … committed suicide,” he said. “And that’s something that’s so often covered up and hidden because of the embarrassment. My son committed suicide, you know, so did I do something wrong? It’s just had that stigma.”

“It’s an every moment, in-your-face, life-lasting reality. It’s something that never goes away, the aftermath and devastating effects of suicide. But it has to be talked about. People have to know. We don’t want it to be glorified, what my son did, but people have to know.”

The second voice comes to us directly from Augusta Santos, in an op-ed piece at, the website of the Home News Tribune and the Courier News. Augusta suggests that “it’s time for this six-letter word (stigma) to be removed from the Webster’s Dictionary — in order for it to stop having so much power and control in people’s lives.”

I believe and know that until families, communities, and society accept … emotional disorders the same way they accept their physical illness, this six-letter word called stigma will not go away.

Augusta’s husband, John, died of suicide in 2004, and she thinks stigma played a part in his death, so she wrote to her hometown newspaper this weekend to suggest that people do more to make stigma “go away.”

As I lived with John, a man with a heart of gold, who struggled with deep depression, I experienced first-hand what this horrible and debilitating illness can do to the human body …

Never did I imagine that there is an organization called the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) whose mission is to improve the quality of life of individuals who suffer from a serious mental illness and provide moral support for their families. I believe that health professionals, who have patients suffering with emotional disorders, should go that extra mile to inform the patient and their families of these important organizations.

I’m pretty sure Mike Bratton and Augusta Santos don’t know each other, and it is purely happenstance that what they said recently about stigma got put together here, but the synchronicity of their voices–speaking out bravely against the stigma they and their loved ones have faced–made me wonder how powerful a message we might send to our society about stigma if we all put our voices together.

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Columnist Depicts Survivor Experience (almost) Accurately

In Grief, Prevention on January 31, 2009 at 11:41 am

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

ORIGINAL COLUMN —  Author Lisa Earle McLeod’sForget Perfect” column this week will strike a chord with people everywhere who have lost a loved one to suicide:

A friend of mine just got the news that another man in her neighborhood killed himself …

Another man who decided that his family would be better off without him.

Another man who will never walk his daughter down the aisle or be the best man at his son’s wedding.

Another man whose wife will forever wonder what she could have done differently.

I don’t know what happened in each of the circumstances. But I do know that when someone is depressed they lose perspective and often fail to see the true consequences of their actions.

She writes directly to people who might be having thoughts of suicide as if she herself knows what a family member goes through after a loved one kills himself:

If you’re starting to think that things would be better if you weren’t around, let me fill you in on the aftermath of a suicide.

Your kids will spend the rest of their lives wondering why they weren’t enough to make you happy.

They’ll go to bed every single night knowing that their mom or dad would rather be dead than be with them.

They’ll look back over happy moments you spent together and wonder if you were just faking it, because surely if you really loved them you never would have chosen to leave.

They’ll struggle with relationships for the rest of their life, because they’ll never feel confident that someone will ever love them enough to stick around.

With each new person they meet, at work, or in church, or at school, they’ll wonder, should I tell? Do they already know? What will they think of me when they find out?

Of course, your spouse will have to plan a funeral, sort out the mess of your finances, and manage every aspect of the household alone. But that will be nothing compared to the grief they face as the surviving parent trying to keep it together for kids whose lives will never be the same again.

Some people will even suggest to your spouse that he or she should have gotten you some help. It will hurt to hear, but it’s nothing that they haven’t thought a million times themselves.

And, if your parents are still alive, they will suffer the worst grief a human can bear, and they will forever feel like they failed.

I take issue with some of the images she draws in those passages, for example:

  • Describing children survivors (whether they are young children or adult children of parents who die by suicide) as “knowing” their parent didn’t love them is both misleading and unhelpful. The actual experience of the vast majority of survivors would be much better described by words such as “wondering” or “questioning” not “knowing,” for in fact it is the doubt, confusion, and fear about one’s relationship with the deceased that are most commonly troubling to survivors. And, more importantly, almost without exception, people who die by suicide love their families (even if they lose contact with that love as a resource for their own decision-making and behavior).
  • Using absolute terms such as “never feel confident” and “forever feel like they failed” also oversimplifies the emotional outcome of suicide. It is sadly true that, early in the grief process, one’s confidence can be crippled and one’s sense of failure can be overwhelming–and that suicide grief can be strenuous and complicated for a relatively long time. But most people who lose a loved one to suicide do indeed recover from the debilitating aftermath of the death. Survivors don’t “get it over it,” but they generally do find ways to begin living their lives again with confidence in the love they receive from others and with the understanding that their loved one’s death was not a failure on their part.

Those few blemishes in what McLeod writes are not merely nitpicking, for writing (and speaking) accurately about suicide is vital. In her zeal to say something useful to men who might be desperate enough to kill themselves, she lost sight in a few instances of what she might also be saying to survivors. Even so, her errors shouldn’t detract from the otherwise excellent observations she makes in her column about the aftermath of suicide from the perspective of the survivors left behind.

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Attempt Survivor Speaks Out with Art after His Brother’s Suicide

In Advocacy, Grief, Prevention, Stigma on January 28, 2009 at 1:14 am

micartist1ORIGINAL STORY — Reporter Andy Parks, writing for the Northern Rivers Echo in Lismore, Australia, tells the story of Mic Eales, who survived two suicide attempts before his brother Bryan took his life seven years ago.

Bryan’s death was a catalyst for a positive change in Mic’s life. He started harnessing his experiences and creating works of art that deal with the issue of suicide … At the moment he is collecting coffee cups. Mic’s aim is to collect 2101 coffee cups (the latest figure from the Australian Bureau of Statistics for Australians who committed suicide in a year) for a piece he is planning to create.

“It’s about the conversations we don’t have. We have pleasant conversations when we are having coffee, but we don’t go there… If somebody has experienced suicide, we don’t talk about it, we closet it. So I want to be able to open it up to say ‘these are the conversations we need to have.’”

Mic’s creative and provocative way of bringing attention to suicide includes a piece called “Too Few Ladders,” which is based on “‘Snakes and Ladders’ … an ancient Hindu game … used to teach children about the ups and downs of life.”

Mic said most people who had seen Too Few Ladders came up to him and talked about a friend or a cousin who had suicided.

“Everybody knows somebody,” he said.

He still struggles at times with suicidal thoughts, and he deals with them by focusing on his family, meditating, and using “the 12-step program for addicts [adapted] for his own situation.”

Another factor in his survival has been an ongoing correspondence with the daughter of a friend who committed suicide.

“(I tried) to explain to her the pain that somebody goes through: When you get into that dark place, you don’t think about the family. You actually think they are going to be better off without you. They’re weird, twisted thoughts, but they are very real and very logical (at the time). That’s the part you have to fight. You have to be able to look at those thoughts for what they are.”


Pictured is one of Mic's artworks that combines the pages of a phone book (representing how people often hear of a loved one's suicide) and writings, pictures, and images from throughout his own life (representing all that his loved ones would have to remember him by if he had died by suicide), along with an element of "Too Few Ladders."

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Hospice Chaplain Ponders Lessons Learned from Survivors

In Grief, Stigma on January 24, 2009 at 12:07 pm

ORIGINAL COLUMN — Ted Swann, a chaplain for Burke Hospice & Palliative Care of Valdese, N.C., writes in a column for the Morganton News Herald, “In my opinion, death by suicide is the most complicated grief to deal with.”

There are no goodbyes … Once, I facilitated a support group for suicide survivors … [in which] the group of six widows ITAL taught me. I was a good listener. Once they felt safe with one another they shared deep feelings, frustrations, anger and disappointments.

Swann says he learned several important lessons from listening to the members of that support group:

People don’t want to talk about suicide. It’s a different grief … There are at least these three reasons we don’t talk about it: The stigma — What do you feel when people whisper behind your back? … If you don’t know what to say, just be there for your friend. He/she is hurting and is an unfortunate victim … It’s too painful — It’s a sudden, violent death. There’s no gentle way to die by suicide … It is excruciatingly painful, but communication is vital … Theological beliefs — Many Christian churches, and individual members of them, are divided on this question. Personally, I want to look at all of a person’s life, not just the last 60 seconds. I accept the belief that the God of grace encompasses all of life.

Swann also makes several observations about the “feelings of anger, guilt and shame” that the support group members shared with one another.

Wrongly, we think, someone is responsible. This is more common with a suicide death than with other illnesses. This is an important quotation: “The other day I heard the father of a boy who had committed suicide say, ‘Everyone has a skeleton in their closet. But the person who kills themselves leaves their skeleton in another’s closet.”

Each loved one wracks their mind and tears the heart questioning, “What could I have done to prevent this?”

In the end, he shares his opinion:

The suicide survivors, wounded healers, are the best therapists for each other. Together they work through feelings of shame and guilt.

And he offers some excellent advice:

A good rule to follow: As we meet people each day, let our kindness and caring be intentional. After all, we don’t know what just happened in their lives. “In response to all He has done for us let us outdo each other in being helpful and kind to each other and in doing good” (Living Bible — Hebrews 10:24).

Isn’t it time we talked? I have a friend who is a whittler. The finest I’ve known. He and I made a covenant that if the time comes, we will say to each other, “Isn’t it time we talked?”

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Devotion to Basketball Is Teen’s Way of Coping with Grief

In Grief on January 23, 2009 at 3:18 pm
Darren VanGennip, with his brother, sister, and grandparents (photo by Fred Lynch, S.E. Missourian).

Darren VanGennip, with his brother, sister, and grandparents (photo by Fred Lynch, S.E. Missourian).

ORIGINAL STORY — A feature by reporter Christopher Smith in the Southeast Missourian tells the story of high school senior Darren VanGennip, who has counted on his love of basketball to help him cope with “his mother’s death from lung and bone cancer, his father’s suicide, and the deployment of both his brother and sister to Iraq.”

On some days when he did not have school, he would play basketball from 10 a.m. until dark, pretending he was going against legends like Michael Jordan and “Pistol Pete” Maravich.

His mother died in 1999 when Darren was 8, and his father died two years later. Both were in their early 40s.

“After that, everything just felt different to me,” Darren said. “Everything just seemed kind of slower to me. For a while I’d wake up and I’d be so upset that I wouldn’t want to do anything. But I started playing basketball and that kind of took my mind off it. So that got me on track.”

“I was as sad as you could be,” [said Darren’s grandmother, Wilma VanGennip]. “I remember (Darren) saying, ‘Grandma, are you ever not going to be sad anymore?’ And I thought, ‘If that kid can live with it, then I can, too.’ And he brought me out of it.”

When his brother and sister were deployed to Iraq for a year’s tour of duty with the National Guard in 2004, “basketball took on even more importance for Darren.”

“It was a pretty tough time for me because I really look up to my brother and sister, and not being able to talk to them for months at a time kind of made things difficult,” he said. “I’d just play ball, and I guess that’s where I fell in love with the game.”

His acceptance of what happened began to develop with “the realization that his parents were not coming back.” In Darren’ own youthful and wise words:

“It’s been tough. It was real tough at first. … Life goes on. You’ve still got to live your life and that’s all you can say, really.”

SPNAC readers can watch a short video of Darren on YouTube, in which he says of his parents,

“I wish that they could see me play [basketball]. They never got to see me play any sports, so … they had no idea. I … keep a good attitude. I’m just thankful for the memories I still have of them.”

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“Prayers for Bobby” Shines Spotlight on Suicide of Gay Youth

In Grief, Media, Stigma on January 21, 2009 at 8:50 pm

Sigourney Weaver and Ryan Kelley embrace in their roles as mother and son.

Staff writer David Wiegand, in his review in the San Francisco Chronicle, gives the upcoming TV movie Prayers for Bobby, starring Sigourney Weaver, a bit of criticism for “awkward dialogue and merely adequate direction,” but in the end, he praises the film for the emotional weight of its acting and its message.

If “Prayers for Bobby,” airing Saturday [9 p.m. ET/PT] and based on the book by the late Leroy Aarons, is a tearjerker, it’s not only because it’s a Lifetime original film, and that’s what the network does, but because the true story of Bobby Griffith is tragic.

The film is about a gay teenager whose mother (Mary Griffith, played by Weaver) is a fundamentalist Christian who tries to “cure” him, which contributes to the young man’s suicide. The tragedy results in the mother coming to a new understanding about homosexuality, including speaking out about her experience. For more information about the movie, see the Internet Movie Database plot summary.

In a Boston Herald review, Mark Perigard writes that Weaver gives “one heartrending performance as a mother who realizes her rejection of her gay son led to his suicide.”

In the hands of a lesser actress, Mary would come off as an unhinged religious fanatic. As Weaver captures her, she’s a devoted parent confronted by something alien and frightening to her core beliefs … Weaver’s work should be remembered come Emmy time.

SPNAC readers may view a trailer of Prayers for Bobby, and MyLifetime’s page about the movie includes additional video, photos, interviews, and background material.

[UPDATE 01/22/2009] CBS’s Early Show today featured a TV interview by Maggie Rodriguez with Sigourney Weaver, in which the actress talks about meeting the real-life Mary:

“I have to say that I never felt judgmental of Mary. She meant the best for her son. That’s what’s so frightening … As far as she was concerned, this was a choice. And I think she didn’t understand that this was part of who Bobby was. She thought he was choosing a life, and she readily admits that she was incredibly ignorant.”

Also in today’s news, TV writer Chuck Barney of the  Contra Costa Times interviews Mary in “the Walnut Creek home [Bobby] left behind.”

Mary, 74, is sitting in the kitchen of a ranch-style home that is packed with cherished knickknacks, family photos, angel figurines and grade-school artwork provided by her grandchildren.

“I didn’t listen to my conscience. I was entrenched,” Mary recalls. “But I don’t live with the guilt anymore because I realized I was truly ignorant. It wasn’t something I did out of malice. So I can forgive myself for that.”

Following Bobby’s death, Mary, believing she was to blame, began an extraordinary journey of redemption and transformation. She became a highly visible spokeswoman for the Diablo Valley chapter of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays [PFLAG]. She also appeared frequently on television talk shows, campaigning for public school counseling to support gay teenagers.

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[Related SPNAC post: “Trevor Project Honors Actress for Inspiring LGBTQ Youth” ]

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