In the fall 2005, husband Randy and I became empty-nesters. Our daughter, Tracy, was attending the Seattle Art Institute, son Tanner was attending a trade school in Denver and Joey was starting as a freshman at Benedictine College in Atchison.
I’ve always been, and will always be, very proud of our children. As parents, we did the best we could in preparing them for life’s challenges. During those teenage years, we encountered sad stories involving parents we knew who lost a son or daughter in a car accident, for medical reasons, alcohol poisoning and suicide.
We prayed for those parents, and for God to comfort them. Losing a child, regardless of age, is any parent’s nightmare. In a town as small as Colby, it seemed we had a lot of young people dying, and as parents who knew these families, we helped in whatever way we could.
I don’t know why, but I really thought my situation was different, that somehow my children were impervious to bad things happening to them. Facing the death of a child was unthinkable, and I wasn’t going to allow my mind and heart to go there. But one month after Joey’s 29th birthday, the unthinkable did happen when he died by suicide.
This has been a journey I wasn’t prepared to take. All my hopes and dreams for Joey will never be realized. And yet life goes on.
During the first year, I had no idea how many holidays there were until we had to celebrate each and every one without him.
Even though Joey is physically gone, I am still his “Momma Bear,” a nickname he’s affectionately called me for years. Instead of buying him slacks, cologne or other gifts, I now buy flowers for his grave and will consider launching balloons.
God has been with me, as he is with everyone. My family, friends and co-workers have been a blessing.
Shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday, March 13, 2016, is when we were notified of what happened. I remember feeling anxious that morning because Joey’s bed hadn’t been slept in, and Jeff, one of the Ampride employees, was calling that afternoon because Joey was late for his shift.
Not knowing where he was, I was slightly miffed at him, but then I thought he must have forgotten to set his watch an hour ahead. It seemed like a logical explanation. About 15 minutes later, I looked out the front window and saw a sheriff’s vehicle and two police cars parking across the street from our house. Frightened, I really believed Joey must be in trouble.
I walked outside to meet them halfway, and the first person I saw was Deputy Mike Ottensmeier, then Hillsboro Police Officer Steven Janzen and then one other city officer, whose name escapes me at the moment.
As we continued walking toward each other, exchanging pleasantries, I asked if Joey was in trouble?
“No, Patty,” Mike said, “Joey is not in trouble.”
Relieved for only a brief moment, I invited the officers in for a cup of coffee. If Joey wasn’t in trouble, then maybe it was something else, but what it could be, I had no idea.
I don’t remember Mike’s exact words when he told me Joey died by suicide, but all I could do was look down. The words made no sense to me. I sat frozen in time until reality of his words set in. I asked Mike, “Why would he do such a thing? Where did it happen? And how did he take his life?”
Ever since that day, I’ve been fighting through the grief and trying to live and love again. I never got to say goodbye, or tell him how much Randy and I loved him. It happened so quickly I didn’t have time to process the situation or give him hugs and kisses. He was just gone, leaving all of us who loved him to pick up the pieces.
I am not saying, “Why?” as often as I did in the first year. Today, I am asking myself, “How?” I want some good to come from Joey’s death.
With a new appreciation for the fragility of life, I know God wants me to live and somehow give meaning to Joey’s death if Randy and I were to survive.
For anyone who has lost a child, spouse or a parent, the pain is agonizing and can be unbearable at times. I have never felt this kind of loneliness and darkness. It’s so frightening.
On the first anniversary of Joey’s death, Randy and I along with Joey’s beloved friend, Christina, went to a survivors group in Wichita for anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide.
The moderator said something about the dues to belong to this club are more than anyone would ever want to pay.
He’s right. Nobody there wants to belong to that group, and yet, hearing other people’s stories was a humbling experience. These mothers and fathers were exceptional people.
My journey is still very painful, and I believe I will always feel this intense sadness.
But the more I have learned about suicide, the more I realize Joey was in so much more pain than I can ever imagine that he believed it was the only choice left to him.
I am praying that now I can relinquish to Joey the responsibility for his act and allow him the dignity and consequence of his own personhood.
Joey was an unconditional gift from God, and all those who knew him, loved him and will miss him.
I can accept that his death will always be a part of my life. But that’s not the whole of it. He was a beautiful person, and I want to live out my life honoring the goodness of Joey’s lost life.
By that, I mean I can do my best to give what he might have given as a way to fill the emptiness. It’s only been 14 months since Joey’s death, and, I know I am still “just surviving.”
But during this dark time many things are helping me. I have God, my family and friends, and talking about our loss to caring listeners like you. I also came to realize that life is filled with loss for many people, and that I could be there for other people, too.
Instead of “just surviving,” I have decided to live the rest of my life as fully as possible, if only to honor my brave son who decided not to live the rest of his.