Helping Kids Cope With Suicide, THE

LONG GOODBYE: Helping Kids Cope With Suicide, THE

Miller, Cheryl


On St. Patrick’s Day 1993, Michelle Linn-Gust’s life changed forever. She was sitting in an early morning Western Civilization class at Ball State University when she saw her church’s priest step into her classroom-she knew something terrible had happened.

In the cold hallway outside the classroom, Linn-Gust learned that her 17-year-old sister, Denise, had committed suicide. That began Linn-Gust’s long goodbye.

“Looking back I could see where Denise had said goodbye to me,” she says. “As a journalism student, I was home in Naperville the weekend before, covering the Ball State basketball tournaments in Chicago. My older sister, Karen, was also home from college and she, Denise, and I sat and talked for a long time on my mom’s bed. Denise touched my hair and said, ‘Do you remember when you used to call your hair your golden locks?’ This is something only a sister who shared the same room with you for 10 years would remember. That was her way of saying goodbye.”

Family members and school officials knew that life was a struggle for Denise. Unfortunately, no one had been invited into the whole story. Denise was being treated for bulimia and depression after she’d downed 250 aspirin four months before. It wasn’t until after the suicide that her family discovered that Denise had been raped over the Christmas holidays.

“We think that some time in January she decided that she could live for 60 more days, but not 60 more years,” says Linn-Gust. “She never gave us any sign that she was considering suicide again.”

Just minutes before Denise’s suicide, a counselor at her high school stopped her in the hallway and said, “Are you okay?” Denise nonchalantly answered, “I’m fine.” She then walked out of the school and directly into the path of the 10 a.m. commuter train bound for downtown Chicago.

Now came the time of struggle for the suicide survivors. The priest from Linn-Gust’s church walked her outside to get her bicycle, then brought her to the church. “I had stopped going to church because I was so consumed with school and the newspaper,” says Linn-Gust. “In my initial grief, I thought that I had caused this to happen.”

A nun at the church drove Linn-Gust home to Illinois to be with her family. “The hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do in my life was to walk into my parents’ home. The minute I did there was no turning back,” says Linn-Gust. “I knew that nothing was going to be the same again because Denise was gone. I remember watching my parents. I’d never, ever seen my dad cry before. He was bawling. I didn’t know much about suicide. I didn’t know anybody who had committed suicide.”

More teenagers will die this year from suicide than the number who die from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease combined. Researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics say suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people between 15 and 24.1

Are you prepared to deal with the aftershocks of a suicide?

Steve Argue wasn’t. He’s the former co-president of Sonlife who’s now co-founder of Intersect, a leadership-training ministry based in Michigan. When Argue was an associate pastor in charge of the high school ministry at a large Wisconsin church, his friend and partner in ministry committed suicide. “Dan’s death brought up a host of questions from the students,” says Argue. “Students asked me why Dan did the very thing he’d told them not to do. Many students were left feeling confused, shaken, and vulnerable.”

After the call about Dan’s death came in, church staffers started calling parents who had students in the church’s youth ministry. “We tried to quickly and succinctly disclose as much as possible to make sure that everyone had the same facts,” says Argue. “We then held a parent/student meeting, followed by residual meetings. At one of the meetings, we had students write anonymous questions on cards. I then tried to answer each student’s questions. One asked, ‘Is Dan in heaven?'”

Kenneth Walker, a professional counselor in Georgia who specializes in treating adolescents, says that each suicide directly impacts a large circle of people. “Everyone, but especially teens, need a lot of care during this time,” says Walker. “The aftermath of a suicide is an emotional roller coaster.”

After her sister’s funeral, Linn-Gust returned to college where her professors urged her to take a few days off. “I needed more than a couple weeks to get over the shock of losing my sister,” she says. “People started to get irritated when I wanted to still talk about Denise or burst into tears months or even years later.”

Based on her own experiences as a sibling survivor, Linn-Gust wrote a book titled Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? (Chellehead Works). Just a year after Denise’s death, Linn-Gust began speaking all over the country to help others understand the unique losses felt by a sibling survivor.

“One of the big things that I learned,” says Argue, “is that people grieve and process in very different ways.”

“Leaders need to recognize that,” he continues. “You can’t dictate how fast or slow grieving is going to happen. I still get emails from people who remember the anniversary of Dan’s death.”

Walker, who works in private practice and also on staff of the Dallas Youth Center in Dallas, Georgia, recommends “giving lots of support to those who are grieving a suicidal death. Caring adults need to be on hand to help teens process the experience of losing a loved one. Especially in the case of a suicide, the questions are tremendous. And be watchful for copycat suicides.”

“As leaders we were prepared to listen to students,” says Argue. “I just said, ‘Do your best to listen and answer questions when you feel comfortable.’ We wanted to give leaders who had relationships with the students the freedom to listen and to speak of what they knew.” Argue coached his leaders to anticipate students’ questions.

“The students just wanted to be together,” says Argue. “We were a safe place for them to process their grief.” Walker adds, “Students will struggle with ‘Why?’ questions for a long time. Don’t offer pat answers in order to alleviate their feelings. These answers don’t help students in either the short or long term.”

Argue says it took at least nine months for his leadership staff to process their own grief. “Dan’s suicide happened in late October,” says Argue. “I spent a lot of time protecting my leadership team and allowing them to process everything together. People so desperately wanted everything to get back to normal. Only a month later some people expected me to take on the additional responsibilities of the junior high ministry (Dan’s area of responsibility) as well as the senior high ministry.”

Dan’s funeral was held at Argue’s church. “That’s probably when I wept the most,” he says. “As a leader in this situation, the difficulty was having to grieve the loss of a friend while shepherding others through their own grief processes. What helped me was that there was another colleague on staff who was in the same situation in our relationship with Dan. We were able to work through it together which was a good thing.”

“The best thing that people can do is to listen,” says Linn-Gust.

“That doesn’t mean that you have to even give your own comments. People just need the opportunity to talk and an opportunity to remember. That first Christmas I felt like everybody had forgotten. Here we were, we were so lost and just didn’t know what to do. I always try to stress to people it’s so important you also acknowledge the anniversary of the death. The survivors need to know that there are people thinking about them and haven’t forgotten that they’re hurting so much.”

The leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults is automobile accidents, followed by homicide.

CHERYL MILLER is a youth leader in Georgia.

Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. Sep/Oct 2005

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