Editor’s Note: This is the first in a two-part series to raise awareness about suicide as part of Suicide Prevention Week, Sept. 9-15. Tomorrow: Suicide prevention.
Ryan Lee Zwiener was creative and a hard worker — and he liked to make others laugh.
His parents, Lisa and Raymond, said they would be watching television, and Ryan would enter the room and just start dancing around.
“He liked having fun and being spontaneous — we really miss him,” Lisa said, dabbing her eyes with a tissue.
Ryan, a Kansas University student, died by suicide on Dec. 3, 2011, two weeks before his 20th birthday, after a battle with depression.
His parents and sister, Mandy, openly talk about the suicide in hopes of preventing other deaths, but they also don’t want Ryan to be remembered for how he died.
“He taught us so much in those 19 years of life,” Lisa said.
She recalled many stories about Ryan during a two-hour interview in her Lawrence home. He liked to make dandelion tea and he enjoyed building things. Lisa said she had mentioned wanting something besides a carrier to put their three small dogs in when nobody was home, so one day Ryan surprised her with a unique, two-story, indoor doghouse he had built.
“He truly was an amazing man,” she said, as tears rolled down her cheeks.
Although it has been nine months, the death is still very painful for the Zwieners, but they said it helps to talk and share memories.
“There are some people who try to avoid it or don’t want to say anything because they don’t want to upset you or whatever, and it’s almost more upsetting when they don’t bring it up because you do want so desperately for them to be remembered,” Lisa said.
Last year, 385 Kansans died by suicide, including seven in Douglas County. Those suicides caused a lot of grief for their loved ones — spouses, children, grandchildren, grandparents, friends and colleagues.
Marcia Epstein is director of Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, which provides a support group for people who have lost someone to suicide. She said suicide is never someone else’s fault, but it’s common for those left behind to feel guilty and blamed by others. That’s why it is important for others to reach out and offer support.
“They need to know that they are loved, accepted and have support. What they fear is that people are blaming them or that people are looking badly at the person they lost to suicide. Acceptance is so, so important,” Epstein said. “So often, what happens is people will avoid you. They literally will turn to another aisle in the grocery store because they don’t want to say something hurtful or the wrong thing.”
Her advice is to say, “I am so sorry for your loss,” and then listen.
Lisa Zwiener’s colleague and friend Marcia Stetler admitted she didn’t know what to say or do to help Lisa when Ryan died. She was grateful that Headquarters Counseling Center provided group counseling at their workplace a day or two after Ryan died.
“That was good because we were all experiencing different things and we all have children and it really hit hard. I think that helped a lot,” Stetler said.
Lisa said Stetler has been one of her rocks. She takes walks with her and they reminisce. If Lisa has a breakdown at work, Stetler gives her a hug and listens. “She’s great. She doesn’t really tell me what to do,” Lisa said.
Epstein said nobody can truly understand what someone is going through because the grief process is complicated with suicide. There can be a variety of feelings: anger, shame, fear, sadness. These could stem from:
• dealing with secrets that come out after the death.
• watching someone struggle for so long and then suddenly not having to worry and be on guard for that person’s behavior anymore.
• feeling like maybe they didn’t really know the person.
“It’s really, really complicated, and so all of these things relate to what the healing process is going to look like,” Epstein said. “There’s going to be a lot of ups and downs.”
The Zweiners — Lisa, Raymond and Mandy — are suffering from depression and have sought counseling to deal with Ryan’s death, but it hasn’t gotten any easier. Lisa said they haven’t gone through Ryan’s things that are stored in their garage or touched anything in his bedroom in their house.
Sometimes, Lisa said she will just sit in Ryan’s truck or lie on the sheets on his bed. She said there are days when she can’t get out of bed and she’s overwhelmed by sadness. She’s also sad for her daughter who has nightmares from finding her brother, with whom she lived at the time in a townhouse.
“Mandy said something the other day that kind of threw me off because she got mad at me and said, ‘I am tired of coming home and seeing you lying in bed and crying. She said, ‘I’ve lost my brother and I don’t want to lose my mother too.”
Susan Reynolds, of Topeka, said her daughter, Becky, died by suicide 10 years ago at age 23. As a teen, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had an eating disorder. Later, she developed an addiction to drugs and alcohol and stopped taking her medications.
“The first two years were unbearably painful, but it’s better if friends try to reach out and involve you in anything because the tendency is to isolate,” she said.
Reynolds said she has continued to teach a 12-week program for caregivers of individuals with severe mental illnesses through the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Topeka. It was something she started a couple of years before her daughter’s death.
“I think it was probably about as therapeutic as anything I could have done,” she said. “It felt good to educate people and hopefully prevent a tragedy for them.”
She also finds it healthy to talk about her daughter.
“Suicide wasn’t the only thing that happened in her life, and there’s a lot to talk about; yet, people are afraid to bring up her name, but, boy, that’s the best thing they can do. It’s sharing the good memories,” Reynolds said.
Headquarters Counseling Center’s “Healing After Suicide” support group is free and open to anyone who has lost someone to suicide. It meets every other Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. For more information, contact the center at 841-2345 or email Marcia Epstein, director, at Marcia@HeadquartersCounselingCenter.org.
HOW TO REACH OUT
Eunice Ruttinger, director of adult services at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, offered the following advice when it comes to supporting a friend or loved one who has lost someone by suicide.
• Say you are sorry for their loss.
• Stay in touch and offer help whether it be to watch children, mow the yard or take a walk.
• Offer advice and share personal experiences.
• Say things like: “They are in a better place,” “Be happy with the time you had,” “You seem to be handling it well,” or “You are doing better than I could.”
Marcia Epstein, director of Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, says you can make a difference when someone shows signs of feeling suicidal.
• Listen and show you care.
• Ask the question, “Are you thinking about suicide?”
• For teens, find a trusted adult to help.
• For adults, find someone to be with the person and someone trained in suicide prevention to help.
• Eliminate access to firearms, large amounts of medications and other potential dangers.
• Never keep a secret about suicide.
• Know that suicide is never someone else’s fault.
Where to get help:
• Headquarters Counseling Center’s 24-hour service — 785-841-2345.
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 800-273-8255.
• Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center's 24-hour service — 785-843-9192.
• Lawrence Memorial Hospital emergency room — 785-505-6100.
• Christian Psychological Services — 785-843-2429.