HEALING THE GRIEVING HEART
Aftermath of Suicide: Then and Now
Host: Dr. Gloria Horsley
With guest: Bob Burt
July 6, 2006
G: Hello. I?m Dr. Gloria Horsley with my co-host Dr. Heidi Horsley. Each week, we welcome you to Healing the Grieving Heart, a show of hope and renewal for those who have suffered the loss of a child or a sibling, and our message as always is we have made it and so can you. Well, good morning, Heidi.
H: Good morning, mom.
G: Today I want to start with an email, letting you all know that we love getting your emails. It?s great and you can email us through our website www.healingthegrievingheart.org and we also want to remind you that these shows can be downloaded on Ipod and they?re archived on our website as well as www.thecompassionatefriends.org website and as I said, you can download them on Itunes and also we have a quote of the week on our website so we hope you?ll visit it and we also have Library of Life on there. On Library of Life, we created a site for Scott, Heidi?s brother and my son, and you can go on there and light a candle for him, and we love it when people come on and do that don?t we, Heid?
H: Yes, and I went on the site last night and noticed there were more people on the site that have lit candles for their own children as well and talked about their own kids and I love seeing that.
G: Absolutely. So please feel free to go on and light a candle for your child as well as Scott. We love to have you do that. Well, Heid, our email today is from Kim and she?s from Houston, Texas. And thanks, Kim, we love people also to give us the site where they?re from because with the internet, if you?re listening on the internet and not land radio, it goes all over the world. One thing I wanted to say, too, Heidi, is that if you are listening to our Thursday show, that it is live and you can call in and our toll-free number is 866-472-5792. So our email from Kim says:
Dear Dr. Gloria and Heidi:
I have been listening to every one of our shows ever since I discovered them after my 24-year-old son, Trevor, took his life in February of 2004. Your shows have been a lifeline to me no matter what the topic. I always come away with some new understanding of this grief journey. I was so grateful when I heard your show would continue and that Heidi was added as your co-host.
G: And I?m really happy, too, Heid.
H: I am, too.
Even though Trevor was our only child, I like to hear her perspective on profound loss as well. Very early on, I was able to get my husband to listen to some of the programs and it was helpful when we were both so shut down in our own grief. We were able to say at least, yes, that?s how I feel and not feel we were losing our minds. I remember just wanting to hear your introduction when you say you will make it, I did and so will you. I loved the last show about the sisters who lost their older brother in 9/11. When they said they could talk about their brother forever, I feel the same way about Trevor, a bright light who is loved and missed forever. Thanks for all your support. Kim.
G: And then she also asks if we could possibly have an expert on bipolar illness in regards to suicide and that her son went off his medication in grad school and fell into deep despair. And Kim, yes, we will certainly look for somebody on bipolar illness. We?re going to have a psychologist on in September and we?ll certainly have him talk about it, too.
H: I just wanted to respond to Kim?s email as well. I wanted to just say that it was very important for me also to know that people had made it and they were further along in the grief process and that they had survived it because early on, I was in so much pain, my parents were in so much pain and my sisters that I thought literally I was going to die of a broken heart. The pain at times was unbearable and I thought, how am I going to get through this? Can I physically make it through? And to see people that were further along gave me hope that yes, someday, the pain would not be as unbearable and I would not be in this kind of agony any more.
G: Absolutely. And I was also happy with her email that she talked about the fact that you might not even feel like going anywhere and you can just tune into the internet and also that she listened with her husband because one of the things we?ve talked about is that men sometimes have more difficulty going to groups.
H: Right, and grief can be very isolating. You can stay, like you said, mom, in your home by yourself and being able to log onto the internet and hear these shows and be connected with a virtual community online is very important when you?re grieving and know that you?re not by yourself. We are here for you and there?s a whole community out there that is with you and we?re all in this together and we?re going to make it through together.
G: Absolutely. And also her email was a very important email today because our guest is going to be talking to us about suicide also. Heidi, would you like to introduce our guest today?
H: Sure, I?d love to. Okay. Our topic today is Aftermath of Suicide: Then and Now, and our guest is Bob Burt. Since the suicide of his 19-year-old daughter, Erin, in 1987, Bob has run the gauntlet of emotions associated with the death of a child. Shortly after Erin died, Bob found his way to Compassionate Friends and the journey began. Over the years, Bob has been a Chapter Leader, Regional Coordinator, and highly sought-after speaker having spoken at five national and regional conferences. He has appeared on several television shows and a nationally-famous music video for suicide prevention called ?Hold On? by Good Charlotte. In recent years, Bob has been a member of the outreach group, Teen-Line, having presented to over 30,000 teens, police officers, teachers, and counselors in Southern California. Welcome to the show, Bob.
B: Thank you, Heidi.
G: Hey, Bob, it?s great to have you on.
B: Good morning, Gloria.
G: Bob?s a good friend. We met at a conference what, about three years ago in LA, Heid?
H: Yeah, I think so.
G: And we were very impressed with you.
B: Well, I appreciate that, and I was equally impressed with you and Heidi.
G: Could you tell us about your daughter, about Erin, and what happened with her?
B: Well, it?s typical of a lot of young people. She was troubled and was very good at hiding that from our family. Her mother and I were not together and she was living with her mother and then at about the age of 14, she moved in with me, and come to find out at the age of 17 that she had been drinking quite heavily from the age of 11 and without carrying on a long story, she was self medicating because of some issues that she had, a couple of large issues when she was 10. A boy babysitter had molested her and that was not known. And then her mother didn?t speak to her in the last three years in her life and when your mother doesn?t love you, it?s tough to love yourself. And she mixed some medication and alcohol and took her life on March 27, 1987.
G: And what a thing having her living with you. Did she take her life at home or where was she?
B: No, she had just about four months before that moved in with a girlfriend, a roommate. She was working and going to school and she found her on the floor in her room on a Saturday morning and typical of a lot of young people, she was almost a straight A student. She was incredibly popular, a beautiful young woman, and had never been a problem. Had never, ever caused one problem where I would suspect that she had issues and that she was in jeopardy until at the age of 17 she got a DUI and that kind of got the ball running and got her into therapy but the damage had already been done.
H: But before 17, you weren?t aware of the fact that she had been drinking, right? Like you said, teenagers are good at hiding those kind of things.
B: Oh, yeah, I was working with a young man one time that used to hide his drugs in his parents? closet because he knew they?d search his. I want you to know they can be, not to use it in a negative term, but they can be very devious and she drank by herself in her room and I never had a reason to search her room because she was incredibly functional. She never showed any outward signs that she was self medicating and again, never a problem child. Great grades. Good work ethic. Very popular. All the things that you would want your child to be she was.
H: So, Bob, did she leave you a note letting you know what was going on inside of her internally or no?
B: Yeah, and here again is a sophisticated bright young woman and well, her note, for want of a better term, it would be a suicide note but it was a note that she had been writing and it just said, I love dad, I love Kevin (her brother), grandma and pa (which was my mother and father), mom, yuck, and then at the bottom she said, I am a failure. And she?d never failed at anything in her life, which was incredible to me.
G: Sounds like you had a close relationship with her.
B: We really were. We really were very close and I don?t just say that because I want people to think I was super dad or something like that. I certainly wasn?t. But her friends shared with me her feelings about me and so did her brother so yeah, we were close.
G: It?s time for us to come up on break. Well, I wanted to remind our audience first, if you?re listening to our live Thursday broadcast, you can join Heidi and me on the show by calling our toll free number 1-866-472-5792 with questions or comments regarding the losses in your life. Remember these shows are archived on our website, www.healingthegrievingheart.org and www.thecompassionatefriends.org website. They can also be downloaded on Itunes. And visit our website for the quote of the week and for our Library of Life. Well, Bob, again, welcome back on the show, and when we went to break, we were talking about your daughter, Erin, and how she took her life with a mixture of alcohol and drugs, and about how close you were with her, which Heidi and I have found incredibly touching and we can just feel that energy of a daughter with her dad. We want to talk about the aspects around her loss for our listeners, about suicide and how that impacts families and how the community relates. Do you see a difference between suicide and other kinds of deaths?
B: Well, in the sense of losing a child, no. But in the sense of the stigma that surrounds it, certainly, people look at what kind of parent could you have been if your child took their own life or if they drowned in a swimming pool or if you backed over them in the driveway. In other words, you had to have some negligence, some part to play in the tragedy, and in one sense, that?s partially true, but certainly, it?s not deserving of the stigma that many people attach to it.
H: But, Bob, do you really think it?s partially true? I don?t know if I agree with that. Sometimes, no matter how much you love somebody, you know
B: It?s partially true in the fact that you lose track of your child for a second and they drown or you don?t see them behind the car or you don?t see the pre-cursors to a suicide that a lot of people would think is obvious and they?re very subtle so that?s what I meant. It may be a 1% out of a hundred.
H: Because I would think that parents might take on too much responsibility, you know what I mean, where you can?t always protect your kids. You can?t always be there. Love sometimes isn?t enough. And no matter what you did, it just wasn?t enough for some reason.
B: No, you?re right.
G: And everybody turns their back on their kid sometime or doesn?t know where they are for a second.
B: But I think part of the healing process is to get past the concept of guilt and past the concept of asking why because there really isn?t an answer.
G: Of course, that comes a little later, don?t you think? Let?s talk about say that first year after Erin died. How did you feel?
B: Oh, devastated. When I was told at the emergency room, it was like somebody had kicked me as hard as they could in the stomach and the pain, the physical pain was excruciating. I remember not functioning at all. I mean, functioning because I had to in the sense of the funeral arrangements and those kinds of things, but really just not coherently doing anything and then a few months later. I know at my first three meetings at Compassionate Friends I couldn?t even say my own name. And then what?s interesting about that is that I reflect over the years about the first year, I couldn?t say the word suicide.
G: Talk more about that for our audience.
B: It was tough to accept that word and the connotations of that word with your child and so I would say things like, the description she died from complications from medications or something like that. I just couldn?t say it, and once I got past that and then learned more about. And that?s important, I think, for people who have had a child complete a suicide, is to have an understanding of what suicide is.
G: Now how would you suggest to our audience. They?re in their first year. How do they go to that? How do they find out? Do they go to a Compassionate Friends group or to a support group with other people? Do they get information? What would you suggest?
B: I think anything that anybody can do to educate themselves and to help have an understanding of why even though there?s not an answer for why it happened. There?s information about the cause and effect of suicide and that it?s really, they?re trying to end their pain. They are in an incredible amount of pain just like a person with cancer only it?s a different pain.
H: So once they understand that, they can move forward and start talking more about how their child died, right?
B: Yeah. I think it?s important to be able to talk about it. One of the things, all of us as parents I know you?re well aware of this, that you don?t want your child forgotten so talking about your child and talking about the circumstances of their death, although at times it?s emotional and painful, at the same time, it?s cathartic.
H: Well, Bob, also I love what you?ve done because you?ve talked to over 30,000 people. You talk daily to people and you?re in a sense preventing this from happening maybe down the road to somebody else?s child.
B: Yeah, that?s one of the reasons that we do the different outreaches is to either do a lot of prevention work, suicide prevention assemblies and things like that with entire student bodies at schools, or go in after a suicide on a campus where the kids are devastated and do some intervention and some education. And then, of course, with first responders, which is huge. It?s a different approach because they need to learn about how to deal with parents and with people in a suicide situation at a home or whatever.
G: Bob, let me just interrupt you for a minute just to say this to our audience. In my mind, it is so incredible that you have gone from not being able to even say suicide to this whole education thing. It just shows our audience in those early years where you can move over time.
H: Right, you?ve gone from passive grief to an active kind of grieving.
B: Oh yeah, and if one parent doesn?t have to experience what we?ve experienced.
G: How about parents. Do you think that they worry that other children might do it in the family?
B: Yeah, I think that?s. And if not suicide, you certainly become overprotective of your remaining children. I had the same issue with my son, Kevin. He was younger than his sister and that certainly played a part in our relatinship.
H: So you became overprotective of Kevin fearing that maybe he would die as well.
B: Yeah, and unfortunately, he almost did in a car wreck. I walked into the emergency room and there he was laying covered and the doctor said I don?t know if he?s going to make it, and I said, oh, please, God. Don?t do this to me twice. But that was just an accident that could not be avoided.
G: You know we?ve had some people on here who had siblings die as teens who said that they became reckless after. They went through a period of being reckless.
B: And to some extent that?s probably true of Kevin but that wasn?t the circumstances of his accident anyway. And then what was made very clear to me by him, and it was like a wake-up call. One day, he just looked at me and said, ?Dad, I?m not Erin.? And it was just ? bluntly told me. ?I?m not Erin. I?m not going to do anything to myself. You need to give me some space.?
H: So what he was saying is I?m not going to harm myself. Let me be a normal teen and let me have some freedom.
B: Exactly, and I?ll tell you, it?s hard because your investment in your children is huge and when you lose one and then you worry about losing another or another, it can get very difficult in the relationship between you and your child.
G: Okay, it?s time for us to come up on break again, Bob. When we went to break, Bob was talking about his son, Kevin, and how Kevin finally had to set his dad straight that he wasn?t Erin and that he wasn?t going to take his own life. I think if there are any siblings listening, that?s a great thing to do with your parents if you?re feeling like they?re over-controlling. Do you think there was any thought, Bob, were you able to not say Erin was a perfect child? Did you do any of that? Because I know some of the siblings are saying that they don?t want their dead sibling, what is it, Heidi, to be?
H: To be perfect because you know anyone that?s deceased can be perfect. They never do anything wrong. They?re not around and so to idolize the sibling and say they were the perfect child. I don?t know if that?s been an issue in your family at all.
B: I?d say maybe a little but I tried very hard early on to recognize that she wasn?t. None of us are and certainly the self destructive behavior, the self medicating and the issues that she had were certainly not perfect so I don?t think it was an issue but I know for a lot of parents, they put up shrines and stuff like that in their home to their children and I think it has a negative effect on the remaining children and I purposely avoided that anyway.
H: I would say to parents out there, if you?re going to do a shrine, have it in just one area of the house. Don?t have it in every single area because kids need to be able to get away from their grief also. They need to be able to take a break. And if your child is in every room, pictures, etc., you can?t take a break. Sometimes you need to take a break. It?s overwhelming to always be in grief for kids.
B: One of the things I think is helpful is to find out your child wasn?t or isn?t perfect is to talk to their sibling.
H: Oh, I like that.
B: They know.
H: Right. So Kevin could shed some light on just what Erin was like as a sibling.
B: And freely was willing to do that.
G: Well, was he angry about her taking her life?
B: It was a combination like all of us go through with the child that completes a suicide. There?s anger, and there?s regret, and there?s grief. Yeah, there was some.
G: And how did you deal with that?
B: You mean with Kevin or with myself?
G: Yeah. Both.
B: Well, with Kevin, I just let him talk about it as much as he would talk to me. Now what?s interesting about young people is they?d rather talk to their friends. I tried to get him to talk to me a little bit and occasionally he would, but the anger and the grief came through. For me, anger took a while getting there and I really wasn?t extremely ? anger wasn?t the dominant emotion for me with Erin?s death.
G: What was?
B: Oh just missing her and the sense of being, I guess as a parent, cheated out of the things in the future that you always want to be able to see and share with your child.
H: And I think with suicide, sometimes people aren?t sure how to approach people and how to be helpful when they find out that someone died by suicide so I?m wondering, were there things that people said to you that were helpful that you can remember?
B: Not really. I think any time you lose a child, people are going to say things that if they would just say, I?m sorry and I?m here to listen if you want to talk or something like that is probably the most giving and easiest and nicest thing they can do. When they start giving me advice or saying things like, she?s in a better place. Wrong. Her best place is with me.
G: How do you deal with that? How would you deal with that if you were our audience newly bereaved?
B: Just understand that people are going to say things because they don?t understand, they?re going to say things that they don?t mean to be hurtful but that are, and it?s going to happen, and try to be accepting of it. At the same time, it?s okay to let them know, hey, that doesn?t help me. If you want to talk about my child in remembrances and stuff like that or if you just want to say you?re sorry, I understand that. But for people to give advice or try to fix it, there is no fixing it.
G: Well, we kind of diverted you because you were going to say something about your anger. When did you get angry and how did you deal with it?
B: You know, it?s been a long time, Gloria, and I don?t remember when I got angry. Somebody said if you?re going to have a bad day, go ahead and have it, and I think when I got angry, I just got angry, to myself. It wasn?t anything outward. I don?t write journals, which is not a bad thing to do, but I have friends who have written things about I?m so angry with you for taking away my only daughter, that kind of thing, and I think that?s certainly
G: So anger with God can be one thing. How about anger with the child who took their life?
B: Again, yeah, I can?t describe it because it?s just something that you deal with internally. It?s in your mind more than anyplace else. It comes and goes. It?s like one day you?re fine. It?s like the waves come up hitting the rocks and they?re just very calm and then all of a sudden a big wave comes along and knocks you off the rock and you have to crawl back up.
H: I like that analogy. That?s very true.
B: And that goes along with all different emotions in the death, not just the anger.
G: And how did you cope? What did you do when the bad times came? What would you suggest to our audience?
H: When the wave hit you off the rock?
B: Find a reason to crawl back up.
H: Find a reason. Find some purpose and meaning.
B: The stuff that I do, the outreach that I do, I do it to validate Erin more than anything and also it helps me. Every time I do an outreach, every time I talk to a parent who?s had a child die, every time I do a presentation to young people about not taking their own lives and that there?re people out there that care that will give them help, it helps me deal with the loss of my daughter.
G: Now when I say I do a show for grieving parents, people just go into shock. What would they do if you say that you had a daughter that died by suicide?
B: It depends on the context of when you?re saying it. When she first died, I had people I had worked with for fifteen years that would come up and say, ?How are you doing?? I?d say, ?I?m not too good. I?m not having a very good day? and whew! they were gone! I thought I was just talking to that person, you know. They don?t want to think it?s catchy. It?s a strange reaction that people have.
G: Isn?t it? It?s almost biological. All of sudden they just go, whoa!
B: Right, or they don?t know what to say. One of the two.
G: Yeah. Change the subject or whatever. And the rare person that comes up that can really handle it.
H: Yeah, it?s interesting, mom, you once said when you?re grieving, just stop and look and see who?s there because sometimes the people you think would be there are gone and people that you never thought would be there all of a sudden come into your life.
G: You make some new friends.
B: Oh, yeah. And in your own family sometimes. The people in your own family. Fortunately, there was only one issue in that context for me, but a lot of times people in a family are the worst offenders.
G: We?re going to have to come up on break now. Let?s get back to that when we?re through. Well, Bob, it?s great to have you on the show and have you talk about suicide and helping families and what people can do who are kind of in the throes of it right now. I wondered if you had one piece of advice to offer us parents, what would it be?
B: I think it?s important to be around people that share the emotional issues that we go through and I think Compassionate Friends is an incredible organization. Now, it?s certainly not for everybody. Sometimes people go and they feel intimidated at meetings or whatever.
G: One of the things we do recommend is that people commit to three meetings, right?
B: Right. In some sense, I think it saved my life or it had a huge impact on my dealing with the grief.
G: And what if a husband doesn?t want to go and a wife does. Do you run into that?
B: Of, if you go to meetings, as you well know, it?s like four to one, male to female to male, in attendance at conferences and at meetings and I think it?s a mistake. I think men try to deal with it on their own and struggle at times more than women do because it?s tough to deal with it by yourself, it really is. If you get there and there?s one other man there that you can relate to and talk to, it really helps.
G: And so you?d say for the men out there, consider going out and making that step. Because you don?t have to talk or anything, right?
B: No, you don?t have to. You don?t have to say a word but I think what happens people find a comfort zone and eventually they want to speak. They want to get this stuff out of their system and express their feelings and it?s a safe place. That?s the most important thing if they understand it. It?s a safe place.
G: And for women who are out there that are trying to get their husbands to go, what do you say to them?
B: You can?t make them do it. You can be supportive. You can offer the opportunity and ask them to join you if you will but I know a lot of them are resistive and, I don?t know, get a copy of this radio show and have them listen to another guy that?s been and maybe that?ll help.
G: Yeah, that?s a great one, Bob. And I wanted to talk to you, too, about some of the things that you?ve done to honor Erin, your Teen Line, and you were on a video, ?Hold On,? by Good Charlotte. Could you talk about those things that you?ve done in honor of Erin?
B: Well, again, just trying to educate, trying to help, speaking at different conferences or talking at chapters, occasionally local chapters will ask me to come in and spend the evening with them. Just trying to help people get hopefully through to the point where they can deal with it in a little better way. And, then, of course, the outreach and the prevention thing is huge. Teen line is just incredible. It?s an interesting concept. We have young people.
G: Now is that just in LA or is that all over?
B: Well, it?s national. It?s an 800. Matter of fact, do you mind me giving the number?
G: No, do. Give it several times.
B: It?s 1-800-TLC-TEEN or 1-800-852-8336. And they also have a website, www.teenlineonline.com. It?s an interesting concept because the hotline is manned from 6:00 to 10:00 at night by young people that are trained for about 14 weeks of very intensive training to be on the line but it?s all very anonymous. These young people talk to young people their own age and it?s really an incredible program, and then we do a lot of outreach.
G: Now what if a parent out there right now is worried about one of their other children. Could they call Teen Line and talk to them about it or would there be another area they could call?
B: Well, there?s suicide prevention hotlines in their local areas but we prefer or hope that the people who call in would be the teen themselves.
G: So they might get their teen to call in and they, themselves, should call in to another line.
B: Share the line with their youngster and say, hey, if you want, give us a call, it?s anonymous and confidential, and I won?t be there listening. It might be helpful and just give the number. A lot of times kids will just pick up the phone and call.
G: Right. So if you?re worried about your teen, it might be a way to address that with them and they might say to you what Kevin said to Bob, which is I don?t have any intentions or even thinking about any of that. One of the things I want to say really quickly here is it is not unusual for siblings to say something like I want to join my sibling. I should have been there. I should have been in the car, whatever, which is what my daughter said when her brother was killed in an automobile accident. I should have been there with him. It should have been me, too. But that wasn?t because she wanted to kill herself. It was a way of dealing, wouldn?t you say, Heidi?
H: Well, I felt the same way. Absolutely. You don?t really want to die. You want to be out of your pain and you want to be reunited with your sibling so it?s a little different than actually wanting to die so you need to weed out the difference between those two and figure out what it actually is that your child is saying.
G: Well, listen, it?s time for us to end the show now but I want to really thank you for being on the show, Bob Burt.
B: Well, I appreciate the opportunity and you guys do great work.
G: And you also and it?s wonderful to have you on and we hope to see you sometime again.
H: Thanks Bob.
B: I would love the opportunity to see and/or speak to you guys again so thanks for having me on.
G: Yeah. It?s time to close our show and please stay tuned again next week when Gloria and Heidi will interview Darrell Scott, father of Rachel Scott, who was killed April 1999 when two teenagers entered Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado, and opened fire on the students and teachers. From the horror of the Columbine tragedy has emerged a ministry that has brought healing and hope to millions of people around the world. This show is archived on our website www.healingthegrievingheart.org as well as www.thecompassionatefriends.org website. This is Dr. Gloria Horsley and
H: Dr. Heidi Horsley.
G: Please stay tuned again next Thursday at 9:00 on the internet and at selected stations on Sundays, and you can go on our website to see what stations we?re on. This is Healing the Grieving Heart, a show of renewal and support, and remember, others have been there and made it. You can, too, and you need not walk alone. Thanks for listening. I?m Dr. Gloria Horsley.
H: And Dr. Heidi Horsley. Erin?s memory lives on through all the work you do, Bob, thank you.
G: Thanks so much.