"I have a compelling and burning motivation to help those affected by suicide. Through my personal experiences, I hope to do so today. Thank you for this opportunity.
When I was very little, I was confused by death--specifically suicide and what it meant. My family experienced two suicides fairly close in time. My oldest uncle, Billy, and my cousin, Shawn. These losses created a dark, miserable cloud over our family. We didn’t speak about them and it wasn’t okay to ask questions.
Fast forward to 2007. My husband and I enjoyed going to the local dive bar for wings and Sunday football. During this tradition, we made a friend, Joe, who was incredibly sweet and he taught us how to play cornhole. His father raised him to respect weapons and always be very safe. One day, his friends got into his collection without his permission or knowledge. Joe went in to get one of his guns because they were going to shoot targets. His friend warned him: 'be careful, I think that one is loaded.' Joe replied: 'no it’s not…see?' And he pulled the trigger against his head. My husband and I arrived at the bar the next day, but Joe never showed up.
Fast forward to 2010. I was a few days in to my first deployment to Bagram, Afghanistan. The deployment crud was just setting in and I hadn’t spoken to my husband yet to let him know that I arrived safely. I went to the MWR tent to call home, but I couldn’t get my calling card to work. I tried and tried. There were no directions, and no one to show me what I was doing. I was getting sick--already homesick--and I just wanted to hear my husband’s voice. I needed him to know I arrived and I missed him incredibly. I tried a few more times and...nothing.
I lost my military bearing, slammed my hands down on the table, and I started to cry. I hung my head in my arms. I felt someone lay a hand on my shoulder. When I looked up, there was a very kind face staring back at me. Sgt. Leslie Williams said: 'You look upset. What’s going on?' I proceeded to tell him how I had been trying to call back to the states, it was my first deployment, and I just wanted to talk to my husband for a little while. I told him that I couldn’t get my calling card to work and I was having a hard time. He calmed me down, told me this was his second deployment, and showed me what I was dialing wrong. He stayed with me until my husband’s voice was on the other end. I gave him a look of relief and he left me to my conversation.
I saw him in passing a few times after that, and he asked how I was adjusting. We would chat briefly and then go our separate ways. At some point, he got wind that his wife was cheating on him back home. He used his issued M16 to shoot himself.
Fast forward to April 2013. My husband’s oldest sister struggled all her life with various things: drugs, alcohol, teen pregnancy, divorce, and, most recently, an abortion. On April 16, she got drunk and walked in front of a train in our hometown.
Five months later, my mother and I were both having problems. I was six months into postpartum depression, and she recently went through her second divorce. Our relationship has always been strained, and my mom had quite a few medical issues, as well.
I found out that she suffered a stroke, seizure, and heart attack, and was hospitalized for a while. I was still hurt from our past and was too stubborn to forgive her. I waited six days to reach out, and on September 23, I finally called to check on her.
I talked to my mom for 19 minutes and 53 seconds. It was the best conversation I had with her in about 10 years.
It was so nice, in fact, that I planned on calling her later that night to finish our conversation and let her know how wonderful it was to be able to talk to her again.
Later, I got a call from my grandmother around 8:00pm that night and she said: 'Your mom is gone. She died. She’s gone.'
I said: 'No, she’s not. I just got off the phone with her. That’s ridiculous. I just talked to her. I just talked to her!'
I hung up on my grandmother and called my mom’s phone. It went to voicemail. I called it again. A few rings, and then voicemail again. I called again and there was a man's voice on the other end. I demanded that he put my mom on the phone. He asked who I was, and I told him I was Karelyn Hager’s daughter.
'I just talked to her! Put my mom on the phone. Put her on the phone right now.'
He said: 'I’m sorry to tell you this, but I am the coroner. Your mother is dead. She died a few hours ago.'
While I was on the phone with my mom, we had talked about my new assignment to Alaska and she told me she didn’t want me to go. Her suicide note said she was ending her life because she didn’t want me and her first granddaughter to be that far away.
We went home to clean out my mom’s apartment and make funeral arrangements. My Uncle Adam and I got into sort of a tiff because he wanted my mom to be buried in a certain place and I wanted her buried in another. My uncles have always been more like brothers to me because we were closer in age than the average uncle/niece relationship. I was trying to understand his perspective, but he wasn’t providing sound reasoning so I was left to make the decision I think my mother would have wanted. I didn’t know he was hurting, too.
Exactly 34 days later, my uncle overdosed and passed away. I realized, then, that he would also like to be buried in the same place as my mother, and now they share a headstone as brother and sister.
Some people say that leading by example is the hardest thing we will ever do. I disagree. It’s a tie between burying a loved one I didn’t know I was going to lose and resiliency.
I am a seven-time suicide survivor and I don’t wish that on my worst enemy. I would do anything to be able to turn back time for my uncle and cousin, have Joe’s friend warn him about previously loading the gun, tell Leslie his wife doesn’t know how lucky she is and he can move on, and I would have told Lisa to not give up. I love her no matter what she went through growing up. I would have told my mom how scared I really was that she could have died when she was first hospitalized and that I didn’t care what we went through in our relationship up until that point, that I wanted to start over and I wanted her in my life no matter how far apart we were physically. I would have told my Uncle Adam how much I admired him and loved him and his dedication to his family, through good times and bad, and that he didn’t deserve that heartache.
There were many times when I wanted to give up. But no matter how dark these clouds may get, I cannot put my family through this again. I don’t want my two beautiful girls to miss me when they need me most. I know what that feels like. I try to seek out something to hold onto to find strength, even if it’s very, very small.
Each year, since 2013, our family now holds a Celebration of Life, where we celebrate the good times in our loved ones' lives and honor our family by just spending quality time together. We light Chinese lanterns and share a meal together, we laugh together, cry together, and pray together.
Whether you read my story today because you suddenly lost someone close to you, care deeply for those who are affected by suicide, or have considered suicide yourself--whatever your reason is for being here--please know that we all have our dark rain clouds.
I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for being here to support one other. Resiliency is not easy. It’s something we have to consciously practice every day. Please know that we don’t have to do this alone.
There are people who are here to help. I am here to help. When you see me out in the world, say 'hello.' Give me high-five, some knucks, a hang ten…and let me know that you hear me and that you have my back.
I still need support every single day, too. The rain clouds aren’t ever going to go away. Nothing can bring our loved ones back. What we can do is pull out an umbrella and not only open it for ourselves, but pull someone else underneath it to be safe from the rain. I leave you with this quote:
'Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.'"