"The first time my four stepchildren laid eyes on my son, Brian Keith Haffner, was Easter Sunday of 1969 when we picked the children up from my husband’s parents’ house in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. I had just gotten out of the hospital a few days before.
From Ft. Wayne, we drove home to our house in Coldwater, Michigan. Each one of the kids held Brian for 15 minutes during the hour ride. In anticipation, they'd keep asking: 'How much longer until my turn?' It was dear.
They just couldn't have been more help to me. They loved feeding him, bathing him, strolling him, dressing him...everything about his care they were eager to be a part of and I was very grateful—especially since their dad was working in Illinois and only home weekends and we had one car that was with him.
Brian was my pride and joy!
We could tell that, at an early age, Brian was very bright. He walked at 9 months, spoke in full sentences by 18 months, and at 3.5 years, he was reading anything you put before him. By then, we had moved to Vandalia, Ohio. He became a celebrity in our neighborhood because the neighbors would invite him over to read the Dayton Daily News to friends who visited them. It was so cute to see this little boy read with such enthusiasm and understand each word he was reading as well as what it meant!
When my stepson, Steven, died by suicide due to his schizophrenia, I had to break the news to a then ten-year-old Brian, who absolutely worshiped Steve and vice versa. When I told Brian, he looked into my eyes, and with huge tears, asked: 'Didn't he know how much we all loved him?'
As well as Brian did in K-12, he did miserably in college. When the party was over after two years at Ohio State University—where he received poor grades—my husband, Tom, told him he had some choices to make. Tom insisted that Brian join the military. Even though Brian was legally an adult, he did as his father suggested and joined the Navy.
After he completed basic training at Great Lakes, Illinois (then A School in Meridian, Mississippi), he was assigned to the USS Spruance, a destroyer whose home port was Mayport, Florida.
His ship, a destroyer attached to the USS Saratoga battle group, was leaving on August 7th for a "routine" deployment to the Mediterranean. This deployment became Desert Shield and then turned into Desert Storm once the Persian Gulf War engaged.
We had limited communication with Brian during the war. Of course, internet was not available back then and although he wrote frequently, we could go weeks without any mail from him…and then get four to six letters all at once. The letters and calls we did get were upbeat and Brian displayed no complaints—he was just doing his duty which he pledged to do in July of 1989. Every letter we got from Brian during Desert Shield and Desert Storm showed absolutely no indicators that he was unable to cope with his surroundings or situation.
And then, when Brian got out of the Navy, he came back to Ohio and lived with us briefly until he got a job. He had a hard time finding work, and although he supported us in our family business from the time he was young, Tom refused to simply “hand” Brian a job. Tom wanted him to find one on his own.
Even with a good job, the prospect of building a house, and keeping close friends, Brian struggled. He joined us for dinner one evening, and while walking him to his van, he told me he was experiencing mood swings and asked me to find someone to help him. The next day, he had an appointment.
He continued on his prescribed medication and started gaining weight, which isn’t unusual, especially with a drug like Depakote.
Additionally, Brian was diagnosed with bipolar disorder—making him the seventh Haffner family member at that time to be diagnosed with a brain disorder. Tom, too, was glaringly diagnosable but never received a diagnosis nor did he ever reach out for help.
By now, Brian had 'worked his way up' to sales from sweeping the warehouse to loading and unloading trucks and learning to make counter tops. He was doing tremendously in sales! His outgoing personality and belief in our product was apparent.
The night Brian died by suicide because of bipolar disorder, I was in Charlotte, Michigan with my mother, stepfather, and many others at a church fundraiser. It was raining hard. He died around 9:00pm and I didn't learn about it until 7:00am the next morning when an employee of ours drove Tom five hours to Michigan to tell me. He was going to tell me by phone, but a friend encouraged him to tell me in person.
Maybe Marilyn, my close friend, can tell me, but at this moment, I cannot accurately describe the exact words Tom used to tell me that Brian had died. But I do recall that he was vague in his conveyance. When I questioned him about what he meant, he became more explicit in his description and I remember telling him that I was simply having a bad dream.
When he insisted it wasn't a nightmare, I responded that it was. Then, my mother stood in the doorway and confirmed the worst…that it was true.
When my stepson, Steve, died, Tom never allowed Steve’s name to be mentioned in our household again.
On the way back to Ohio that day, I told Tom that I didn't want Brian’s memory to be treated in the same manner as Steve’s was by forbidding the family to enjoy the very mention of him. Little did I know that when I made that request, the same situation would unfold.
We got back to our house in Lebanon and realized I would have to be the one to tell our family and friends. In a room—by myself—I began making those dreaded calls.
Tom was never in the room with the people who came to the funeral visitation. To this day, I do not know where he was. At one point, I stood over Brian’s coffin and I recited what I'd say to my son and stepchildren after their prayers when I'd tuck them in: 'Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite. Don't get up, don't get down…just sleep peacefully. I love you.'
The day of the funeral, I was made aware of an article in the Middletown Journal about his death with bold headlines that read: 'Police Watch While Man Kills Himself.' Another major upset to add to the painful events.
I had made up my mind that I wasn't ready to know what method Brian used to take his life...but the paper revealed it.
The day after I read those awful headlines, I went to the police station. In no way did I want those two police officers to have to wake up each morning thinking they had any responsibility for my son's death. Upon seeing them, I gave them both a hug and assured them that we did not blame them.
Whenever the older of the two officers would see me driving in town after that, he'd always motion for me to pull into the nearest parking lot and would have very kind words and a hug for me.
He is the one Brian shoved.
A show of respect from the police, indeed: even though Brian pushed one of their own—from the funeral home to the cemetery, police officers were stationed on each corner with their hats over their hearts.
When my prayers for their minds to be healed were not answered, it was never: 'Why, God?' My prayers asked Him for guidance and direction in how I could help others because they lived, and He eventually lead me to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I have been actively involved with the organization since 1996.
I have learned so much since, and because Steve and Brian lived, they have helped countless people. I also know that because my sons existed, they peaked my interest in learning about mental health and how to help save lives. For instance, in the NAMI Family-to-Family Education Program, we have an entire class dedicated to communication skills and how to support your loved ones. I heard firsthand from a participant that the course saved her son's life based on what she learned.
One thing I have come to realize and sincerely appreciate: for someone suffering with mental illness, suicidal death is not much different than a body ravaged by cancer…indeed, it is the illness that kills them."