A Mother Turns Loss into Advocacy
I first met Adam Kruse when he was a little boy. The youngest of three siblings, he was a happy child with a mischievous grin and sparkling eyes. Adam’s family lived in my neighborhood and over the years they moved, we moved and, like many former neighbors, our contact was rare. Becky, Adam’s mom, and I would see each other occasionally and catch up on life.
Five years ago, I attended Adam’s funeral. The smiling little boy that I remember had bought a gun and shot himself at a picnic table at Minshall Park on July 25, 2007, just shy of his 23rd birthday, which would have been August 24 that year.
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the third-leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds, after accidents and homicide. The risk of suicide increases dramatically when kids and teens have access to firearms at home, and nearly 60 percent of all suicides in the United States are committed with a gun. Oklahoma averages 71 youth suicides a year, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Health.
Not long after Adam’s funeral, Becky and I had lunch. Her pain was palpable, like a dark object sitting at the table with us. At that time, I wanted to write an article that might help other parents like Becky and maybe help prevent a young person from taking his or her life. But it has taken me this long to be able to write about it. More than five years. Even now, I can’t write without tears.
I recently asked Becky to meet with me to talk about this article, to talk about Adam. She said she had put up her Christmas tree, not at her house, but on Adam’s grave, which she does every year. It’s a small silver tree that she decorates with lights and butterflies, a symbol of hope. There are still no decorations at her house, only a nativity scene. She can’t bear to see the three matching ornaments she bought for her children every year, thinking that they would take them with them when they were adults.
“I look for joy,” Becky said, “but it’s really hard to find.”
We looked at the photos of Adam that Becky always carries in her purse along with the small amount of ashes in a film canister. Adam looks out of the pictures, a handsome, smiling young man, a soccer player, a thinker, his arms thrown around the shoulders of friends.
Becky will never have the answer to why this perfect young person from a supportive family would have felt so much pain that he just couldn’t take living any more. There were no drugs or alcohol in his system.
Looking for clues, the family went through Adam’s Tulsa apartment, only a few miles from his parents’ home. The apartment was filled with books.
“He had over 100 books, and very few material things,” Becky said. “He was an old soul, a caring, thoughtful kid. A lot of his books were philosophical, like Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. I don’t know. Maybe he was searching for meaning.”
In a way, it is a fitting novel, a bildungsroman about the education and experience of a young man, Hans Castorp, who, like Adam, was searching, trying to reconcile seemingly incongruent ideas such as body and soul, health and illness, or life and death. Castorp says, “it is disturbing and unpleasant to have the body act as though it had no connection with the soul.” I wonder if Adam felt that way, too.
Rather than retreat into herself after Adam’s death, Becky has become an advocate for suicide prevention. In order to survive, Becky began to write notes to Adam. The notes have become a book, Note to Adam: One Mother’s Struggle to Cope with Suicide, and Her Personal Journey to Find the Light. She donates all proceeds from selling the book to suicide prevention causes. Becky also speaks to groups about suicide, warning signs and prevention, and especially her personal experience.
“Oklahoma is 10th in the nation per capita for suicides,” she said. “I want to turn that around. I want us to be in the bottom ten. I asked myself how I could prevent this from happening to another mother. These are numbers we can change.”
According to Eric Jett, director of the CALM Center in Tulsa, there is no single indicator of why a young person would commit suicide, and he said that some people, as was the case with Adam, may never show those classic signs to parents or others.
“They may be smiling and not showing it. That’s where the small things are important,” Jett said. “That’s why it’s important to keep communication open. What upsets one child may not upset another child.”
Jett said that parents can help by knowing what goes on in their child’s life, by getting to know the child’s friends and what’s going on at school and online.
“Kids can have entire lives online [that adults may not know about],” he said. “And depression in adults and teens is very individual. Signs might be that a person is withdrawn, sleeps more, is not as active, or has changes in appetite, eating more or eating less. Some people are really good at being able to hide that. They might sit there and smile and say the world’s OK.”
Becky pointed out that Adam was at college and had come back to Tulsa to work and attend Tulsa Community College. While he had experienced some changes at college, Becky said that she didn’t think the changes were atypical of young people that age.
“He seemed normal,” she said.
Later, she learned that some of his friends might have suspected that he was struggling.
“The friends might notice something is going on,” Jett said. “We need to educate our kids about speaking up. Say, ‘Come and tell me or talk to a teacher or a counselor.’ If a kid ever says, ‘I’m thinking of killing myself’, take it seriously. It’s better to be over-cautious.”
If a child or adolescent is talking about suicide, parents should seek professional help. For imminent threats such as a suicidal statement, Jett said that people can call the CALM Center or COPES through Family & Children’s Services or the 2-1-1 helpline any time of the day or night.
If families want to have a conversation about suicide, Jett said that there are media tools that they can watch together. Families can go to www.cinematherapy.com for those tools. “I recommend a film called ‘Cyberbully’ about a girl who is experiencing bullying on Facebook,” Jett said.
Becky encourages people to talk about suicide. While no one wants to think that his or her child might commit suicide, the fact is that the numbers are so high that almost everyone knows someone who is touched by suicide in some way. It may be a classmate, an uncle, or the friend of a friend. The CDC estimates that one in five teenagers in the U.S. seriously considers suicide annually.
Since most people who are suicidal are depressed, Becky believes that screening young people for depression is a good idea. Educating communities about depression and suicide, the signs to look for and what to do also can prevent these deaths. She also encourages citizens to support mental health funding.
In doing this article, I had hoped to find an answer to why young people like Adam commit suicide, but came up with maybe what Adam had found in Thomas Mann’s novel – that those of us he left appreciate the fragility of life because death exists. Adam is at the top of Mann’s Magic Mountain while we struggle here below. If you’ve read the The Magic Mountain, you know the ending. Young Hans Castorp is “life’s delicate child” that “leads through death,” and that peace for humanity only comes through love.
Note to Adam
Becky’s book can help youth and adults understand suicide and what happens to a family touched by suicide. There is an extensive list of warning signs and resources included in the book.
To purchase Note to Adam: One Mother’s Struggle to Cope with Suicide, and Her Personal Journey to Find the Light by Becky Kruse, go to Steve’s Books, 2612 S. Harvard, Tulsa, OK; barnesandnoble.com or amazon.com.
Becky also started an annual Out of the Darkness Walk for Suicide Awareness and Prevention in Tulsa, which usually takes place in the fall. For more information, go to www.outofthedarkness.org or www.afsp.org.
Here are some possible warning signs from the American Psychological Association (APA):
- Talking About Dying – any mention of dying, disappearing, jumping, shooting oneself, or other types of self harm
- Recent Loss – through death, divorce, separation, broken relationship, self-confidence, self-esteem, loss of interest in friends, hobbies, activities previously enjoyed
- Change in Personality – sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, tired, indecisive, apathetic
- Change in Behavior – can’t concentrate on school, work, routine tasks
- Change in Sleep Patterns – insomnia, often with early waking or oversleeping, nightmares
- Change in Eating Habits – loss of appetite and weight, or overeating
- Fear of losing control – acting erratically, harming self or others
- Low self esteem – feeling worthless, shame, overwhelming guilt, self-hatred, “everyone would be better off without me”
- No hope for the future – believing things will never get better; that nothing will ever change
- Warning Signs
- Suicidal thoughts
- Substance abuse
- Loss of purpose
- Feeling trapped
- Loss of hope
- Mood changes
- No access to weapons
- Close ties to family and friends
- Problem solving skills
- Support for seeking help
- Treatment for addiction, depression, or mental health problems
- Belief in self-preservation
- Medical care
COPES Crisis Services, 24/7 help at 918.744.4800
Counseling and Recovery Services of Oklahoma CALM Center, crsok.org, 918.394.2256. The CALM Center provides a safe and caring place for youth ages 10-17 to receive immediate support, assessment and stabilization for an emotional, behavioral or substance abuse crisis and time of the day or night.
Call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 211
www.spanusa.org (Suicide Prevention Action Network)