Is there still hope? Life after the suicide of a loved one, pt 1
This is the first of a four part series about correctional suicide
I must once again apologize to my regular readers for my absence over the last 8 months. Life has certainly taken some dramatic turns for me, and for those around me. Life has kept me from living for a while, but I am happy to report that I am back to shed some light on the lessons I have learned.
Typically my articles are fact based dissertations about a pertinent issue facing our industry. This article differs a little, as most of the story is based on emotion and life lessons.
I am not typically open to people about my personal life, especially as we cannot control who reads the articles I write, but my privacy has to take a back seat to the lesson I am trying to teach. The core of my lesson today: “Never, ever give up.”
I was not sure how to start this story, so let’s begin, as they say, at the beginning.
My birthday in 2011 was not pleasant. My marriage of 15 years had broken up, my spouse had run off with someone else, and to make things worse, she was mentally ill. My birthday was the day the restraining order against my soon to be ex-wife was signed. I was now a single, working dad, with two wonderful but crushed little boys. Life was not easy, but I had the satisfaction of knowing my boys were safe and taken care of between me and my parents. Getting up every day was a chore, going to bed was even worse. I had hit bottom emotionally, or so I thought.
The ending of a relationship on amicable terms is tough enough, the ending of a long marriage in threats, violence and stalking was even worse. The stress quickly caught up to me. I began to drink heavily, convincing myself it was okay as long as I only drank when the kids were asleep.
I quickly figured out that this existence would surely end in my emotional or physical demise and desperately looked for distractions. Taking care of the kids was a full time job, one I did with pleasure, but once the lights went out, my mind would race. I found some solace in the internet, and many nights, at the bottom of a bottle. I had never been alone before.
On May 30 I received a phone call that would change my life forever again. An old friend called to let me know that our high school buddy, a fellow officer, had killed himself. I do not use the word suicide, as it softens the impact of what really takes place. This officer, and many like him, had taken his own life with his off duty weapon.
I had not seen Phillip in many years, only knowing he was recently married, and that he was keeping to himself. It is not unusual for newlyweds to seclude themselves for a while, so I thought nothing of it. All appearances were his life was a happy one, and he was well on his way to a family of his own. I had not yet met his wife, but had heard her name was Jennifer.
I put down my drink and started making phone calls. The first was to his cell phone. I was hoping his mom had the phone in her possession so I could reach her. Lucky for me, a voice answered. The voice was sobbing loudly, and unable to talk. Another female voice came on the line and introduced herself as Phillip’s mother-in-law. I introduced myself, and asked if I could help. The mother-in-law, Gina, was not sure how to answer. I told them I would stop by the house the next day and help them make arrangements. Over the years I have had many brothers and sisters lose their life, many through suicide, so I knew what had to be done. I knew the phone calls to make, and the resources for assistance.
Through the Correctional Peace Officer’s Foundation, I was able to set up the information needed to start helping pay for the funeral. I had tucked away some savings that I quietly contributed to help pay the initial costs. The next day I arrived at the home. I had some experience in dealing with these situations, and was pretty sure I knew what to expect.
I knocked on the door, where Jennifer, the widow greeted me with a hug. She cried on my shoulder for a few minutes, and thanked me for the help. I found Phillip’s mother and consoled her, as well as Gina. There were a lot of people in the home, including Jennifer’s sister and children. The house, as expected, was chaos.
Before I go on describing the next few months, let me go out of order for a second to explain, to the best our knowledge, the circumstances of Phillip’s death.
Phillip, since we were kids, was a good guy. He talked us out of trouble all of the time, and was the voice of reason that kept us out of jail at least a half dozen times as kids. He was a volunteer firefighter at age 16, and by 21 was a reserve police officer. At about 25 years old he joined my department after asking me what it was like to work there. We spoke for several hours, and I cautioned him to the stresses of the job, and the danger involved. At the time, California’s prisons were teeming with extreme violence. Every day was a fight, and it was only through quick thinking, experience, and the brotherhood that you made it home at the end of the night.
Phillip wanted the stability of the state job in his life, and joined the department. He was assigned to several different prisons, before we ultimately were assigned to the same prison in 2008. For the first time we worked together, although our assignments kept us apart most of the time. I had since been promoted, and was working at the prison hospital, while he was assigned to the night shift. We would stay in touch from time to time, through quick phone calls or chance meetings.
A few days before his death Phillip had been out on the town at a local Casino having a good time. Unfortunately, he had a little too much fun and made a wrong decision, and was subsequently arrested for driving under the influence. His truck was impounded, and he was released on his own recognizance.
Phillip was still a reserve offer for the department, so there was an effort to keep the arrest out of the papers and the community. The arrest crushed Phillip. He did not tell his wife or mother of the arrest, but spoke to his counselor about it. Phillip was proud of his clean record, and his volunteer work. He knew this arrest would put all that in jeopardy. The stress was too much.
Jennifer and Phillip had also been displaced from their home, and were living in a nice local hotel. The plumbing in the home had failed, and flooded the entire downstairs. They were not expected to return to their home for several more weeks.
After talking to the counselor, he was prescribed a mood stabilizer to take the edge off. It was a strong medication, and not much direction was given to him on how to use it. Jennifer worked nights at an elderly care facility, so Phillip would often kill some time by going out at night. The night of May 29th was no different. Jennifer and Phillip kissed as she left for work. Phillip went to the bank, and then got a ride out to the casino to play and drink.
At some point, Phillip decided it was time to take the mood stabilizer, as he drank more. After at least six Long Island Iced Teas, Phillip left the casino. It was the last time he was seen alive. Somehow he had arrived at the home under repair, gone inside and shot himself. The investigation revealed a high BAC and a high amount of the prescribed drug in his system. The suspicion is that he was not even aware of what he was doing, due to the large amount of alcohol and medication in his system.
The day after his death, Jennifer recalled the horrible story of how she came to find out Phillip was dead. When she got off work, she returned to the hotel room to find the family dog alone in the room. It was not uncommon for Phillip to be gone in the morning to work an extra shift, but he never left the dog in the hotel room alone. Phillip always ensured the dog was with friends before he left. In instant Jennifer knew something was amiss.
Jennifer’s anxiety grew as she was unable to find Phillip after calling his work and his cell phone. Being newlyweds, they were rarely out of touch for long. After searching area hospitals and all of his known hangouts, Jennifer was certain something horrible had happened.