Life is about gifts given to us and gifts that we give to others. All we have to give to others is ourselves. This has been a recurring thought during the past few months. The thought emanates from my participation in a weekly L.O.S.S. Support Group (Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide) sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Chicago Archdiocese. A gift for survivors!
It is 13 months since I lost one of those special gifts, my youngest son, Ryan. He was a self-reliant, creative young man, whose first sentence, “Rynie do self!” established his independence. The loss of Ryan tremendously impacts my life and the lives of everyone in my family. And now, the new “normal” for my life is a work in progress. This, too, is one of those gifts.
Jan. 1, 2005, begins like the beginning of any other day and any other year. Within a few days, Ryan announces that he is petitioning for early graduation from high school and his acceptance to our local junior college. I recall a few interesting days when he takes his high school finals and attends his college classes, all in the same morning. Aside from what I might consider an unusually quick transition, everything seems to be on track for Ryan. He works part time for a well known national electronics firm, he applies to DePaul University in Chicago for the fall semester and he attends our community college. He intends to enter pre-med and calculates that his completion of undergraduate studies in two-and-a-half years, providing he begins immediately and enrolls for summer sessions. His apartment is an inheritance from his sister, and his roommates are three of his close friends. He even speaks of specializing in anesthesiology. “Rynie do self!”
On March 3, we celebrate his 18th birthday. Later in the evening many of his friends arrive at our house. His girlfriend, Brittany, along with several others, brings a delicious and unusually shaped homemade birthday cake. This gesture catches Ryan by surprise and produces a great big smile and several hours of conversation. And the cake is enough for a week!
On Wednesday evening, April 6, at about 9:30 p.m., my wife, Penny, receives a phone call from a police office requesting to speak with Ryan. She indicates that Ryan is not at home, and asks his reason for seeking Ryan. The officer indicates that he forgot to return Ryan’s driver’s license, and he has the license at the station. The ringing phone awakens me in the bedroom. I mention to Penny that maybe he got a ticket and there is nothing we can do until we speak with him. I go back to bed.
Ryan returns around 10:30 p.m. to his mother’s questions and a relay of the officer’s message. Ryan shares with her that he quit his job. He indicates everyone in his department is suspect, because something is missing. Ryan leaves to get his license. He returns and goes straight to his room. Ryan is 18 and under the law, parents lose their right to know what happens to their children. This “right” supports the actions of Ryan’s employer and the local police in not disclosing significant information to us. The police insist that it is Ryan’s responsibility to share with us information concerning his arrest.
The next morning I am preparing to leave for the office at 6:30 a.m., when Penny shares her conversation with Ryan. I sense that something has happened. I check on Ryan and he is asleep. I choose not to wake him and to speak with him that afternoon after his classes. (Weeks later I discover that Ryan attends his morning classes at the junior college.) I leave work early to speak with Ryan and to coach a high school baseball game. As I drive up the driveway, I notice that the “vintage” car, handed down through four teenagers, is missing. Two weeks earlier, Ryan and I purchased a “new” used car to replace this vehicle that survived the driving skills of our four children. My thoughts recall Ryan’s announcement that he has a purchaser for our “antique.” So I think no further about it.
He was a self-reliant, creative young man, whose first sentence, “Rynie do self!” established his independence."
At 2:55 p.m. the door chime announces a visitor. My change into uniform is complete, except for shoes. When I walk through the living room, I observe a white SUV in the driveway with a small round emblem on the door panel. As I approach our front door, my eyes catch a glimpse of an “M” (municipal) plate on the front bumper. I open the door and a deputy coroner introduces himself.
“Are you Mr. Kirchhoff?”
“Do you have a son named Ryan?”
“I am sorry there has been an accident, Ryan was in an automobile accident and he did not survive.”
There is a momentary chill on my neck and a rush of numbness through my body. He explains that Ryan’s car collided with a tree at a high rate of speed and flipped into a ditch. He asks if I would be able to identify him. In shock and disbelief, I feel that I can help him and avoid obligating another. A fleeting thought of my Vietnam experiences cross my mind. I assure myself that I’ve done this before. I’ve dealt with the identification process several times during my 23 years as an Army aviator. But little did I realize that identifying my own son would much harsher and more upsetting.
The deputy coroner’s presence begins as the notification of a single car accident with a fatality. An initial police concern focuses on the lack of license plates on the car. Then phone rings. It is one of Ryan’s very close friends. He asks if Ryan is available. I share with him that Ryan had been in an accident and is no longer with us. “Oh, come on, Mr. Kirchhoff, you’re kidding, where’s Ryan?” he says. I repeat myself and the shock for both of us sinks in. He tells me that Ryan left a book with some notes in his mail box. “What book, what did the notes say?” I respond. With my questions, I see the deputy coroner motion and ask that the book and notes be brought over. Very quickly the scene at my home changes from a single car accident to the investigation of a suicide. Within minutes, our driveway becomes a parking lot of sheriffs’ vehicles.
My next task is notifying my wife at school, my oldest daughter who works at home and my son who attends college. Lastly, I phone my youngest daughter, after I know she arrives home from work.
As evening arrives, our immediate family gathers. Understandably, our oldest son indicates that he cannot make the drive at night. So we gather with our close friends and a steady stream of Ryan’s friends and their parents. Later in the evening we visit a group of Ryan’s friends at a nearby home.
On Friday we begin with preliminary phone arrangements. All day friends and relatives congregate at our home to share in hugs, tears and wonderful stories. There presence is a special gift that helps us focus our thoughts.
Saturday begins with preparation for the wake and funeral. We make all our decisions by a committee consisting of my wife, our two daughters, our son and me. This is a well functioning committee that makes significant decisions with minimal discussion. However, when the topic of memorials arises, our youngest daughter mentions AFSP. She is walking in the Out of the Darkness Overnight in memory of her close high school friend Brandy Howell. She tells us that AFSP is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and that we can request that memorials be sent to the Foundation. At that moment, we took a stand and took a giant step in moving from the shadows into the light. We did not realize that this gift would be the beginning of our healing process.
The days of planning open my eyes and settle my anger with the posturing of the police and Ryan’s corporate employer. As family and friends converged to support us and to help us prepare our final goodbyes for Ryan, I am aware that my anger hurts me, my loved ones and those around me, but that inner peace and love overcome the overwhelming emotions of my loss. I learn from others how the gifts of Ryan’s love, compassion and solace radiate from those whom he touched in his 18 years.
At the wake, I am very sensitive to the heaviness of the pain that radiates from everyone in attendance. I share that, “Ryan will always be with you. When you look into the mirror, you will see a little of Ryan in yourself.” Looking into the hollow tear-filled eyes of Ryan’s many friends, their parents, our friends and people we meet for the first time, I am aware of the affect that a suicide death has on a community.
As a family, this experience of compassion helps us focus our efforts on helping to eliminate the stigma associated with depression and suicide and to help others so that other families will not encounter such pain. A significant part of my healing and advocacy evolved from our participation in the 2005 Out of the Darkness Overnight, a 20-mile walk from sunset to sunrise along the Chicago Lakefront. A week following Ryan’s funeral, we established a team of five walkers, and three weeks later there were 55 walkers, each committed to raising $1000. Forty-seven of the 55 walkers were between the ages of 14 and 19. Working as a team was a gift for me and it allowed everyone to meet their fundraising goal.
The roller coaster of highs and lows is less extreme with time, because I allow myself to feel what I feel, to trust my own timetable for healing and to connect with other people. However, with time, I notice a change with some of my friends. A few of my long-time friends are repelled to even think that my son died by suicide. I think for a moment, REPEL spelled backwards is LEPER. Some have asked, “Why would he commit suicide?” to which I can only answer, “Suicide in not a choice. Suicide occurs when an individual’s resources to control pain no longer controls the pain.” Yet, my new friends share a gift of understanding and compassion. They are not afraid to talk about depression or suicide, or to check on me. Many of them are survivors of a loss. The single gift, a coping skill that helps me the most is my faith. I begin and end each day with meditation. I work to create those quiet mental moments during the day to hear God speaking to me. I am thankful for the gift of each new day, and the ability to share my gifts with others.
Rick lives in Crystal Lake, IL, and is an AFSP National Board Member.