Suicide prevention and awareness is something four years ago, my family and I knew very little about. It was something that happened to other families that had a history of mental illness or drug abuse.
Now, suicide has touched our family and our community. And I now know that suicide penetrates all demographics. No one is immune regardless of your religion, race, socioeconomic status, or family values.
I share my story not only to educate the community on suicide awareness but also to give hope. I want to offer hope for those who believe they will never survive a loss. I want to offer a little glimmer of hope to anyone who has lost someone to suicide.
Let me begin by sharing some of Brian with you. Brian was everyone’s best friend. Often befriending the “not so cool kids”. So often he would reach out and check in on friends he thought were struggling. He had some friends in high school that were depressed or many that were abusing drugs and alcohol. He would talk with them and let them know they were not alone or urge them to seek help. After Brian died, I heard from many of Brian’s friends that he was there for them when no one else was.
He was a charmer with everyone but especially the girls. He certainly was a Romeo. Brian always had girlfriends. I think his first girlfriend was in about second grade. That was just the beginning. There was seldom a time when Brian did not have a girl by his side. His friends were always wondering how in the world does this small, skinny kid have the prettiest girls.
Brian was just one of those kids you thought had it all together. He had words of wisdom beyond his years and was often referred to as an “old soul”. He would be comfortable playing with the little kids or sitting down and talking with his elderly aunts and uncles. He was also comfortable talking with his teachers. He certainly wasn’t the best student by far but he was always a teacher favorite because took the time to talk with them about the subject matter, and was enthusiastic and always upbeat.
His sensitivity and charm were what made him so special. Brian was very sensitive to people and their feelings, and you knew he honestly cared about you. I'm guessing that he was so concerned about others; he didn’t take the time to care for himself. Or maybe he was too busy looking at others who were struggling and it was his way to avoid looking inside himself.
People will ask, did you see warning signs; did you know he was depressed? Well at the time, I thought Brian was a teenager dealing with normal teenage angst. He would sleep a lot and take naps. He was moody at times and stayed in his room watching tv or on his computer. But if I had known then what I know now, maybe the outcome could have been different. He was the youngest of three boys, his brothers went through the challenges of being a teenager and survived and I assumed his struggles were no different. In fact, out of my 3 boys, I felt Brian was the perfect combination of his two older brothers.
About junior year in high school Brian had times when he would become anxious and have anxiety attacks. Sometimes, they were strong enough that he needed to be dismissed from school. But he seemed to be managing them. He saw therapists and tried medications but never seemed to feel much better. Socially, he was still very active. Always hanging out with his friends. You would never know that he was depressed or anxious. He had a steady girlfriend, played lacrosse, and was involved in events at school. Spirit week was his favorite week at school. His grades were good and began applying to college. Then towards the end of senior year, he seemed to be on an upswing.
As a family, we had our share of life’s issues raising three boys. We had also lost my parents a few years apart, our family dog Max died suddenly. And as you can imagine, the boys often challenged our patience. There were also losses in our community. Brian’s 16yr old lacrosse friend Larry died suddenly. His friends step brother died in a car accident. And a well -loved mom in East Lyme died suddenly. Brian’s sensitive soul seemed to be affected more by losses and challenges than others his age.
But Brian seemed to be doing well. He successfully graduated high school, transitioned to college without any issues. He chose to attend Castleton State College where he was studying to be a teacher. It was the perfect environment for him. It was nestled in the mountains of VT. Brian loved the mountains and the snow. Killington Mountain was where Brian snowboarded over 50 times his freshman year.
But it was towards the end of his freshman year in college that we began to see signs that something was different. Brian had lost a lot of weight. The reason he claimed was that he didn’t like to food at school. Later we heard that his friends at school had to coax him more and more to go out. And when he came home from school for the summer, he slept a lot, didn’t get together with his friends much, and just wanted to go back to Vermont. Brian began struggling again and I encourage him to see a therapist. He did. He assured me he was fine, especially when he went back to VT; he called it his safe place. So as his Mom, I felt he was finding his own way, transitioning from friends at home to friends in VT.
Hindsight is 20/20… I look back now and yes there were signs. After Brian’s death, I attended a training program with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. Up on a slide there were the warning signs of people at risk to suicide. I could have checked of most of the boxes. That was so hard for me to see, I was his Mom, I should’ve known.
Now that I am a “so called expert” in suicide, concerned people will ask my opinion when someone they know is having mental health issues. Do I take their words or actions seriously? My recommendation would be overreact now and apologize later!
Exactly one month before Brian died he was home for the a few days. It was the year anniversary of his friends step brother’s death who as I mentioned, had tragically died in a car accident the year before. We were all devastated with the tragic loss of this young man. I remember going to his funeral services, and seeing his Mom, I was thinking, how is she doing this, I couldn’t never survive. Never did I think I would be walking in her shoes. Brian wanted to be there for his friend and his family, so he spent a lot of time with them throughout the year. It look back and I can see know how difficult that must have been for Brian.
When Brian was home that weekend he had an appt. to see a therapist. When he returned he was in tears. Saying, too much has happened to you mom, it’s all too much. He didn’t want to go back to school and leave me alone. I tried to soothe him and say I would be Ok, I was moving forward and I would be fine. And you, I said, you have your whole life ahead of you. Your friends in VT, school, snowboarding, and you’re going to go away to Europe next year. He was going to study abroad.
In retrospect, his concerned wasn’t as much about me as it was about HIS feelings of too much; Brian was saying it was all too much for him. He did go back to school and when I spoke to him after he got to VT, he reassured me that he was fine! VT was his safe place where he forgot about his stress.
Brian’s death shocked us all. Never did I ever think he would take his life. Suicide was never in my vocabulary. I didn’t know that depression or sadness could be fatal.
As you can imagine, I went to my knees and into shock. When I got home I was physically sick. I instantly retreated to the darkness of my bedroom, shades drawn.
Within hours of the word spreading through our tight community, our house became filled with neighbors our friends and family came from out of state. Brian’s friends came back from college, some parents flew the kids home immediately. Our safe little community could not grasp how this well loved young man would not want to live.
In my early days of grief, I was numb. Eating was difficult and sleep was impossible. All I could manage to do was breathe in and breathe out. I am still humbled at how the grief affected my physically. I have always been active, exercising and walking everyday, but walking felt impossible. After about 4 days, someone convinced me to go outside and take a walk. But I could only scuff my feet. Walking a short distance felt like I ran a marathon.
Now I realize a traumatic and sudden loss is often compared to being admitted to the intensive care unit in a hospital. Your body is physically traumatized, your immune system is compromised and you feel as though you are in life support.
People ask, "How did you survive?" Most tell me that I am strong, but believe me, I not that strong. Many mothers shared with me if they lost their child that they would never survive. I thought that too. But honestly, what is my choice.
I wish I had the answer as the HOW, especially for those who are just beginning this journey. There is no one reason why I survived. Maybe it was the process of endless searching, searching for the unknown, searching for answers, searching for the why’s and then the letting go of all the searching.
We received hundreds of cards from people everywhere. But there were two cards from mothers who had lost sons to suicide. One a teacher I knew years ago. She wrote in her note that her son died from depression, she gave me her phone number and said she would be happy to meet with me. After a few weeks, I was able to reach out. We met, walked and shared about our sons. She would check in on me, send me a text and see how I was doing. Another mother, a total stranger, also sent me a card. She too had lost her son to suicide, and gave me her number, invited me to her home, I went over and we talked for hours. I wasn’t alone. These mothers had survived. Maybe, just maybe, I could too.
In December after Brian died a met a mom at a Compassionate Friends group who had just lost a daughter a few weeks before Brian’s death. A few months later we connected. In February I met two other mothers who tragically lost their sons in a car accident.
The following spring I reached out to mother who also lost a son to suicide. We met and bonded in a way no mothers should ever have to. But I don’t know what I would do without her today. We had our own weekly walking therapy sessions. My circle of bereaved moms sadly continued to grow. I was more comfortable with strangers than with my close friends and family. When I was with others who had shared a loss like mine, I somehow felt normal.
We laughed, we cried, and shared stories about our children. But most importantly we knew we were not alone. We were now members of a club no mother ever dreamed they would be in. Their grief was my grief. When an anniversary date or a birthday approached, they comfort one another with words and understanding because they know how each other feels.
I tried therapy. In fact I went to several different therapists. But at first, no one could help me or reach me in a way that I would accept their help. I wanted my son back, if they couldn’t give me that, I wasn’t going to see them.
So I would stop seeing them and then several months later I would try another therapist. I guess that was my way of not giving up. I was searching for anything that might bring some relief to this pain. Over time, some of the advice from the many therapists eventually sunk in.
I know in the beginning I wasn’t ready to hear that we never completely heal from our loss, but over time, the grief softens. I wanted to be done with this grief. As one of them told me at a session, “The bad news is a broken heart still beats, but the good news is a broken heart still beats.”
I continued to search for anything that would help me make sense of something senseless. I went to support groups for Suicide Loss. First in CT and then I discovered one in MA. I attended Compassionate Friends meeting, and I went to retreats for Grief and Loss. The retreats were so hard, I often cried my way through, leaving exhausted. I always left feeling as though I was one of the only mothers that I was such a mess!
How would I make it through? Would there ever be a time when I can attend a group or retreat without being a slobbering idiot! But for each difficult and painful step I took, my grief would ever so slowly soften. I began taking 2 steps forward and 10 back (over and over again and I still do that) It’s part of the process.
I am not certain when I started to gain some traction on this journey. But we slowly started to get involved with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention. In the fall of 2012, we walked the Out of the Darkness Walk to raise money for suicide prevention. Once again we learned we were not alone.
I met a Mom whose story of loss was so very similar to mine. Her son was also going to school in Vermont, he snowboarded like Brian, and he was loved by so many. This mom is certainly one of my inspirations. A person despite her loss has opened her heart to me. She also introduced me to other mothers who lost children and invited me to join the CT Suicide Advisory Board where I met more parents who had lost children. Young men so much like Brian who died by suicide. In these parents, I saw hope. They were doing something so positive to honor their children, working tirelessly to promote suicide awareness and reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness. They survived, and maybe, just maybe, I could too.
There was one piece of advice that struck me. It was from one of the many therapists. I remember crying so much during the session; I told him I didn’t think I wanted to go on. He said, “Ann, your love for Brian will always be here and never go away. When we love someone, as a part of our love, we do things for them to show them how much we love them. Brian is no longer physically here, but you can still show your love for him. You need to take your love for Brian and do something with it.” I guess that touched something in me. Those words planted a seed of hope. That seed has grown into the Brian T. Dagle Memorial Foundation.
I knew that helping others felt good. I knew how grateful I was when those two cards came in the mail. I met so many parents and mothers who were also suffering from the loss of a child but they were willing to open their hearts to me. I know that there are people out there today, that are struggling after losing someone they love and they are wondering, just how will they survive. Maybe I can’t tell them how, but I can tell them that somehow they will. And this burden is too heavy to carry alone. Let’s walk together.
It has been four and a half years since Brian died. People ask me, how are you doing. My answer is usually OK. I’m not over it, time doesn’t heal all wounds but I am learning to weave my loss and Brian into my life.
I still take one day at a time, sometimes I need to remind myself to breathe in and breathe out. And yes, there are days when I sometimes wonder why? Why is this my life? But then there are days when I facilitate a support group and begin to see light slowly returning in the eyes of a grieving parent or spouse. Or I receive a phone call or meet with a newly bereaved survivor of suicide loss, and let them know, they are not alone and offer hope from someone who has walked in their shoes.
I am proud to say that the Brian T. Dagle Memorial Foundation going strong. The mission of the Brian T. Dagle Memorial Foundation is to promote hope and healing for people who are grieving the loss of someone special or struggling with the challenges of life by providing support services, education, and resources to nurture both their physical and emotional needs in Southeastern Connecticut. In addition to grief support the Foundation strives to educate people on suicide prevention and promote awareness of suicide risk factors and warning signs.
The truth is that we don’t ever get over such a loss. When your heart is shattered into pieces, it will never be completely whole again. But I now understand that the only way out is through and I will continue to go backwards before I go forward.
After I give a talk or share my story with strangers, I think how cool is this. How cool is it that I can talk about Brian to so much! His love continues.
Thank you for listening to my story, Ann