Jan and Pat Garrity

When Jan and Pat Garrity’s son, Sam, completed suicide on September 28, 2015, they had no idea how to get through.

“After the initial shock, we mapped out a plan for ourselves,” Jan said. “We said, ‘If we still don’t want to get out of bed and can’t stop crying in 90 days we will need to get ourselves help.’ Thankfully, we had a very good friend who brought us information about the Helpline Center and we joined a counseling group with other survivors of suicide. We gleaned a lot of good stuff and built some great relationships. Our group has developed into a little family.”

Jan and Pat traveled to the Helpline Center in Sioux Falls once a week for nine weeks and now meet monthly with other members of the group. During the session the counselors and attendees discussed the grieving process, coping strategies, handling anger and guilt, how men, women and children grieve differently, dealing with holidays, anniversaries and special days, the stigma of suicide, the healing process and hope.

“At the beginning of the sessions I would have laughed at the prospect of ‘hope’ being something I could experience ever again,” Jan said. “There is so much pain and guilt.”

Sam Garrity

The Helpline sessions helped Jan and Pat learn that they had to have compassion-compassion for each other, for their friends and families, for strangers and for themselves.

“You have to give compassion to yourself, also,” Jan said. “You feel guilty and angry and you beat yourself up, but you have to be compassionate to yourself. That’s probably the hardest part. It takes work.”

Pat said he found it comforting to see other people struggling with the same questions he had.

“After this happened I had thoughts I had never had before,” Pat said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it through. I had these thoughts and they scared me and I didn’t know if they were right or if I was blowing it out of proportion or if I was being reasonable. The group let me know that it was normal that I should freely talk about my thoughts. I heard others who had gone through the same things, so I knew that I shouldn’t be scared. Because there were people who were further along in the process, we could listen to them and then forecast in ourselves things that might be ahead. It gave me understanding of my own thoughts and feelings and tools to measure by.

“It’s only through talking about it that we start to understand,” he said. “In this society there is so much, ‘keep your chin up,’ ‘pull yourself up by your boot straps,’ but that’s not how life is. We all hurt terribly.”

Pat said the pain of grief from suicide is a different kind of grief than when someone you love dies in other ways.

“The broken heart hurts so much in this grief and you wonder if you’re going to come out the other side,” Pat said. “Not that I thought I wouldn’t be alive but, more that, I wouldn’t be me–that I might be something I don’t want to be.”

As with all types of grief, Jan said, you realize you can’t put time limits on your feelings.

“You have to keep working at it. You have to remember to be compassionate to yourself spiritually, physically, emotionally and it won’t happen overnight. It could take years,” Jan said. “When I look back at our 90-day plan, I realize how little we understood.”

Sam is the Garritys’ only child. He was adopted from Seoul, Korea in 1992 when he was 5 months old. As Sam was growing up, the family ran a business near Mission Hill and Sam was a huge part of it.

“He loved being part of the orchard,” Jan said. “He was very smart, he went to Sacred Heart School and graduated from SDSU cum laude. He had a free ride to go to law school at USD.”

Sam played in band, was an Eagle Scout and was very social, Pat said.

“He had an internship at Daktronics, and they suggested he should go to law school and then come back and work for them,” he said.

Jan said Sam’s first year of law school went great. He, along with a partner, won (law school) competitions and things seemed to be going well.

“School came very easy to him, everything just seemed to stick to his head,” Pat said. “Then things just seemed to unravel last summer. He was questioning school but he didn’t express it much. The next thing we know he’s gone.”

Jan said after the initial shock and devastation, the first year is hard.

“There is the initial grief which is mind numbing, then there is the year of firsts,” Jan said. “The first holidays without him, the first birthdays, then you grieve for the things you’ll miss. Sam was a second-year law student and we were looking forward to his graduation and watching his career take off. We weren’t planning on being bereaved parents. It’s like the last 23 years were just gone.”

Guilt is a common factor of grief after a suicide, and Pat said he has struggled with his feeling responsible for not seeing the warning signs in his son.

“There is so much guilt,” he said. “At 23 you think your kids have become adults, they are working or in college and you’re not involved in their daily lives as much, but if I have anything to say to parents of young adults it is watch your kids. If something doesn’t seem right just a little bit, it’s so easy for them to slip right through, so keep your eyes open and if something may possibly be a warning sign just try to help as much as you can.”

Pat said he saw little nuggets of things that now he knows were probably signs that something deeper was going on, but at the time they didn’t seem as profound. Pat said he would like to develop an (digital) app or website kind of like WebMD specifically for mental health issues.

“Parents could go to this app or website and type in behaviors they have seen in their adolescent to young adult children, and it could help them identify warning signs of different mental health issues,” he said. “I knew Sam had a bit of anxiety. I urged him to go to the doctor and he did. So much of mental healthcare in this country ends with the physical doctor.”

The inaccessibility of mental healthcare is frustrating to Pat. He said when someone has a physical ailment they are sent to the lab for testing or to radiology for imaging but when they have a mental health issue they are given a pill and told to come back when their prescription runs out.

“Why aren’t the mental health professionals right there in the same building, so the (medical doctor) can send you over for an assessment?” he said. “You can get some counseling along with that prescription and not have to go somewhere else. There is a crisis out there, and we are losing kids left and right.”

Suicide is an uncomfortable topic for most people but it is also something that affects many people’s lives, especially in South Dakota. According to the American Association of Suicidology, there were 141 suicide deaths in South Dakota in 2014, which makes South Dakota eighteenth in the U.S. for suicide deaths. It is the second leading cause of death for youth and young adults in this state.

“There is definitely more awareness than, say 25-30 years ago,” Jan said. “But I do think it’s something that is still really hard to talk about. I have to talk about it - I have to let it out because I have so much love for him.”

“A lot of it comes down to fear of making us feel bad,” Pat said. “People feel like if they mention it and I cry that they’ve hurt me again. I’m always hurting. It’s better to ask what they can do or just say ‘hi’ or give a hug or bring a hotdish casserole. Not recognizing it is not the way to make it go away. We need to acknowledge it.”

Along with acknowledging the grief is acknowledging the cause of suicide.

The Garritys are working on a business plan to provide research for mental health issues for the Sam Foundation in memory of their son.

“We don’t have a lot of concrete things in place yet, but we feel very strongly about this and we are going to make it happen,” Pat said.

Jan and Pat both found comfort in the group counseling sessions that were specifically for suicide survivors.

“There are local grief counseling opportunities, but the Helpline Center is specifically geared toward suicide,” Pat said. “I think if we were in a regular grief counseling group we would have been a mess, it was good to be with a group of people who are all in the same boat. It was definitely worth the hour drive.”

The Helpline Center was such a help for the Garritys and their desire to raise awareness of local suicide prevention has spurred them to help organize a local suicide prevention walk.

“We and other members from the Yankton community are working with the directors from the Helpline Center in Sioux Falls and Yankton’s United Way to organize the hosting of an annual ‘Step Forward to Prevent Suicide Walk,’ Jan said.

The 2017 date will be announced this month (September) along with more details on how to become involved and/or how to register. All proceeds support statewide and local suicide prevention and crisis programs, they said.

“We are in a club we didn’t want to join,” Jan said. “But now we have to do something very special to make it through the pain and to help others so they don’t have to go through this.”

Now there are only memories and – hope, Jan said.

“Sam was very witty, very funny,” she said. “He was a great writer and he was great at telling stories. He could get a room full of people laughing. He was a beautiful speaker. It’s so hard to think of him having that broken heart. It hurts so much thinking of him suffering and not saying anything. If he’d only uttered something.”

“We were very close, we talked two to three times a week, there just wasn’t enough there to make us think, ‘Whoa, what are you thinking about?’” Pat said. “So if we can help just one person.”