James Donaldson notes:
Welcome to the “next chapter” of my life… being a voice and an advocate for mental health awareness and suicide prevention, especially pertaining to our younger generation of students and student-athletes.
Getting men to speak up and reach out for help and assistance is one of my passions. Us men need to not suffer in silence or drown our sorrows in alcohol, hang out at bars and strip joints, or get involved with drug use.
Having gone through a recent bout of depression and suicidal thoughts myself, I realize now, that I can make a huge difference in the lives of so many by sharing my story, and by sharing various resources I come across as I work in this space. http://bit.ly/JamesMentalHealthArticle
Marlie Rowell sat weeping in her art studio as she unraveled one of her husband’s red sweaters.
She tugged methodically at each fiber, and at the stigma and shame surrounding his death.
The process was cathartic and therapeutic, and it empowered her to heal from the grief.
Using strands of that red yarn on canvas, embellished by raw words, untamed paint and intact clothing items, she documented her road to recovery.
Marlie is a self-proclaimed suicide widow. Her husband, Dick Rowell, died Aug. 30, 2009.
She has a website titled “Suicide Widow Etiquette.” Its front page explains how “hush-and-hide-all-things-suicide helps everyone else sleep better … unless you’re a suicide widow.”
“Suicide is so taboo, and the hush is toxic,” Marlie said during a recent interview at her South Salem home. “It really makes healing harder.”
As organizations, mental health professionals, schools and communities focus on suicide awareness and prevention — in the wake of at least five Salem-area teen suicides in the past five months — often forgotten are the people left behind.
With every suicide experts estimate there are at least six survivors who are most affected by the death. Family members. Close friends.
In Oregon, 7,288 people have died by suicide the past 10 years. Do the math, and that’s nearly 44,000 Oregonians experiencing grief that can be especially complex and traumatic.
Those coping with this kind of loss often need more support but get less.
Few people knew Marlie’s husband suffered from clinical depression. Not the kind of depression that makes someone feel sad for a few days, but the kind that makes someone feel hopeless for weeks, months, sometimes years.
Dick Rowell waged a decade-long battle with the illness. He sought professional help. He tried various medications. All the while, he hid it from friends and colleagues, with help from his wife, because of the stigma.
Help is out there
It’s often said the person who completes suicide dies once. But those left behind die a thousand deaths. They struggle with unanswered questions, especially “Why?”
Suicide loss survivors feel a range of extreme emotions, including guilt, blame, rejection, anger, shame, and relief. And in some cases, the grief is so painful they don’t think they can go on.
Research shows family members of individuals who die by suicide — including parents, children, and siblings — are at increased risk of developing major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal behavior.
“Suicide destroys so many families,” said Todd Pynch of Crisis Chaplaincy Services, a Salem nonprofit that provides crisis support to emergency service workers and grief counseling to others in the communi”When it’s a child, divorce rates are extremely high,” Pynch said. “There’s so much of the blame game that gets played. They’re left alone, and their friends are gone.”
Previous coverage: Salem tackles taboo subject in wake of Sprague crisis
Pynch works with 35-50 families each year impacted by suicide, primarily in Marion County. Each family and each person experiences grief in their own way and at their own pace.
Some seek one-on-one counseling, which is what Marlie and her two adult children did. Some attend support groups. There’s one for suicide bereavement that meets twice a month at West Salem Clinic. And others go at it on their own.
No matter the path, the hope from those who offer support is that the grief is not compounded by isolation.
Everyone experiences grief in their own way and at their own pace. A suicide loss survivor in Salem shares what helps her on the path to recovery. Anna Reed, Statesman Journal
“It’s about letting people know they’re not alone,” said Jennifer Rothrock, co-facilitator of the West Salem Suicide Bereavement Support Group.
Her 18-year-old son, Mason, died by suicide in 2009. She found healing through her volunteer work. There was no local support group when her son died.
The one she co-facilitates today with Bruce Carson is an open group for friends and loved ones of those lost to suicide. They’ve been trained to lead the group, but neither is a mental health professional or a counselor. They’ve simply experienced suicide grief.
“We don’t tell anyone what they should do or how they should feel,” said Carson, whose 25-year-old son, Michael, took his life in 2013. “They should know they’re not going to be judged.”
Life slowly gets easier, suicide loss survivors swear, but it takes time. A long time. And most admit they couldn’t have survived to where they are today without help.
Marlie now has the strength to talk about her family’s experience, but only because more than nine years have passed since Dick died.
“We still talk about my husband. Other people don’t,” she said.
Remember life, not death
Dr. Richard “Dick” Rowell was a well-respected pediatric dentist in town. His patients adored him, in part because he always made available the latest and greatest electronics and toys in the waiting room of his practice.
He grew up in Salem and graduated from South Salem High School and Oregon State University. He attended dental school at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, and completed his residency at what is now Oregon Health & Science University.
He and Marlie were married 28 years. They met in Portland at the apartment complex they both lived in. She blocked his car during a snowstorm.
They have two children, Patrick and Kari. Their family enjoyed many trips snow skiing, boating, sailing, and biking. Dick was athletic and loved golf.
He had everything to live for, a loving family, a luxurious home, a successful practice. No one said that to Marlie’s face, but she knew they were thinking it.
Those same people had no idea Dick had been diagnosed with clinical depression, which can cause people to lose pleasure from daily life and experience feelings of hopelessness.
Dick often told Marlie he was “damaged goods.”
Clinical depression, also referred to as major depression, is a common and serious medical illness that that can affect one’s body, mood, thoughts, and behavior.
And it can lead to suicide.
Depression is like cancer
Mental health experts estimate up to 60 percent of people who die by suicide have major depression. But not all people who suffer from depression — more than 16 million adults in the U.S. — attempt suicide.
“Mental illness is not treated as an illness but a weakness,” Marlie said. “My husband worked so hard to heal. There was nothing weak about this. We hid it because of the stigma.”
She remembers the time they were invited to a gathering for one of Dick’s buddies who had cancer and those attending were asked for their prayers and support.
Later, Marlie lamented to her husband: “Isn’t it a shame you are so sick, and you can’t ask for the same support?”
She remembers him looking at her in a panic as if she was about to tell the world about his battle with clinical depression.
They never told anyone.
But the family didn’t hide it after his death. They addressed it during Dick’s church memorial service, which made some people uncomfortable.
Marlie wrote something for the pastor to read, and it started like this: “Dick is finally at peace. For over 10 years, Dick worked so very hard to beat the demon of depression. His depression spread like a cancer in the brain, and despite vigilant medical and emotional care, his illness was terminal.
“Dick fought hard; we admired his bravery and courage. I’ve never worked on anything as hard as Dick worked at healing.”
A star-shaped glass jar stored behind cupboard doors in Marlie’s studio is a reminder. She pulls it out whenever she needs to remind herself how hard her husband tried to live.
She calls it the “Jar of False Hope.” It’s filled with medications her husband took over the course of his illness, white, yellow, pink and brown tablets and capsules of all sizes. He took them to help him sleep, to help him stay awake, and to help relieve the pain.
Dick was a big believer in science, his wife said, but no pill could cure his illness.
“Other people — lots of people — do get help from meds,” Marlie said.
Just as important to her was being open and honest with patients at her husband’s dental practice. She sent a heartfelt letter to parents and noted how the children helped him survive as long as he did. She asked them to remember how Dr. Rowell made their smiles brighter, healthier and bigger.
“We need to talk about the fun times we shared with him,” she wrote. “Like slipping into the banana chairs, wearing funny sunglasses, watching the fish swim, and playing all the games there for us.”
He didn’t give up, he wore out
Dick died on a Sunday morning. Marlie thought he was golfing. She was at church.
He planned it so it would be easier on the family. To Marlie, it was “kind and gentle suicide,” if there is such a thing. He helped himself to sleep is how she puts it.
“I had known for many months that this could happen,” their son, Patrick Rowell, said. “I was calling him almost every day just to let him know I loved him and I cared about him and was thinking about him.”
Dick used to tell Marlie he would never take his own life, but she knew just how much pain he was in. He was hospitalized for his depression for three weeks a few months before he died.
He didn’t give up, she said, he wore out.
“Just as cancer eats healthy cells, depression ate every last ounce of hope in his brain.”
He left notes for her and their children. They had fewer unanswered questions than some suicide loss survivors, but their grief was no less profound and complicated.
Just say ‘I’m so sorry’
In the days and weeks after her husband died, Marlie was numb. She didn’t sleep well.
Simple tasks like making coffee became insurmountable. One day she’d forget the water. The next day she’d forget the coffee grounds.
“I was scared by that,” she said. “My memory was extremely compromised.”
The best advice she received was from Chaplain Pynch: Take care of yourself and your children, no one else. She didn’t return phone calls. She put a sign on the front door with the message, “Thank you for dropping by, we’re resting.”
Friends and neighbors left food on the porch, which they greatly appreciated. People tried to offer support in other ways, some more than others. Many didn’t know what to do or say.
“I’m so sorry” would have been enough, Marlie said.
“Find the courage to end it right there and say nothing else,” she said, dreading the times when someone would launch into a story about another person’s tragedy and how they survived. “In the beginning, I couldn’t bear another ounce of sorrow.”
She couldn’t even watch TV.
One friend offered to just sit and listen, on multiple occasions, whether Marlie was sad or angry. She just listened. That helped. Another friend dead-headed the flowers on her porch. The simple and unsolicited gestures turned out to be the most helpful.
Marlie couldn’t predict when the tears would come, and she was hard on herself when they did.
The weeks turned into months. She eventually allowed herself the courage to just sit and feel the pain. It wasn’t nearly as scary as she thought it would be.
The first Christmas was, in her words, horrible. She and her children “ran away,” taking refuge at her brother’s in New York. The unexpected bonus was that she felt anonymity for the first time, and no one gave her “the look.”
At about the five-month mark, she convinced herself a suicide death was no different than any other death. But then, a few weeks later, her dad died.
She went to her hometown of Great Falls, Montana, for the service. Everyone who attended expressed their condolences and said they were sorry about her dad, who died what she now refers to as a “respectable” death after heart surgery.
Only three people said: “I’m sorry about your husband, too.”
“The hush that surrounds mental health and suicide is toxic,” Marlie said. “I want to tell you we’re better about the shame, but I honestly don’t think so.”
Healing through art
Marlie Rowell addresses the expectations of being a suicide widow, and the artistic process is therapeutic. Anna Reed, Statesman Journal
Marlie was chastised the first time she called herself a suicide widow. She was just being authentic, which she believes is the gateway to real healing. The words empowered her to face her feelings.
“So much in my life was appearances and faking that Dick wasn’t sick,” she said.
Art became her own personal therapy, and it was raw. It addressed all the expectations and static around her, people insisting she was fine, pleading with her to not cry, urging her to stay busy, and to stop calling herself a suicide widow.
She incorporated words in her art, opting out of the denial game and accepting her reality. She owned it, including all the sorrows and fears, and “unlocked the portal to a doable, sustainable, sanctified recovery.”
A year ago, her art installation and lecture premiered at High St. Gallery. The event was a fundraiser for Crisis Chaplaincy Services. The response was mostly positive, although there were mutterings of “She needs to get over this.”
“If Dick dropped dead of a heart attack, and the fundraiser was for heart disease,” Marlie said, “nobody would say she needs to get over it.”