The thing most on Sandy Ross’s mind, the thing this mother cannot forget, is the one thing people around her tried their hardest not to discuss with her. It was as if by not talking about her suffering, it would somehow just go away.
But of course, the death of two sons by suicide in 2003 would never be forgotten. So Ross took her broken heart and descended even farther into darkness.
“It’s a subject no one ever wants to deal with,” Ross said. “They think it’s a bad thing, you’re a failure. You have done a horrible job. I mean you’re just full of guilt, and it’s consuming.”
Five years later, the Chattaroy woman has emerged from her private hell of despair and alcoholism. Next month, she will proclaim this publicly when she participates in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk, June 21 to 22, in Seattle.
Ross, who teaches senior fitness for Community Colleges of Spokane, will walk 20 miles from sunset to sunrise to raise money and awareness for suicide prevention, research and family support programs. The Seattle walk, and another in New York overnight on June 7 to 8, are expected to raise a combined $4 million.
“The Overnight is a powerful, symbolic and inspirational journey for people touched by suicide,” said Robert Gebbia, the foundation’s executive director. “Millions of dollars will be raised along with awareness desperately needed to end the stigma that continues to be a barrier to seeking help.”
The foundation, which has 24 chapters from coast to coast, hopes to use some of the proceeds to establish a Washington state chapter in Seattle, Gebbia said.
Research shows 90 percent of those who die by suicide have an underlying psychiatric problem, Gebbia said. “If you can identify it and get treatment, it reduces risk for suicide.”
Western states have higher suicide rates than the rest than the nation as a whole.
In 2005, according to the foundation, 822 people died by suicide in Washington state, a rate of 13.1 per 100,000 population. In Idaho, 278 people took their own lives, a rate 16 per 100,000. The national rate is 11 per 100,000.
“We believe it is related to more isolation, access to firearms and less services available in rural areas,” he said.
Gebbia said it was not his intent to engage in debate about firearms. He merely points out that suicide often occurs on impulse and guns are among the most lethal methods. Last year, 32 of the 80 suicides recorded in Spokane County were firearms related, according to the medical examiner’s annual report.
“If somebody is being treated for depression or who has been identified as having psychiatric problems, it is advised to store away firearms,” Gebbia said, as a precaution. he also suggests packaging medications in smaller quantities.
“A barrier during the moment of attempt may save a life,” he said.
There was no available barrier, nor recognizable warning that Ross’s 22-year-old son Zach would take his own life in February 2003, Ross said.
Though he was often down in winter months, she said, “We had no idea he was in such deep depression.”
Zach had graduated the year before from Western Washington University in plastics engineering and was still living in Bellingham. He had served two internships and had at least one job offer.
His mother described him as “a tall, beautiful young man” with a strong work ethic, an overachiever who strived for perfection. “He expected a lot from himself and I think he kind of got lost.”
The Monday before Zach died, he visited his younger sister, Sabrina, in Seattle. Later in the week, his roommate came home and found Zach hanging in his closet, his music still playing on the stereo.
“I came home on Thursday and the sheriff was there,” Ross said. “It was the most devastating thing that ever happened. My children were my life.”
Ross, her husband, David, both 60, and their three surviving adult children sought counseling.
Her son Casey, a year older than Zach, thought of himself more or less as Zach’s twin, Ross said. He took it very hard, but of course, they all took it very hard.
“He promised, we promised if we had any feelings whatsoever of deep depression or suicidal thoughts, we would call each other, have a meeting, discuss it,” Ross said. “We all made a pact that we would do that.”
But six month after Zach’s death, Casey, who worked for his father’s transfer and storage business, did not show up for work. It was unlike him not to call or answer the phone at his home, Ross said.
“The next day, David knew something was up. So he asked one of his work friends to go over there with him,” Ross said.
The door was locked, so her husband called police who broke into Casey’s home. He had killed himself in the same manner as his brother.
Autopsies for both brothers showed only trace amounts of alcohol and no drugs. There were no notes, nothing to explain why they took their own lives.
“I really lost it,” Ross said, recalling her thoughts at the time. “How much can I take, God? You’re not supposed to give us more than we can handle.”
She could not leave her bedroom, let alone her house, she said.
“So I became a huge alcoholic,” Ross said, crediting her recovery from two years of alcohol abuse to her Christian faith and Alcoholics Anonymous, where she finally “got to speak.”
Over time, she said, she realized what everyone who has lost a loved one to suicide must know. “I no longer blame myself. I was a very good mother.”
After coming to this realization, Ross said, the choice for survivors is much clearer.
“You can either go into deep depression yourself, which I did, or you can pull out of it and live your life. Casey and Zach would not have wanted me to die with them. I have two other beautiful children that I need to be here for.”
Talking about her loss and grief has meant everything to Ross. Alcohol-free for three years, she has rededicated her life to bringing attention to the issue of suicide in the hopes of saving lives.
“I was so excited to hear about this walk, because it needs to be talked about,” she said.
Walking with her Seattle next month will be her daughter Sabrina; her daughter-in-law Amie Ross; and Lennie Rasmussen, of Seattle, a good friend of her daughter’s who also has lost a loved one to suicide.
Each member of the team they call “For Our Guys” must raise $1,000 to participate. The team’s goal is to raise $6,000 for the foundation.
Ross also offered advice to parents:
“Pay attention to your children. Listen to what they have to say. Appreciate every little moment with them. Be open with them. Discuss everything, good and bad.”