You are here

Joseph R. Gagnier Memorial Fund

Reaching for Healing and Hope
By Mary Youtz, Joseph's mother
Presented at the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Warrington, PA, on March 13, 2016.

Part 1: A Mother’s Journey
My firstborn son was a bright, witty and compassionate young man. But Joe struggled at times with anxiety, alcoholism and bouts of depression. In 2001, he asked me to drive him to a residential facility for drug and alcohol treatment in Lower Bucks County.

After rehab, as a recovering alcoholic, Joe began to see a counselor and to attend AA meetings on a regular basis. He gradually eased his way into better jobs and independent living during the next three years. I truly felt I could breathe a sigh of relief.

But in November of 2004, Joe was living in an apartment in Montgomery County, about an hour away from our home, and he wasn’t answering his phone. My husband, Joe’s stepdad, drove to Joe’s apartment to check on him. Ed found Joe on the floor of his apartment. Ed called 9-1-1 and checked for a pulse, but it was too late to save him.

We later figured out that Joe’s deep disappointment with a new sales job had tipped the balance. Joe had stormed out of work, driven to his apartment, and overdosed on prescription medications. It was three weeks before Joe’s 28th birthday, and his friends and family were stunned.

Joe Gagnier never had the opportunity to reach his potential in life. My surviving son lost his only brother, and Joe never got better acquainted with his stepbrothers in Delaware and Florida.

It also makes me sad that Joe didn’t get the opportunity to meet our three precious granddaughters. I know that Joe would have been a great uncle. He would have showered his nieces with love.

I will confess, it never had occurred to me – never, not once – that Joe would consider taking his own life. More than 42,000 people in the United States die by suicide each year. They leave behind countless survivors of suicide loss who must learn to cope and console one another.

At least 50 percent of people who die by suicide give some type of warning of their intentions to a friend or family member. But we never heard a word. In fact, my husband and I had the horrible task of cleaning out Joe’s apartment soon after he died and we didn’t find any clues to his thought process. I will always have more questions than answers about Joe’s short life.

Since his death in 2004, I have coped in various ways. First and foremost, I believe in the power of prayer. My deep and abiding faith matters greatly to me. It prompted me to write a poem: “Joe is Earth and Sky and The River running by. Joe is always with us.”

I also have tried to focus as much as possible on the positive aspects and good memories of my son’s life. One of my favorite memories involves this congregation.

Joe babysat in the Nursery for a few weeks in the 1990s. One Sunday morning, Joe walked in the front door, after viewing the gardens out front. Joe looked at me and said with passion, “This place rocks!” It was a moment I will always cherish.

Looking back, I also take comfort in the fact that Joe had a good childhood, with Cub Scouts, soccer and wrestling. He and his brother Dan had an ideal relationship in many ways while they were growing up.

Joe excelled in wrestling at Pennsbury High School and even participated in state competition. He completed a degree in elementary education at Lockhaven University, taught preschool for a year, and worked for a while with autistic children.

It was unbelievable to me that he died by suicide, and let me point out that he died on November 11, Veterans Day. Each year, while the nation is paying attention to America’s veterans, I also spend the day thinking about Joe.

Over the years, I have discovered that you never “get over” the loss of a loved one to suicide. You only learn to live with it.

I also have learned that everyone grieves differently. Some survivors of suicide loss need to talk about it. Certainly I am like that. Other people, like my husband, needed a great deal of quiet time to process what happened – and, quite frankly, we will never be done processing what happened.

Guilt is a normal reaction. You can’t help but look back, remember situations and say to yourself, “If only I had …” Or, “If only I had said …”

It’s also normal to feel angry at times, but I have found that doesn’t help the healing process. Obviously, Joe had a great deal of emotional pain. So, above all, it’s important that we feel compassionate toward him.

I also have learned that getting involved in life again, after the loss of a loved one, is not a betrayal of your loved one. It’s a sign that you have begun to heal.

During the past decade, I have been involved with the Greater Lehigh Valley Chapter of AFSP, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

AFSP’s mission is to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without AFSP – what my life would have been like as an isolated survivor of suicide loss.

AFSP was founded in 1987. This past November, it announced that the organization now has chapters in all 50 states.

Most of my research for this presentation today was made possible by AFSP’s written materials, website, programs and webinars.

According to AFSP, there is no single cause for suicide. It often occurs when stressful situations exceed the coping abilities of a person suffering from a mental health condition.

Depression is the most common condition associated with suicide. Unfortunately, depression often is undiagnosed and untreated.

Women attempt suicide three times as often as men. However, men are four times more likely to die by suicide, oftentimes because men are more likely to have access to firearms. In fact, firearms now account for nearly 50 percent of all suicides.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents and adults have two to six times higher rates of reported suicide. Transgender people consistently report high rates of suicide attempts.

Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. AFSP has set a goal to reduce the annual suicide rate 20 percent by 2025.

Meanwhile, researchers reported in January in Toronto that 38 percent of formerly suicidal people had reached a state of “complete mental health.”

The Toronto researchers found that individuals with greater social support were less likely to suffer psychological distress and other mental illness. That’s food for thought.

Part 2: AFSP Has An Impact
I first learned about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in 2005. I can’t bring Joe back. But thanks to AFSP, I can have an impact on the lives of other people who also are coping with the loss of their loved ones.

I serve on the board and write a quarterly newsletter for the Greater Lehigh Valley Chapter. I also distribute press releases and help with its events, including the annual walk.

Each year, AFSP sponsors more than 360 Out of the Darkness Walks throughout the nation. The words, “out of the darkness,” refer to the fact that we need to erase the stigma and shame often associated with suicide. Instead, we need to find compassion for those who die by suicide, and for their families and friends.

AFSP is a constant reminder that I am not alone. I feel that in such a powerful way during the Out of the Darkness Walk. The Greater Lehigh Valley Chapter held its 10th walk in October. More than 700 walkers raised more than $50,000. On the same day, the Philadelphia Chapter held one of the largest walks in the nation.

Out of the Darkness Walks raise awareness about suicide prevention, and generate financial support for research and programs related to depression and suicide.

In addition to the Out of the Darkness Walk, last November AFSP observed the 17th annual International Survivors of Suicide Day. The history behind this is very interesting.

Senator Harry Reid lost his father to suicide in 1972. In 1999, Senator Reid introduced a resolution and Congress then designated the Saturday before Thanksgiving as “National Survivors of Suicide Day.”

But because suicide knows no geographic boundaries, AFSP observes “International Survivors of Suicide Day”. For example, in the Lehigh Valley, we gathered at Lehigh Valley Hospital to watch a film featuring a diverse group of survivors of suicide loss.

Meanwhile, thousands and thousands of other people gathered at more than 300 locations around the world to watch the same film on the same day. The film is in English, but it also was made available with subtitles in 15 other languages.

AFSP also connects survivors of suicide loss to more than 900 local support groups in this country. It can be a relief and a healing experience to participate in a support group. Later this week, I will spend two days in Philadelphia, in training to become a local support group facilitator.

AFSP chapters also are advocates for state legislation. In Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Corbett signed Act 71 into law in June 2014. AFSP had advocated for this law, affecting public school districts throughout the state.

Among other things, beginning with this school year, professional educators in grades 6 through 12 are required to receive four hours of training every five years in youth suicide awareness and prevention.

Certainly we can’t prevent every suicide – teen or adult – but with the right intervention and mental health resources, suicides can be prevented.

However, suicide prevention in schools can be controversial. Some people believe we shouldn’t talk openly about suicide because it will plant the idea among students.

Yet many high schools and even middle schools already have had students who have attempted or died by suicide. Students need to take their fellow students’ attempts and even their comments about suicide very seriously.

On the national level, during AFSP’s Annual Advocacy Forum in June 2015, more than 250 AFSP volunteers and staff members asked all members of Congress for their support on suicide prevention priorities. Major talking points included the following:

1. Increase funding for suicide prevention research at the National Institute of Mental Health.
2. Increase funding for suicide prevention crisis lines.
3. Make military personnel and veteran suicide prevention a national priority.

Now, perhaps you noticed this morning that I never use the phrase “committed suicide”. The word “committed” usually is associated with a criminal act. Consequently, its use can re-victimize surviving family members. It is preferable to use phrases such as “died by suicide” or “lost to suicide”. The Associated Press has recognized this change.

If you are interested in learning more about suicide prevention, go to AFSP’s website at afsp.org. Also, in the event of a crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK.

On a brighter note, some survivors of suicide loss create unique ways to honor their loved ones. I am grateful to my husband because he readily agreed in 2005 to help me set up the Joseph R. Gagnier Memorial Fund. Joe’s fund is administered by the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation.

It benefits the Make Your M.A.R.K. program, an after-school tutoring program run by the Boys and Girls Club of Allentown. Joe’s fund awards scholarships to the program. Teachers tutor students in grades 2 through 5 in reading, writing and math.

It makes sense that Joe’s fund supports Make Your M.A.R.K., which stands for Motivated Academically Ready Kids. Joe majored in elementary education and he loved interacting with children.

Going forward, I will always remember Joe as a bright, witty and compassionate young man. I plan to be involved in AFSP in a variety of ways, to help other survivors of suicide loss, for as long as possible.

AFSP is largely responsible for my ability to cope with the loss of my firstborn son, in addition to the tremendous support of my family, friends and this congregation.

I am forever grateful that this congregation supported me from Day One. You never acted as if I should feel ashamed or embarrassed that my son died by suicide. You understood that Joe and my family needed compassion. I am forever grateful.