Mothers who each lost a son to suicide share mission to erase stigma of mental illness
Published: Monday, August 22, 2011, 6:15 AM Updated: Monday, August 22, 2011, 7:39 AM
You can’t imagine the sadness of two moms who sit down at a kitchen table to talk about how their young sons died by suicide.
You can feel the emptiness as they talk. The pain in their words.
But you can feel power, too, and strength. Their mission to prevent other young people from ending their lives feeds their souls.
Mary Eardley lost her 21-year-old son, Matt, in July 2009. He had been struggling with depression.
Jeni Fritz lost her 16-year-old son, Branden, in May 2008. Something didn’t seem right. She knew he was struggling.
The women sit at Eardley’s kitchen table in Wyoming with photos of their handsome, smiling sons. Through the kitchen window behind her, you can see Mary’s bountiful flower garden, part of it a memory garden for Matt, filled with plants that friends and family gave her when he died.
They hate it that young people struggling with depression and other mental illnesses are too ashamed or worried about others’ reactions to get help.
“The biggest thing is stigma,” says Eardley, 53, who works in customer service for a fundraising company. She grieves her loss with husband, Kyran, and sons Jeffrey, 30, and Mark, 27.
“I want to put a face on mental illness,” Eardley says. “My son was a happy child, a normal kid with no trauma in his life.
“He came to us at 19 with these feelings. He said he didn’t feel right. He had anxiety and sadness.”
Eardley says she watched her son, once vibrant, lose pieces of himself to depression over time. Matt, a Catholic Central High School graduate with lots of friends, just started feeling immensely sad.
“It came on like an emotional cancer,” Eardley says.
“I begged him to get help. I asked him, if he had cancer or diabetes or any other illness, would he want to get help? He said yes. I said, ‘Then why not get help for this?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’
“I know why,” Eardley says. “Because of the labels that come with mental illness and because his world was so dark, he could not see the light.”
Matt eventually took medication for depression, Eardley says, but he didn’t like the side effects.
“Three days before he died, I said, ‘Matt, we need to do something.’”
Eardley doesn’t like the words “killed himself” or “committed suicide.”
“Both of those terms sound like a crime was committed,” she says, “adding to the stigma.”
She says Matt “died by suicide” or “we lost him to suicide.” It makes it more clear it was an illness, she says.
Fritz, 40, a machine operator at General Motors, says she felt blamed and judged when Branden died by suicide. It was horrible, she says, piled on top of the already agonizing grief she felt with husband, Richard, and daughter, Rebecah, 21.
“You can’t blame anybody,” Fritz says. “It’s nobody’s fault. If its anybody’s fault, it’s everybody’s fault.
“Every one of us could have done something different, could have said different things we all play a part in this,” Fritz says. “We tend not to talk about mental health, but our brain is an organ of our body and we need to take care of it. We need to talk without the fear of being labeled or the stigma that surrounds it.
“His friends said, ‘How could we let this happen to one of our own?’”
Branden was a football player, runner and wrestler at Wyoming Park High School who would stay home on a Friday night to play horse shoes with his family. He loved animals and planned to be a veterinarian, until the day he had to take his dog to be put to sleep. Then, he changed his mind, his mom says, “because he didn’t want to take another little boy’s dog from them.”
He made breakfast for his mom every Mother’s Day, and when he’d pass through the kitchen, he would grab his mom to dance and joke that this would be what it would be like on his wedding day.
“He would say, ‘You will always be my No. 1 girl,’” Fritz recalls. “It’s things like this that I miss the most. In a moment with one bad choice, he was gone.
“He thought we’d be better off without him,” Fritz says of her son. “We’re not. Not a single day goes by that I don’t say Branden’s name.”
“They want to stop the pain,” Eardley says, “and that’s the only way they know how.”
“They’re not right in their mind, at that moment,” Fritz says. “I knew Branden was in some kind of distress. I said, ‘We’ll talk about it tonight.’ That night never came.”
The two moms met at an Out of the Darkness Walk, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They clicked, they say, not just out of shared grief, but a shared mission to talk about what happened, to try to erase the stigma of mental illness, to try to keep other families from experiencing the loss they feel.
“Kids need to be able to talk about it,” Eardley says. “People are battling this every day. We need to talk about it, talk about the treatment, talk about if one treatment isn’t working, try another.”
She knows her son Matt was in a place so dark when he died, he couldn’t know the devastation he’d leave behind.
“It’s on your mind 24-7,” Eardley says. “People assume if you’re out laughing and having a good time, you’re OK.”
She’s quiet for a minute, the fan humming behind her.
“They don’t see you in bed at night,” she says. “There’s always this ... right here,” she says, tapping her heart. “He should be here.”
When she speaks again, it’s to other teens who might think things would be better if they died.
“You are loved,” Eardley says. She brushes tears away. “If love alone could have saved Matt, he’d still be here. But the darkness was such that he can’t be here.
“We are not better off,” Eardley says. “We miss him every minute of every day.
“We just had Matt’s first birthday party,” she says, then her eyes fill with tears as she catches herself. “I mean Noah’s,” she says of her grandson. “I call him Matt sometimes.” She takes a deep breath.
Her grief has taken her to such a dark place “I feel God has given me a glimpse into what Matt felt,” Eardley says. “It was so dark one day, I thought I should go to a facility. By the next day, I was feeling better. I can’t imagine feeling that day after day and it never going away.”
“I contemplated suicide,” Fritz adds quietly. “I couldn’t function. I didn’t work for eight months.”
She goes to counseling every other week.
“I wondered if this hell is what Branden went through and never told anyone,” Fritz says.
Eardley speaks up and speaks out now, more than she ever thought she would.
“When I hear people say, ‘She’s crazy’ or ‘He’s nuts,’ I say, ‘You mean she has a mental illness?’ Maybe I make those people mad, but ...”
“Too bad,” Fritz says.
“In the case of mental illness, the words we use can cut to the core,” Eardley says. “I can tell you Matt was not ‘crazy,’ he was not a ‘nut case’ or a ‘loony tune.’ He was not ‘out of his mind,’ ‘disturbed’ or ‘wacko.’
“He was a son, brother, grandson, cousin and a nephew. He was a friend to many. He was an athlete, a runner. He loved dogs, he liked music and movies. He was popular in school, but nice to everyone. He was kind. He helped people in need. He helped kids at school who ‘did not fit in.’
“I think one of the problems with the word ‘mental illness’ is that people hear the word mental and think it is just that,” Eardley says. “They think since it’s mental you can control it, just snap out of it.
“Would you tell your heart to ‘just allow’ proper blood flow when there’s a clot present? Would you tell the tumor inside you to ‘just stop growing?’ In most cases, you would seek treatment. The same holds true with an illness in the brain.
“If we can talk about it like we do any other illness, then they’ll feel like they can talk about it, too,” Eardley says.