They had dreaded it throughout their son’s three deployments: the knock. The horrible, hollow, echoing bang that would end life as they knew it. 1st Lt. Danny Weiss was a Ranger, “the ideal” Ranger, according to officials in his unit. He loved his Soldiers and he loved being a Soldier, and his parents, Andy and Julianne, knew he was in danger in Afghanistan. He was in firefight after firefight, blast after blast. But, by some miracle, Danny came home time after time. Andy and Julianne celebrated his safe return, even as they mourned with him for the Soldiers and families who hadn’t been as lucky.
Still, when he opened his door the evening of Monday, Mar. 5, 2012 to find two uniformed officers, Andy had an initial moment of panic. Then he remembered that Danny was back at Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Washington. They had just talked to him Saturday night and he was fine. But Danny was a Ranger and could be called up at the last minute. “What the f&*$ are they doing here?” he wondered.
Pain and delusion
Through a fog, he heard the notification officer explain that sometime the previous day, Danny had shot himself. He was dead, as much a casualty of war as if he had been killed in action. Julianne collapsed. For his part, Andy couldn’t breathe. The pain was physical and intense, and Andy just couldn’t believe it. He refused to accept that his son could have done something so horrible. Andy was convinced that, however improbable, the Taliban had sent a hit squad after his son.
“The delusion starts and it’s part of the self-protection thing that I’ve learned since all of this,” he explained. “The stigma of suicide started rearing its head. I started asking, ‘How is this possible? What went wrong? What could I have done? What did I miss?’ … My son was an Army Ranger and a hero. It was inconceivable to me. I was so ignorant and my pain was so profound.”
Andy, Julianne and their older son, A.J., descended into a dizzying vortex of grief and other emotions. There was the emptiness, the living death experienced by any parent who loses a child, particularly Gold Star parents, but there was also a mix of feelings more specific to suicide survivors.
There’s guilt, of course, and most suicide survivors wonder what they could have done differently, why they didn’t know that a friend or family member was in so much pain.
“You will always wonder if there was something you could have said or done to prevent the death,” said Kim Ruocco of Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a military suicide survivor herself. “When we look back, the pieces are so much clearer and you have so much more information. … When you’re in the middle of it, you don’t necessarily have all the pieces. As a spouse or a parent, sometimes you’re too close to the situation to see things clearly. Your emotions get in the way. … When you look back, you wonder why you didn’t see it.”
Ruocco’s husband, John, a major in the Marine Corps, killed himself in 2005 in California, where he was stationed for training while Kim Ruocco remained on the East Coast with their two sons, who were 8 and 10 at the time. She knew he was having a hard time and he promised her on the phone that he wouldn’t hurt himself, that he would go to behavioral health. He killed himself hours later. Ruocco has a master’s in social work and worked with TAPS to start a program specifically for suicide survivors after she felt out of place among other Gold Star family members. TAPS now has more than 5,000 suicide survivors in its databank and Ruocco serves as the chief external relations officer for suicide prevention and postvention.
Shame and society
She felt out of place, as do many suicide survivors, she said, because while combat deaths are of course deeply painful, they are usually still a source of honor and pride for the survivors. Families come together and communities tend to rally around them. By contrast, suicide deaths are often a source of shame. They’re a source of questions and often disturbing revelations. They make other people uncomfortable. In fact, Andy has had old friends and acquaintances hide from him in the grocery store. They simply don’t know what to say. Other people ask awkward questions.
“I represent the worst possible thing that could happen: Death of a child to suicide. … My wife … made the analogy of the Scarlett Letter of the S, that the S would be on our foreheads forever,” said Andy, although he added that over time, that S has turned neon and helped him connect with other families. In some way, he said, his burden is easier than others’.
“I have … an American hero as my son who happened to die by suicide, who was an Army Ranger, decorated, loved. I know, with suicide as a common denominator, families who lost their loved one to heroin, families who have lost their (teenagers) by jumping in front of trains … young people being consumed by the most ridiculous things before their lives have even started. It’s so hurtful to me. I’m more concerned about that. Those deaths of people who are not as lucky hurt me more.”
Closely tied to the guilt is anger. Anger at oneself, another family member or even the victim is common, especially in the harrowing first weeks after a suicide, explained Mary Cima, a licensed clinical social worker who heads the bereavement committee at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia. “Sometimes (survivors) are able to process that and sometimes they have difficulty even having that experience, experiencing that emotion, because of the guilt around what they may or may not have been able to do … to prevent the suicide.”
“To feel sadness and anger at the same time is very confusing,” added Ruocco. “Sometimes anger is a lot easier to go to than sadness. Very often, people will mask their sadness with anger and be very confused by that, feel guilty at being angry at a person who died. So going through all of those emotions, being with peers who can validate that what they’re feeling is normal and help them navigate all of those emotions, is really, really valuable.”
Cima explained that family members often try to ignore or bury their anger, but “it requires the experience of those feelings in order to get to the actual grief. … Not processing that or accepting that you are angry at all delays the grieving process.”
Delayed grief can also contribute to something called complex grief, which, Cima explained, is basically clinical depression. It’s “when a person is not able to recover in a natural sort of staged way. When someone doesn’t go through those stages appropriately, it becomes complex grief. It’s a person just not able to recover adequately.” She said that survivors should usually be able to function at normal or almost normal levels on a day-to-day basis after six months. That’s not to say that they’re no longer in pain, far from it – Andy still experiences a range of emotions on a near-daily basis – but they’re able to work or go to school and get through the day. Professional intervention is necessary, Cima said, when there isn’t any kind of progression.
In fact, she believes complex grief is almost inevitable after a suicide death if a survivor doesn’t pursue counseling or at least a structured support group. She refers her patients to a medical doctor for antidepressants if they can’t move forward or if they can’t talk about their feelings. This is particularly true if by some awful twist of fate someone has witnessed the suicide or found the body. Then, she has her patient talk about the trauma as much as possible, believing the words are “almost physical. As long as they’re in you, they maintain your grief. They maintain the trauma. The more you say it, the more you get it out.”
Other factors can complicate grief as well. For example, Ruocco said that because many people have grown up in religions that traditionally teach that suicide is a sin and the victim goes straight to hell, it’s common to undergo a religious or spiritual crisis on top of everything else.
While he can’t speak for every religion, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mitch Butterworth of Full Gospel Churches, communications officer for the Office of the Chief of Chaplains, said that chaplains, at least, tend to take a far more enlightened, modern and sympathetic view of suicide.
“We all have to have a … master of divinity degree, and each of those components have counseling classes that we have to take to be a chaplain,” he said. “I think that training also, along with the broader view of how society now views suicide more from a psychological viewpoint, our counseling training also helps us I think to view suicide in a different way than what it was in the past. We understand that it was an act of despair. We understand depression because we’ve been trained in depression. We understand the family dynamics of a relationship break.”
Chaplains, he noted, are present for every death notification in the Army, including suicides, and can help families struggling with those questions. They can pray with the families if that’s what they want. They can also provide more long-term, in-depth grief counseling if family members ask for it. “It’s the presence. It’s being there. Sometimes you don’t say anything. Sometimes you don’t have the answers. We’re not in a place of judgment. We’re in a place of support.”
The Army’s Survivor Outreach Services can help families find support groups and mental health professionals anywhere in the country, Cima, who started the SOS office at U.S. Army Garrison Wiesbaden, Germany, noted. She also recommends TAPS for all survivors and Compassionate Friends for parents in particular.
TAPS tries to get to suicide survivors as quickly as possible and connect them with trauma specialists as well as other suicide survivors, said Ruocco. “We’ve dealt with the shame, we’ve dealt with the guilt, we’ve answered the questions, we’ve dealt with the spiritual pieces, we’ve helped them talk to the children, we’ve helped them set up a healthy grief journey … we’ve helped people find professional care if they need it. … We connect them with other suicide survivors so that they can see you can survive it. They find hope and they find a sense of belonging. Eventually, they find meaning in the death and some new purpose in their lives going forward.”
TAPS saved his family, said Andy. About six months after Danny’s death, they attended TAPS’s National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp, which just happened to take place at the same resort where he and his wife used to take their young sons.
“We were going to a place of almost comfort. There … as I entered a room and saw over 600 people wearing red shirts as survivors of suicide loss in the military … I was overcome with how many of us there were. That was another stepping stone back up into some kind of existence that has a semblance of what I used to be, what I used to have: a normal life.”
Even after an investigation into Danny’s death, no one had any idea that anything was wrong. He had just talked to his parents, and that morning he met several friends and their wives for brunch. He bought a week’s worth of groceries. He gassed up his car. Then he went home and shot himself. No one knew he was struggling. He didn’t have problems at work. He didn’t have relationship or money troubles. He wasn’t drinking. He had one time talked about separating from the Army and casually mentioned that he didn’t think he would live to an old age, but Andy didn’t think much of it at the time.
“Now, unfortunately too late for my son, I recognize that the proper thing to do … is to speak clearly about it with them, to enquire what they’re really thinking,” Weiss explained.
“The stunning loss of Danny to this death – I’m never going to know the why. That’s one of the things I’ve come to accept.” As Andy puts it, he got drafted. The only way he could survive his son’s death was to find a sense of purpose and ensure that something good came of it. He talks to psychiatry students, serves as a peer-to-peer mentor for other fathers of suicide victims at TAPS and facilitates a TAPS group that meets monthly in the Chicago area. He also talks to Soldiers, in particular his son’s Soldiers.
“The greatest joy to me was one of these Soldiers reaching out because he was having dark thoughts and he thought to reach out to me. … We’re trying to change the stigma and make it more acceptable to understand that for these buff Rangers that physical health is only equivalent to mental health.” You don’t commit suicide in the same way you don’t commit cancer, he stressed, for the word commit implies some sort of intention. “You die by both. It kills you. One is a much more visible wound and one is much harder to see.”
Andy added that he died too that day in March. “You have to mourn the loss of yourself. A lot of survivors, including myself, struggle with that sometimes. People will literally come up to you and say, ‘Where’s the old Andy?’ That guy’s dead. He’s dead like Danny’s dead. You don’t go asking Danny to come back. Don’t ask the old Andy to come back. It won’t happen.”
Editor’s note: Andy shares more about his grief journey in “A Death by suicide: What I now know.” To learn about the effects of suicide on children, read, “What parental suicide means for children.” Learn more about preventing suicide in “Suicide: recognizing the warning signs,” at Army Suicide Prevention Program, Military OneSource (800-342-9647) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).