Jennifer Fitz is the author of Classroom Management for Catechists from Liguori Publications, and a contributor to numerous Catholic books, magazines, and online publications. Find her online at JenniferFitz.com.
In March of 2017, Anthony Gallegos committed suicide. Since that time his mother, Catholic writer Leticia Ochoa Adams has blogged openly about the raw and unvarnished reality of surviving the suicide of someone you loved dearly. Today we’re talking to Leticia and also to Gabe Jacobs, founders of The Red Door Foundation, a ministry intended to provided practical support to families grieving the loss of a loved one from suicide.
Leticia, over the past year you’ve shared online very candidly about the suffering that comes with suicide. I remember talking to a friend and fellow parent of young adult sons privately after Anthony’s death. We spoke of the pain you must be feeling as both “unimaginable” in the sense that until you’ve experienced it, you have no idea what it will really be like, but also painfully “imaginable” in that there’s nothing special about our own children that makes them immune to this temptation.
Let’s talk about the unimaginable: There’s intense grief, there’s self-doubt, there’s the recriminations from other Catholic parents who act as if it couldn’t happen to them, there’s the trauma you experienced in finding your son’s body . . . but those words don’t really explain the depth of the pain you’ve been through.
Is there a way you could describe the raw desolation of grieving a death by suicide?
Leticia: It feels as if I am in another dimension. Everything is the same but it is all upside down. I was in a thick fog for about the first eight months. The part about grief that I wasn’t really prepared for in this situation was the traumatic part. I have been through other traumas and other deaths but with Anthony, the two are combined. I have serious brain fog, I forget things easily and my attention span is pretty much nothing at this point.
In the first few months I even wondered if Anthony had really existed here and there. I would stand at the foot of his grave and have this serious urge to see his face and see that he existed. Had it not been for my great therapist and priests (that is plural on purpose), I don’t think I would have been okay. It has been fifteen months since Anthony died, and I still wake up in the middle of the night with my brain adding something to the mystery of what happened and why he died like that. Bits and pieces of information get put together like a puzzle in my brain, and then it just wakes me up and says, “Here’s this piece and it goes there!” It is really weird and has made me so interested in neuroscience and the science of trauma.
I think the crazy part is that just like it is unbelievable for people on the outside, it is just as unbelievable for me. Some days my brain just refuses to believe that it happened. Other days it is very clear to me that it did indeed happen and it hits me hard.
Gabe, here’s how Leticia described you to me: “He’s 18 and he’s super smart. He and Anthony had a very special relationship because Anthony always talked Gabe into doing stupid things like shaving his eyebrows (twice) and letting him be buried in the backyard. Gabe was super funny and cute, so Anthony would get him to make jokes and stuff knowing everyone would give Gabe a pass.” Since Anthony’s death you’ve suffered a second loss of a dear friend to suicide. That’s an unusually heavy load for someone to experience so early in life.
What do you think has made the difference in your decision not to give in to despair, but instead commit yourself to helping others who have lost loved ones to suicide?
Gabe: What made the difference for me was realizing that I had control. My only two options were taking control of my loss or my loss taking control of me. So The Red Door, to me, is the choice to take control of the situation and help others continue their lives with this new and strange burden.
When I saw your post about creating The Red Door Foundation, I and several others were very impressed with how you chose such specific, concrete objectives for your ministry. Can you briefly outline what those are?
Leticia: These are our first objectives:
- Pay for 6 therapy sessions, right after the death, for each member of the immediate family of someone who has died by suicide in our community.
- Give children who have lost a parent to suicide a Build-A-Bear certificate.
- Work with victim services of our local police department to offer dinner, food, and if needed a hotel, on the day of the death – no delays – for those who lose a family member to suicide. (The hotel was a lifesaver for my family, since we lost Anthony in our home.)
The big goal is to open a free mental health clinic in our town, preferably at our parish, and expand into the surrounding areas as far as we can manage.
How did you choose these specific objectives for your foundation?
Leticia: These are the things that helped me care for my family. People donated so much money and all of it went to taking care of my family. Even if how I did that was to use money given to us to buy camping supplies, so we could go decompress in the woods, floating in some water. We ate out a lot because I was not focused enough to cook, and also because we love to eat out and don’t get to do that often on our tight budget. It was a way for me to give the kids something else to think about. Also, it was not easy to sit at the dinner table eating dinner when we had had our last meal with Anthony there the night before he died.
Therapy was the key to our healing. We began therapy the very next day after finding Anthony. My husband is the one who found him first, and he spent two hours in therapy the next day. We have an amazing therapist and no health insurance. The year of therapy for seven of us was a total of about fifty grand. That is a lot of money. And that is with a sliding scale fee. So we don’t want anyone to go without therapy after losing a family member to suicide because they can’t afford it.
The Build-A-Bear idea was Anthony’s oldest daughter’s idea. She asked what I was doing when I was brainstorming, and I told her I wanted to help people who were sad like we were because her daddy was gone. She said she wanted kids to have a Build-A-Bear like she did, with her daddy’s voice on it.
Someone helped get us a nice hotel room for a couple of nights, and that is the only reason I slept at all the week after Anthony’s suicide. I want to do that for other families and not just get them some regular hotel room. The bed in the room donated to us was so nice that I could not help but fall asleep. The hotel also donated a bottle of wine and a cheese tray. It was the only thing I had eaten for 48 hours, and the wine plus the magnificent bed combined made me crash out. These are things that I have thought of based on what helped me and my family.
Gabe: I think we chose goals based on the only thing we can do for those in a similar boat as us. We know what it’s like to experience this hurt so we know what can help. When changing the world, it’s best to start in your own backyard.
And what kind of support do you need in order to make this happen?
Leticia: What we need is about $1,000 to set it all up. That includes getting a logo, a website, 501c3 status, and a CPA to make sure everything is legit.
We will then be working to raise the money to get going, as well as to cover the expenses for up to 6 families. Since Anthony’s suicide, there have been five more in our immediate community.
I have been praying and praying about this, and God keeps telling me just to put this out there so that’s what I am doing. I could use any help anyone would like to offer. I just want to help families who find themselves in this nightmare the best way that I can.
What are the things you really, really, want people to know about surviving the suicide of someone you love?
Leticia: There’s a lot to that question but I guess the main thing is for them to know that how their loved one died doesn’t define who they were or the life they lived. There’s nothing to be ashamed of and therapy and talking to my family has been the best way to heal for me. I miss Anthony every single day the same, if not more, as I did the day he died, but now I am able to see past that pain and use it to try to help others, and that really is because of my amazing therapist and my kids.
Anthony is not how he died. He is so much more than that, and his suicide doesn’t get to steal all of the great and also annoying things about him. He wasn’t perfect, but he wasn’t just someone who died by suicide.
To learn more about The Red Door Foundation or to donate, go here.