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Your Schools: Tragedy of suicides leave unanswered questions

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Mark was my nephew godchild. Had he lived, Mark would have turned 29 years old this week.

Mark had everything going for him. He was smart, good-looking, and had an up-beat personality that made you want to imitate his ever-present grin. Mark was a well-liked senior at St. John's University, a member of the conference-dominating football team. His family and friends surrounded him with encouragement and support in many ways throughout his life, and it was inconceivable that he would have felt unloved. His faith in God was strong, and he had prayed from the bible with his sister the night before he died. Still, for all he had going for him, Mark, age 21, committed suicide that fateful afternoon of Oct. 29, 2002.

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All of the details of Mark's untimely death came rushing back as I visited two homes one week recently where a sibling and parent of River Falls School District students had taken their lives. Principals of the students joined me to express our condolences and that we stood ready to help when the surviving children returned to school.

In my work as a school and district administrator for 31 years, I have attended many funerals and wakes for students, staff, and their family members. I have visited homes where families were mourning the loss of their loved ones less than 24 hours earlier through car crashes, suicides, or fatal illnesses. I have cried with and hugged them and listened to their groping for answers as to why death made its unwelcomed visit to their doorsteps.

When Mark died, death had visited my own family, leaving with us many painful and unanswered questions. What could we have done to prevent his death? Was his depression, for which he had been receiving therapy and regulating medications, the culprit? Hadn't it seemed that his life was back on track and he was acting his old self again? How could he leave us all in such deep hurt and pain, yes, even anger? And was the truism that "suicide victims don't want to end their lives, just their pain," accurate in Mark's case?

Unfortunately, these questions remain unanswered eight years later. Day by day, our family picked up the pieces and moved on with the difficult business of living without Mark in our lives. Countless friends, coworkers, students, and acquaintances helped us through our grief and we're forever grateful.

After seeing the pain and shock of families in our River Falls community recently dealing with suicides, I was reminded of my commitment to do everything in my power to not let this type of tragedy be shared by any more families in the future. Mark made a wrong and final decision about his life as a result of his sickness, and perhaps, if we had been watching more closely as a family, we might have been able to prevent his death.

An outstanding story by Debbie Griffin in last week's edition of the Journal identified warning signs and risk factors associated with suicide. For a complete listing of suicide warning signs and risk factors of young people identified by the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program, please go to the school district's website www.rfsd.k12.wi.us and read the "From the Superintendent" message on the homepage.

Parents who might see a number of the signs persisting in their children for several weeks should have their child seen by a doctor immediately. Do not hesitate to contact your child's teacher, school counselor, nurse, or principal if you have concerns. You also can call me at the District Office at 425-1800 if you need me to listen or help send you in the right direction. I'm no expert on the topic, but I do have lots of experience, unfortunately, in helping families deal with suicide.

I had never thought that such a tragedy could happen in my own family; maybe you've thought the same for yours. Perhaps the hope found in my nephew's death is a growing awareness of the need to reach out and support others to prevent the loss of any human life at its prime. Then Mark's tragedy will not have taken place in vain.

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