Survivors are the ones who face all the difficulties and burdens following a death
Two weeks before he was set to graduate from Red Bay (Ala.) High School and three weeks from his birthday, Ben Berry appeared to have it all. He was strikingly handsome, had a beautiful girlfriend and plenty of friends, was very popular at school and drove what many teenage boys in that era longed for: a dark green Ford Mustang GT.
Ben had something else, too. He had demons he apparently had been battling that no one else around him knew of until the afternoon of May 11, 1995.
That afternoon, Ben took his own life. He left behind loving parents Don and Joy, a younger sister, Deana, a younger brother, Lee, and countless friends. Twenty years later the pain of that afternoon and the aftermath are still all too vivid for those in Ben’s life.
September marks National Suicide Prevention Month, and Joy Berry said any pain and discomfort that comes from talking about the death of her oldest child will be worth it if it helps someone to see that the real victims of suicide are not the ones who die, but the family and friends who are left to pick up the pieces. Joy said this is the advice she would give anyone considering suicide.
“It’s an easy way out for them,” she said. “They don’t have to deal with anything else,” Joy said. However, “they are not the victim. You hear of ‘victims of suicide,’ but the people who are left behind are the true victims.”
‘Didn’t fit the mold’
One of the primary indicators of suicide risk is depression. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 50 percent of all people who die by suicide suffer from major depression. The Foundation states on its website that when alcoholics who are depressed are included, the figure increases to more than 75 percent. Depression affects approximately 25 million Americans each year, with nearly five to eight percent of Americans 18 and older experiencing these symptoms.
While depression is the leading cause of suicide, other things weigh heavily on these decisions, too, such as feelings of hopelessness, failure, guilt, rejection, or even as a means to escape abuse or the scars of abuse.
The problem is, many people do not exhibit the signs listed here. Too many times – especially in a social media-driven society where it could be all too easy to come to the conclusion that everything is rosy for everyone else – those most vulnerable feel they have no one or nowhere to turn for help. This makes it all the more difficult to offer help. Ben was in this category.
“He didn’t fit the mold of someone who would commit suicide,” Joy said. “He was at church the night before, and none of his friends had a clue. I had spent the morning with him, and I didn’t have a clue. You read, when you research this, that there are warnings. Not necessarily.
“At night he would come in and lay at the foot of our bed and talk to us. It was not like there was a lot of hidden stuff; it was not like he wouldn’t talk to us. He was the same way with his friends.
“I believe if you’re going to do that, you’re not going to give a warning because you want to do it and you don’t want to risk a failure or being talked out of it,” Joy said. “Psychologists may say differently, but I don’t buy that.”
Brad Bolton was one of Ben’s best friends, and following Ben’s death Bolton grew even closer to the Berry family.
“I have never thought we missed signs (that Ben was suicidal),” Bolton said. “I can remember the conversation I had with him in Mr. Hall’s class that Thursday morning. There was nothing out of the ordinary, not one thing. That morning (he) was the same laughing, joking and kidding around person that I had known for many years,” he said.
A seemingly innocent comment Ben made to his brother about a week before his death might have given a hint to what was to come, but it was a comment that, at the time, didn’t seem to raise any red flags.
“Lee had gotten into it at school with somebody and he told Ben,” Joy said. “Ben had always handled things for the kids; he was the big brother. But that day he said, ‘Lee, you’re going to have to learn to do things on your own because I won’t always be here.’ In looking back that seemed strange, but at the time it just sounded like something anybody would say. It didn’t register anything at that time, but why should it? That’s the only thing I could think of at that time that could have remotely been a hint.”
Numbers and causes
When Ben Berry committed suicide in 1995, he was one of about 32,000 Americans who took their own life that year. From 1986 to 1998, the number of Americans dying by suicide held fairly steady at just more than 30,000 annually. After a two-year decline in 1999 and 2000, the suicide rate has been climbing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Data & Statistics Fatal Injury Report for 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available), the number of deaths by suicide had risen to 41,149, making it the 10th leading cause of death for Americans overall. Among adults between the ages of 15 and 64, it is the fourth leading cause of death.
So why the increase? Some researchers believe the downturn in the economy in the mid-2000s may be to blame for at least part of the increase. Financial pressures and unemployment are thought to be driving some of the growth, especially among middle-class Americans.
Challenges and support
Joy and Don Berry drew strength from their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, and from friends, their church and their community after Ben’s death. Joy said she is not a strong person and she knows she didn’t survive Ben’s death on her own. She said her husband’s strength was critical in helping them work to make sure their marriage and their family didn’t fall apart after dealing with the trauma.
They also found that communicating about Ben was a way for them to move toward healing.
“We’re a very open family,” Joy said. “I had a little sister who died when I was six, and mother and pop . . . we didn’t talk about it a lot. They kept one or two little pictures of her. With Ben, we never took anything down. We’ve got boxes of his stuff (the family) can go through at any time. Deana’s class made a poster and each one made a friendship bracelet and put on it. Lee’s class got a baseball and each one signed it, and we still have that.”
The Berrys also had another major ally on their side in handling the pain and fallout from Ben’s death: the community.
“We had neighbors who would come and play with Deana and Lee every night because we just were not capable of it,” Joy said. She mentioned several names from the community who helped the family not only in the time of need, but for a long time after that. “That wouldn’t happen in a large city.”
Berry also said the support of the deacons at First Baptist Church Red Bay was tremendous. She said she would never forget the scene of the deacons, lining the steps of the church as her family entered for Ben’s funeral, praying for them.
A strange thing can happen, though, when a death so greatly impacts a community. Whether Don and Joy knew it, some of Ben’s friends and those close to them found themselves drawing strength from the Berry family.
“The days and eventual weeks after his death were tough for all of us,” Bolton said. “But what helped me and I would say all of us friends heal was the strength of Ben’s family. From the funeral home, to the Sunday morning service after the death, to the funeral itself, his family ministered to each of us, more than we ever could to them. Their faith in Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit’s ministering to them was a comfort to them and they were a comfort to the rest of us.”
A plea to reconsider
Joy said anyone considering suicide should think long and hard about what they are about to put their loved ones through, and should not go through with it. She is quick to point out, though, that someone considering suicide may not exactly be able to clearly process this.
“I would want them to know that their loved ones don’t deserve that,” she said. “That’s a burden that’s never erased. You have to approach it so cautiously because their mind is so messed up, even just contemplating it.”
For the victims of suicide, even life’s day-to-day chores can be unbelievably difficult.
“I remember the first time I went to the store afterwards, I was just almost sick, just having to get out and do that,” Joy said. “I didn’t want to get out and work with youth at church anymore. I thought, ‘how could I help somebody else if I couldn’t help my own.’”
It’s significantly difficult on friends, too.
“Losing anyone close to you is a life changing event, but losing someone at their own choosing is a deeper wound,” Bolton said. “Anyone who was friends with Ben recalls May 11, 1995 extremely well. Others who have lost friends and family can attest to dates that they will never forget because you do relive the days and weeks leading up to that particular date to ask yourself, ‘could I have done anything, could I have said something, did I pay attention?’”
Bolton said he would also ask anyone considering suicide to think about what that decision would do to the ones they love.
“When someone commits suicide, they shift their current pain and suffering to those they love and those who love them, and that pain lasts for a lifetime,” Bolton said. “If someone has even a shred of affection or love for another person on this earth, think about how it is going to destroy that person for this to occur.
“I would point them to one of my favorite verses of scripture to hold onto, 2 Corinthians 4: 8, 16-18, which focus on the temporary nature of life’s difficulties. These things you are going through right now are just light and momentary troubles, so don’t lose heart, focuses on the unseen because the unseen is eternal! I would try to let them know that God has a plan for them even if they cannot see it right now.”
An answer to why?
For the victims of suicide, seeking answers is not uncommon.
“This is going to be weird, but for a while I wanted answers, but now it doesn’t matter,” Joy said. She’s come to a place in life where she knows she will not understand this side of Heaven why this had to happen.
Bolton said ultimately he has to trust in God’s plan for Ben’s life.
“Time does click away and now we have been without Ben longer than we were with him but you never forget what he meant to us,” Bolton said. ”I don’t think you ever come to a conclusion or fully process what led to it or why it happened. You just have to trust that the Lord had a reason and a purpose for that trial in life. I know some people who came to know the Lord after Ben’s death. I know of this particular story being told to many youth groups, so perhaps that death has made a difference in someone else making a better decision. At the end of the day, you just have to trust the Lord as to knowing the why of it sometime in eternity.”