For survivors of suicide loss, 'there is no moving on', find solace in Howard support group

Survivors of Suicide group: "We are family."

The day Katrina Tagget pulled a gun out of her backpack and killed herself, the 21-year-old college student planned meetings for her law fraternity.

Katrina's death came as a complete shock for her mother, Sara Tagget, who never thought suicide was a possibility for her fun-loving, kind-hearted daughter who dreamt of becoming a lawyer.

Eight years later, Tagget said she still hasn't fully healed.

Tagget introduces Katrina through her memories at a support group at a Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia where, for eight years this month, survivors of suicide loss have laughed and cried and wondered about a unique type of grief only they can fully understand.

"I feel like I know Katrina and Tim and all of the loved ones we've lost and I've never met," said support group member Jill Coutts, a Highland resident who lost her 24-year-old son, Jay, in 2010. "We are family."

The group began in October 2008 when a handful of survivors, complete strangers who lived just miles apart, came together. The group, Survivors of Suicide, has since evolved into a place of solace, free of judgment, shame and secrecy — characteristics often suppressed by the stigma surrounding suicide and mental illness.

Tagget recalls gawking at the term "survivors of suicide." But after Katrina's death, she realized she "was living a war."

Members introduce each session with the name of the person they lost after lighting candles and reading a statement to remember the dead and the living.

For survivors of suicide loss, there is no moving on, only going on, members said. Each member must learn to embrace the "new normal" death by suicide creates and pick up on what Westminster resident Cheryl Brooks calls "learning moments."

"This is wisdom we don't want to have," said Judith Schneider, a Columbia resident who lost her son, Daniel, to suicide.

Daniel, a nature-loving musician and composer, battled mental illness for years.

Like other survivors of suicide loss, Brooks revisits the months leading up to her son's death painstakingly: What more could she have done to save Michael?

At 3 a.m. on Valentine's Day two years ago, Brooks fell to the floor as state police stood at her doorstep.

Her 31-year-old son, Michael, had killed himself. Just months before over the phone, she had coaxed him to push away a gun lodged in his mouth. The news made Brooks and her husband, Donald Baughn, numb.

Baughn realized there was "no right or wrong way" of dealing with the loss.

A Salisbury University graduate, Michael's love for facts led to a career in genetic engineering.

The pain for survivors is different because the death is the result of a choice, Schneider said.

"It's a special kind of loss that's not at the natural time. They made a choice and you wonder if somehow you could've stopped them," she said.

Brooks' grief is in its infancy, she said. There is no timetable for the grieving process; each group member grieves differently, she said.

"Still, their loss is our loss," Brooks said.

The conversations elicit introspection and nuance, but Coutts recognizes "there is no magic bullet" in retracing the past.

One member wonders if her son would be alive if she had breast fed him. Another wonders if she made the right choice in breast feeding.

Sue Holko, who lost her 32-year-old son, Jeff, to suicide the day after Mother's Day, said the "what if" questions weigh heavy on her heart.

"We drive ourselves crazy because we want answers to things we're never going to have answers to," Holko said. "Only they know what they were thinking at the time. Nobody else knows."

When she first joined the group in its inception, she listened quietly, rarely interjected or offered her feelings. Now, Holko co-leads the group with a crisis intervention counselor, Bridgette Eaton.

"I coped by helping others," Holko said. "Most people's intentions are good. They want to support us, but they don't know how."

Members said the experience of losing a loved one to suicide has made them more forgiving and less judgmental.

Tara Larkin, a Baltimore resident, lost her brother, Tim, to suicide. A paramedic known for being "a happy kid," Tim was fighting "inner demons" when he killed himself, she said.

Although she never wishes the experience for anyone, Larkin said the loss made her a stronger and better person.

"I don't ever have to apologize here. Everyone knows that the suicide is not all of me. It's a new normal part of me," Larkin said.

The stigma surrounding suicide often prevents family and loved ones from breaching an uncomfortable barrier and offering support, said Thea Turnagh, a Columbia resident who lost her brother to suicide.

"It's not surprising for us to react for a long time. It's normal to feel this way. We're not going to fall apart. It just means that someone you love died," Turnagh said.

Many survivors struggle to search for defining steps that could have prevented the loss and guaranteed a sudden change of events. The guilt of missing the signs and making mistakes is a lump that Schneider carries with her.

Part of going on is understanding you never truly heal, Eaton said.

"It is out of your hands," Eaton said. "It hurts, but it's not your fault."

Shocked by a suicide, parents like Coutts worried if their other child was next.

After her daughter's death, Tagget said she was also suicidal. Now, Tagget, who has since become involved in suicide prevention walks and organizations, hopes her daughter is proud of how she has channeled her grief into something productive.

To mark the eight years since her daughter's death, Tagget quietly re-lived moments she had with her daughter.

She went to Einstein's Bros. Bagels, watched "Bridget Jones's Baby" and ate the corner slices of a pizza, just as her daughter did.

These moments, Tagget said, are about going on.

It is no surprise then that the candle-lighting ritual that begins each session involves two candles.

One for the dead and the other for the living.

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