Six-year-old Alex Fiorino had a wish. On a recent visit to the fountain at the TownMall in Westminster, he tossed in the coin his mother, Heather Fiorino, had given him. He then instructed his mother that he couldn't share his wish with her or it wouldn't come true.
But she already knew.
Alex's father had committed suicide several years earlier. So, when Alex could no longer hold his secret and decided to share it with his mother she was not surprised.
"He told me he wished his father would come back so I wouldn't be sad anymore," Heather Fiorino said. "He wants that so much. So do I. But we both know it won't ever come true."
Fiorino shared this story at a recent meeting of the Suicide Loss Survivors — and Overdose — Support Group, or Triple S, where stories of wishing wells and little boys who miss their fathers are shared freely. Just as Triple S founder Barbara Cataneo intended.
Triple S, which meets the first Saturday of each month from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m at the Wesley Freedom United Methodist Church in Eldersburg, began in January after Cataneo suffered her own loss. Her self-described life partner Chris Farley, the man she was planning to marry, committed suicide on June 12, 2016, in the bedroom of the couple's home. He was five days shy of his 51st birthday.
"I lost my best friend that day," Cataneo recalled.
And so began the journey of finding her way through unexpected grief and despair. "I remember thinking, how do I live my life going forward?" she said.
Cataneo sought out support and guidance. She attended the annual International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day event in Ellicott City the November after Farley died and later discovered Seasons, a suicide bereavement support group that meets in Baltimore County.
Cataneo also began reading and learning about suicide and life as a suicide loss survivor. "The Gift of Second: Healing from the Impact of Suicide," by therapist Brandy Lidbeck, had a great impact on Cataneo.
"I felt like she was talking directly to me," Cataneo said.
Lidbeck is a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as a two-time survivor of suicide loss. She is also the founder of thegiftofsecond.com, a website for suicide loss survivors. Her book offers a strategy for coping with such a loss with chapters on "Guilt and Shame," "Communicating About Suicide," "Forgiveness" and "The First Year." The chapters on "Therapy and Groups" and "What Helped Other Survivors" especially spoke to Cataneo, inspiring her to begin her own support group.
"In looking around I found nothing close by," she said. So, she approached the Wesley Freedom United Methodist Church and even though "I wasn't a member there at the time," she said, "they agreed to let us hold the meetings there."
Triple S also includes survivors who have lost someone to substance abuse as a result of an overdose. "Sometimes an overdose is a suicide," Cataneo said. "And the impact to the loss survivor can be similar."
Meeting and sharing with others going through a similar loss is greatly beneficial, according to Lidbeck. "Suicide is such a unique grief," she said in a phone interview from her home in California. "The blame and guilt can be overwhelming for survivors, so it is crucial for them to be able to meet with others and process these thoughts and feelings."
Cataneo said that until Farley died, "I didn't realize how many lives have been touched by this."
According to statistics from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 12th-leading cause of death overall in Maryland and, on average, one person dies by suicide every 16 hours in the state. It is the leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 14, the third-leading cause of death for ages 15 to 34 and the fourth-leading cause of death for ages 45 to 54 in the state.
For those participating in the Triple S group, the details of individual losses can vary but the devastation is much the same.
"Suicide leaves a different kind of hole in your heart," Susan LeVee said.
LeVee lost her sister over 20 years ago from an intentional overdose of the medication she had been taking for depression. However, with two decades having passed since, LeVee has learned to better accept the loss and is now turning her attention to supporting and helping others.
"I want people to know that they are not alone," she said. "None of us thought we would ever be in this situation. But we help each other. We have a bond."
LeVee has chosen to remember how her sister lived and not how she died.
"The last time I saw her we went shopping. We were laughing and having a good time," she said. "That's what I choose to think about. I don't want how she died to define her. She was a great person."
But still the pain lingers. "I can't remember what her voice sounds like any more," she said. "That's hard."
Fiorino, another group member, lost her husband to carbon monoxide poisoning three years ago. She was returning from a trip to McDonald's with her two young children, then 3 and 6, when she discovered an engine running in the family's garage and her 37-year-old husband inside. The couple had been married for 13 years.
"I remember thinking at one point in my life how happy I was," she recalled. "Blissfully happy. I had my family. Everything was good. I don't know if I will ever get over this. He was the love of my life."
As her children have grown these past years, the questions have come. Not so much from her older son, but from young Alex who is very curious about his father and eager to remember him. "I'm not so sure he really does remember him," Fiorino said. "He was only 3. But he wants to."
Fiorino has found solace in the company of others who know her pain. "It helps to talk to others," Fiorino said. "To share with people who understand why you don't smile anymore."
For Cataneo, the first anniversary of Farley's death, June 12, has come and gone. On that day, Cataneo held a memorial prayer service for him. And an award she created in his honor was presented for the first time in June. The Chris Farley Memorial Award is a monetary award given to a senior female varsity basketball player at Liberty High School. Farley was the coach for the girls basketball league through Freedom Recreation in Eldersburg from 2009-2012.
"His passion was basketball," Cataneo said. "And one of his greatest blessings was to coach for Freedom Rec for many years. He loved kids, and they loved him. "
As time goes by, Cataneo says one of the things she misses most about Farley is how he laughed.
"He had a great laugh. He would start laughing so much he couldn't stop. You didn't even have to know what he was laughing at and yet you couldn't stop from joining in with him," she said. "He was just this great, loving, fun person who battled some demons that got the best of him. I miss him."
Those interested in learning more about Triple S may contact Barbara Cataneo at email@example.com or visit the group's Facebook page.