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Daughter's death fuels mission to share message of suicide prevention

For The Baltimore Sun
After her daughter's death, Sara Tagget found her voice in delivering a message of suicide prevention.

As Sara Tagget finalizes the schedule for the local observance of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on Nov. 21, she can't help but recall a cathartic project that helped her.

As the Mount Hebron High School math teacher decorated a backpack to memorialize her daughter on the first anniversary of her 2008 suicide at age 21, her first thought was to fashion corkscrew ringlets out of yarn — Katrina "Kara" Tagget had been known for her "huge, curly hair."

Tagget invited Kara's closest friends to join her in the project, called "Send Silence Packing," which is organized by Active Minds, a Washington-based nonprofit dedicated to improving mental health on college campuses.

The personalized backpacks — one for each of the 1,100 college students on average who end their lives every year — are placed in a touring exhibit that aims to jump-start a conversation on mental illness.

Since taking part in the ongoing project six years ago, Tagget has found her voice.

"For many people, death equals sadness, so let's just not talk about it," she said. "But if we don't talk about suicide, it won't stop happening."

In the years since Kara Tagget, a Michigan State University senior with stellar grades and just 11 credits shy of graduating, ended her life, Sara Tagget has become a vocal advocate for suicide prevention and mental health awareness, as well as a champion of the people suicide leaves in its wake.

She has evolved from participant to facilitator, and is organizing the daylong program of healing and support at the Miller Library for the Maryland chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

About 10,000 people who have lost loved ones to suicide are expected to gather in 18 countries to mark the day, which has been observed since 1999 on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention collects data on mortality in the United States, including deaths by suicide. In 2013, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 41,149 suicides were reported, making it the 10th-leading cause of death for Americans, according to the CDC website.

The program in Ellicott City will include speakers, a panel discussion and a video that will be shown around the world, Tagget said. The chapter has also scheduled events in Berlin, Centreville, Hagerstown, La Plata, Northeast and Towson.

Tagget has immersed herself in sharing her daughter's story with the goal of opening people's eyes so that other families might be spared from having to walk in her family's shoes.

"Kara was never diagnosed with mental illness or depression," Tagget said, adding that no one understood the true extent of her daughter's pain until it was too late. "We always thought she was just a moody teenager."

Tagget said she will never definitively know how Kara came to such a dark place that she came to see death as the only thing that could ease her pain.

"People tend to view death by suicide harshly, but mental illness has consequences, just like any illness does," she said.

She also can't explain what prompted her to call Kara on Sept. 20, 2008, talking briefly with her just five minutes before — as she would later find out — Kara fatally shot herself while her friends were on the phone with a 911 operator to summon emergency responders.

"I share this story a lot, because my daughter, unbeknownst to me, wasn't just contemplating suicide, she was planning it," Tagget said.

Tagget battled her own thoughts of suicide before finally attending her first support group in Baltimore two months after Kara's death. She credits such groups and the counseling she received with helping her to get her life with husband, David, and son, Blake, back on track.

"I found that after she died, I needed to talk about the truth of her life. I was so afraid if I didn't share what I knew of Katrina — both my memories and those of her friends and family — that the world would forget her," Tagget wrote in a 2013 essay posted on the Active Minds website.

"People need to know they are not alone and help is out there," Tagget said. "International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day makes it OK to talk about suicide and to share your grief as you remember your loved one."

Sue Holko, a wellness nurse in Columbia who is assisting with the program, has had to deal with two suicides in her family.

Holko discovered the body of her 32-year-old son Jeff on Mother's Day 2009, the morning after he failed to show up at a family dinner. And her older brother took his life in 1973 on her 21st birthday.

"This is why I'm on this planet," said Holko, who facilitates a support group at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center twice a month. "I'm here to help people who have suffered losses like these."

Tagget still lovingly tends to the backpack she created in her daughter's memory — exchanging old photos for new ones, stringing beads to spell out adjectives that describe her and clipping her snowboarding goggles and gloves to a strap.

She gets the opportunity to refresh its appearance and contents when the exhibit comes to a local campus, as it did last year to the University of Maryland, College Park.

"Her backpack is so interactive that it's often placed at the front of this huge display," she said, gratified that so many students are still touched by her efforts to tell her daughter's story.

Tagget encourages loss survivors to attend the Nov. 21 program to find their own source of healing and comfort.

"It's especially important for those who are newly bereaved to hear from survivors who are farther along on their journey," she said. "Their message is one of hope."

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day will be observed in Howard County with a daylong program from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Miller Library, 9421 Frederick Road in Ellicott City. Since lunch is included, preregistration is requested. For information or to register, go to survivorday.org/event/ellicott-city-md. To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

janeneholzberg76@gmail.com

If you go

International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day will be observed in Howard County with a daylong program from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Nov. 21 at the Miller Library, 9421 Frederick Road in Ellicott City. Since lunch is included, preregistration is requested. For information or to register, go to survivorday.org/event/ellicott-city-md. To reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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