P. O. Box 1115
St. Peters, MO 63376

 

Joel Fehrmann
10/1/76 ~ 2/25/2000



Candlelight Speech 2007
–Linda Fehrmann

Good evening and welcome to parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and friends. I am privileged to stand before you tonight, as Joel’s Mom, to share my story as we come together to remember our children and fill this room with the light of our love for them.“You’re son is deceased.” One short sentence, yet so difficult to comprehend. One short sentence that so dramatically alters every aspect of your being and sends you reeling with hurricane force down a path that no one wishes to travel.

I remember back to December 31, 1999. I remember all the hype about the New Year. A new century and a new beginning that held promise of only good things ahead. As I prepared for the New Year, I felt pretty confident. I felt my future was secure. Raising a child as a single parent was far from easy, but Joel was now 23 years old, transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. Our relationship was stronger than ever. He was living on his own, had a good job, and was madly in love. His joy would light up a room when he spoke of his girlfriend. “She’s the one I’m going to marry,” he told me. My goals were centered on home and family, and I was looking forward to having grandchildren one day.

We were barely into this promising new century, when on February 25, 2000, all my dreams
and hopes for the future came crashing down on me. I was employed as a Physical Therapist for the St. Louis County Special School District, and had been part of a team presenting an in-service to the Early Childhood staff. As I left the house that morning the presentation was the only thing on my mind. I was standing before a podium, just as I am now, preparing to speak, when I was beckoned from the room. I was led upstairs to a small room where two police officers were waiting for me. “You’re son is deceased” were the first words they spoke. As I sank into a chair in confusion I thought, “That’s not possible, I just spoke to him last night.” They then informed me that he had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. I was convinced that they had the wrong person. Joel would not do something like that. He had no reason to do that.

Joel had been a bright and curious little boy who drove others crazy with his endless questions. His language was so advanced at 2 years old that people often described him as my “PR” man. He possessed a zest for life that I envied. How could this self-assured responsible young man end his life in this manner?

I spent much of the following months in denial. As I walked around and around the block each
day, I told myself, “It’s not me, it’s not my child.” However, this denial was what enabled me to get out of bed in the morning and move through each day. I couldn’t even think of attending a support group. To do so would force me to take ownership of my grief and I wasn’t prepared to do that. I felt as though I had descended into the very depths of hell. I felt the stigma of suicide in the lack of support from the community and from my church. Neighbors who used to gather in the driveway to talk were now more comfortable just waving from a distance. Some co-workers would look the other way when they saw me coming down the hall, so they wouldn’t have to speak to me. Above all was the overwhelming sense of guilt. I must have been a terrible mother. What did I do to make my son do something like that?

Driving away from the cemetery, one day, I thought, “I know how I feel. I feel like Humpty
Dumpty. I feel so broken that nothing or no one can ever put me back together again.” I also felt so lost. For 23 years, no matter what else I did, my most important identity was that of parent. I didn’t know how not to be somebody’s mother. I felt as though my life was over and I was just an empty shell, waiting to die. At times, I even felt as though I would not survive.

It was through the efforts of concerned friends that I found and began attending the Survivor’s
of Suicide Support group. As I sat in these meetings week after week and told my story, reality
began to set in and my denial became replaced with a need to know “why.” That August, I had the opportunity to go to Hilton Head. I remember walking up and down that beach morning and night and asking “why” over and over again.

I began attending Bereaved Parents meetings about a year after Joel’s death. Just as it takes a
village to raise a child, so too does it take a village to help you heal when that child dies. My village consisted of family, friends, co-workers, our dogs, Sadie and Mattie and various authors. Other parents who attended the support groups were not just part of my village, but they also became my heroes. These were the people to whom I could tell my story and reveal my feelings and not be judged.

As I sat in these support groups, I learned of the importance of being able to tell my story
and also how important it was to ask “why” and to ask it over and over again, until “why” no longer mattered. Slowly, I began to realize that if I was going to survive the loss of my only child I was going to have to find new meaning and new purpose for my life.

About a year and a half after Joel died, I was still in a very dark place when I read Iris Bolton’s
book, “My Son…My Son…” Iris was the director of the Link Counseling Center in Atlanta when her 22 year old son died by suicide. Reading this book would prove to be my turning point and my link to the future. Iris became my inspiration and another one of my heroes. In her book, Iris talks about finding “gifts” in such a tragedy. At that point I realized that if I had the opportunity to do it all over again, but with the knowledge that I could only have Joel for those 23 years, I would chose the same, even knowing the pain caused by his death, because I would not have wanted to live my life and not know those 23 precious years. This knowledge was a gift to my healing journey. I also realized that the most precious gift was the many new, wonderful friends that I made among other bereaved parents.

As much as I appreciated Bereaved Parents, I sometimes felt uncomfortable talking about
suicide in front of others who did not experience the death of their child in this manner. Parents who lose a child to suicide face such special issues that they are not comfortable sharing in other groups. I began to see a need for a specialized group to act not as a separate entity, but as an adjunct to other groups, where these parents could come together and feel comfortable in sharing their stories. My friend, Sandy Curran, expressed the same concerns and so together we formed PALS; Parents Affected by the Loss of a child from Suicide. This group remains active today and many close relationships have been formed as a result.

I also had the opportunity to go to Atlanta on two occasions to attend workshops directed
by Iris Bolton. I became so inspired by the work Iris was doing in Atlanta, that I knew I wanted to
bring just some piece of that here to St. Louis. So, I became involved with a group of mental health professionals and other survivor’s of suicide to form a response team that would visit with families in their homes after a loss to suicide has occurred. This team is known as the St. Louis Area Survivor’s of Suicide Response Team or the SSRT. The goal of this team is to offer hope to families that they can survive this loss and let them know of resources that are available in the community.

I decided that to be a more effective helper I would need to go back to school, so I enrolled in
the Professional Counseling program at Lindenwood University.

My education also proved to be part of the healing process. As I studied about depression and
suicide, specifically risk factors and warning signs, which we now refer to as “invitations” my “whys” became “why not?” Joel’s relationship with the girl of his dreams had ended. Loss and how that loss is perceived by the person at risk is the central theme of suicide. Depression is a disease and the Major Depressive Episode that followed the loss of Joel’s relationship with his girlfriend had nothing to do with me or my ability as a parent.

On the night before he died, Joel shared many invitations with a friend. He put on his best
clothes and said to her; “don’t I look great, I’m going out in style.” He also spoke of going away. When his friend expressed concern about him leaving his job and his home, he told her “where I’m going, it doesn’t matter.” His friend was unable to understand that these were invitations, and he, most likely, wanted her to stop him. My passion has become to educate others about risk factors, invitations and suicide intervention through a program called Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training or ASIST.

I’ve had the opportunity in the last several months to travel across Missouri and present this workshop at various Universities. The most rewarding thing to come from these trainings is knowing that a wide variety of individuals are now better prepared to recognize and respond to invitations for suicide.

I am very proud of the work I do with Bereaved Parents and suicide intervention and aftercare.
I do it not because Joel died, but because he lived and that life was far too precious to me to have lived in vain. I do not want Joel’s life to be defined by a single final act.

This month, I will receive a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling. My goals are to continue my work with suicide intervention and to aid other bereaved individuals in the healing process. I will continue to work with Bereaved Parents as the Advisory Counselor for the St. Louis and surrounding area groups, training new chapter facilitators, answering the phone line, and assisting with the Candlelight and National Gatherings.

This journey has been long and difficult, but I have not travelled it alone. Words, alone, cannot
express my gratitude to family and friends who have walked beside me and given unending support, and, also, to Joel who lives on in my heart, who was my precious gift in life and, now, a continuous source of inspiration from beyond. I can truly say that the once shattered fragments of my life are now whole, and my life has meaning and purpose again.

I’d like to close with these words from Iris Bolton that I was able to draw strength from.
I don’t know why.
I’ll never know why.
I don’t have to know why.
I don’t like it.
I don’t have to like it.
What I do have to do is make a choice about my living.
What I do want to do is accept it and go on living.
The choice is mine.
I can go on living, valuing every moment in a way I never did before, or I can be
destroyed by it and, in turn, destroy others.
I thought I was immortal. That my family and my children were also. That
tragedy happened only to others. But I know now that life is tenuous and valuable.
So I am choosing to go on living, making the most of the time I have, valuing my
family and friends in a way never possible before.

My strength and my inspiration comes from many of you. From your strength to go on in the face of such a meaningless tragedy and the courage to make a difference, either in helping others in this journey or in using your own experiences to promote special campaigns in hope that other parents do not have to suffer such a horrendous loss. As your child’s name is called, light your candle with pride, knowing that you’re here not because your children died, but because they lived, and their legacy continues to live on through you.
Thank you.

 

 

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