PORT ANGELES — When Julie Andrew’s husband, Paul, took his own life in June 2002, she and her three children descended into a well of guilt and grief.
In that place, they had one another. “But after the initial shock,” Andrew remembered, “I thought, now what? There was no support” for survivors like her.
Eight Christmases later, Andrew, a social worker, offers one-on-one support to others who have lost a loved one to suicide. She does not charge a fee and has received many calls from the Port Angeles-Sequim community.
The holiday season is an especially difficult time for people suffering any sort of loss. And since this particular kind is one Andrew, sadly, can relate to, she encourages other survivors to talk about what they’re going through.
High per capita rates
Rural Clallam and Jefferson counties have high suicide rates compared with the state’s more urban regions.
In 2009, the state Department of Health documented 17 suicides in Clallam County and four in Jefferson County, or 24.5 per 100,000 people; in King County, which includes Seattle, there were 224 suicides, for a rate of 11 per 100,000.
And suicide rates on the North Olympic Peninsula have remained high throughout the past decade.
In 2007, 20 people in Clallam County and seven in Jefferson County took their own lives. In 2003, 21 people committed suicide in the two counties, and in 2001, the toll was 16.
Yet for too long, Andrew said, suicide has been a taboo topic. She and her children went to the Out of the Darkness walk in Seattle in 2006, and she said she saw no news coverage of the walk, an annual event that takes place in cities across the country.
Andrew is open about the circumstances of her husband’s death. Paul was just 41; the couple was in the process of divorcing.
Twenty-four hours before Paul died, Andrew found out he had plans to kill himself. She asked police to search for him, but they didn’t find Paul until it was too late.
Andrew wondered: “If I had stuck around, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.”
And as a social worker, she asked herself, “I’m a professional; why couldn’t I catch this? Why couldn’t I figure this out?”
She had to keep it together, though, to take care of her children, who were then 11, 8 and 7.
They’re doing pretty well now, she said, but each time they go through their growth spurts, they have to reprocess what happened to their father.
Andrew recently met Lori Holcomb, whose son, Paul Weber, committed suicide Oct. 28. Weber was 24 when he was found dead in Olympic National Park.
Holcomb is coping, Andrew said, with the still-raw tragedy by staying close to family and friends. And like Andrew, Holcomb believes in openness.
Dialogue, she said, is much better than silence.
An amazing thing happened, Holcomb added, between herself and a stranger.
Her sister, who lives in California, told a woman friend about Holcomb’s loss. The friend wrote Holcomb a letter about losing her own son to suicide.
“It was the most beautiful letter I have ever read,” Holcomb said.
The woman’s son killed himself nine years ago — yet she remembered the pain exactly and reached out to another woman for whom that pain was brutally fresh.
“It was so important to me,” Holcomb said, “to communicate with another mother who knows what it’s like” to lose a child the way she did. When that letter came in the mail, “it was another piece of my healing.”
Holcomb said she also clung to the family members and friends who surrounded her at the memorial for her son — and who are keeping in touch.
Although she’s not a big fan of Facebook, she’s grateful for the messages she’s still receiving from Weber’s friends on the Facebook page set up in his honor.
Holcomb added that her heart goes out to her son’s friends, who found him in the park. She was unable to read the police report about it until just a few weeks ago.
She hurts, too, for her other children, a 29-year-old son and a 23-year-old daughter who have a long road of grief ahead.
There is no rushing this process, Holcomb and Andrew agreed.
“Some days, you feel OK,” Andrew said. “You’re putting one foot in front of the other, getting work done, keeping the household together.”
Other days, “it’s all you can do to get yourself up in the morning.”
People want you to move on after a certain length of time, Andrew added. But there is no time line for “finishing” your grieving process.
For Andrew, who was born and raised in Port Angeles, starting a new relationship hasn’t been easy.
“It’s hard to give yourself to somebody; you’re so vigilant,” she said. “I’ve built up a wall,” thinking that if anything were to happen to a man in her life, she would be protected.
For people struggling with the loss of a loved one, Andrew offers what has helped her.
“It’s important to have family members and friends around you. [Have them] bring in some food or take you out,” she said. “Find a place for a quiet cup of coffee or tea, or go out for a walk.”
Make every effort to set aside some time in the day to take care of yourself, she added.
“We tend to forget that because we’re so busy taking care of others.”
Andrew loves to go to a day spa for a steam bath and to Anytime Fitness for a workout.
“Sometimes, in the early stages,” she acknowledged, “you have to force yourself to go do it.”
Friends and family members can help by “just listening and validating their feelings,” Andrew emphasized, adding that the “normal” grieving process doesn’t play out the same way for everyone.
“You can bounce all over” from acceptance to anger and back again.
To someone who is hurting right now, when we’re all supposed to be enjoying the season, Andrew says: “Don’t come down hard on yourself if you’re not in the holiday spirit. It’s OK to cry. And it’s OK to talk about the person” who has died.
That person is, of course, still a part of you.
Holcomb, for her part, said she is grateful for the people who have come to her side, who have listened — and in some cases, who have shared with her their own stories of losing a loved one to suicide.
Perhaps “that’s where our place is,” Holcomb said, “to be here for other people” who had to say goodbye too soon to a child, a spouse, a parent or a friend.
That’s what Andrew is seeking to do: simply be there.
She welcomes e-mails at [email protected] and can be reached by phone at 360-460-9902.
________Features Editor Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-417-3550 or at [email protected]