It was on January 13, 2003 that our daughter, Karla, found a hidden .22 caliber rifle and shot herself with what the coroner called a “perforating gunshot wound to the chest.” She was 26, charming, beautiful, intelligent, creative, three classes away from her BA in English literature with a bright future ahead. And she was dead.
Sometimes, that’s what bipolar disorder does. Like cancer, bipolar disorder can be fatal.
I was shocked, but not surprised, when a Shiloh, IL police officer knocked on our door and told us that “Karla Smith has died.” That’s all he knew, but I knew immediately that, on that fateful, dreary Monday in January, she died by suicide in Tulsa. The previous Friday she was released (against our wishes) from a Behavioral Treatment center in Tulsa where she had spent 10 days recovering from a severe episode of depression.
She needed more time in treatment but for reasons we still don’t know, they released her. There are many regrets that accompany a suicide. My biggest regret is not flying to Tulsa that weekend to be with her as she began her aggressive outpatient program. She sounded “ok” on the phone, so I didn’t go.
Could I have prevented her death if I had gone? I don’t know but I wish I had tried.
But that sense of regret is just one of the overwhelming emotions that often shadow the suicide of a loved one. It took time and difficult grief work to cope with all those new and intense feelings but we have learned that it is possible to get through those uniquely painful times and live a happy, healthy life again.
One of the things that helped me, my wife, Fran and our son, Kevin (Karla’s twin) cope with her death was born the night of her wake. There were hundreds of people from many parts of the country who attended the wake and they all knew how she died because we wrote the obituary in a way that indicated she died by suicide. Halfway through the long reception line, the three of us commented how many people said that their mother/brother/cousin/uncle either had a mental illness or who died by suicide. We knew then that we had to do something to help others who had experiences similar to ours.
It took us two years to decide what we would do, receive our non-profit status and begin to launch our services. We formed the Karla Smith Foundation (KSF) (www.KarlaSmithFoundation.org) with the mission to provide hope for a balanced life to the family and friends of anyone with a mental illness or who lost a loved one to suicide. We implement our mission through education, support and advocacy. We offer support groups, conferences, workshops, presentations, resources, website, and one on one coaching.
In 2005, our first support group had 2 people. We now have 5 full time or part time staff members. We sponsor 11 groups in 3 states, with more planned in the next few months. We offer peer to peer, mentoring opportunities, family connect activities, a program for veterans with PTSD, programs that focus on the parents of children and adolescents with mental health issues, and college campus based groups. We are soon to launch a program aimed at middle school and high school students, administrators and parents.
In order to specify our mission and philosophy, as well as to educate and encourage family and friends of anyone with a mental health problem or who lost a loved one to suicide, we wrote three books. The Tattered Tapestry: A Family’s Search for Peace with Bipolar Disorder tells the Smith family story of Karla’s illness and death. A Balanced Life: Nine Strategies for Coping with the Mental Health Problems of a Loved One offers practical help for families trying to deal with the mental illness of a member. The Unique Grief of Suicide: Questions and Hope provides hope for people grieving a suicide.
These three books, and the other materials and programs KSF provides, illustrate the practical approach, compassion, and resources we have so far created to support other families and friends who experience the mental illness and/or suicide of a loved one.
One of the things we learned while developing and offering the services of KSF is that helping others is gratifying in itself. The need is great. The help is needed. We do what we can. Want to join us?
Tom Smith retired as Director of Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Belleville and is a co-founder and President of the Karla Smith Foundation (www.KarlaSmithFoundation.org) whose mission is to provide hope for a balanced life for the family and friends of anyone with a mental illness or who lost a loved one to suicide. He joins his family and staff in offering support, education, and awareness programs which implement this mission.
He is also the author of seven books, the most recent of which is The Unique Grief of Suicide: Questions and Hope, multiple magazine articles, and a variety of columns. He enjoys sports, especially those teams that have St. Louis in their names, and his two young grandsons.
He can be reached at tom.smith@KarlaSmithFoundation.org.