WENATCHEE — Three Wenatchee women whose sons took their own lives tell very different stories about the days and months leading up to their deaths.
But they all have one thing in common: None of them saw it coming.
Malinda Morelos, whose 14-year-old son, Rafael, hanged himself on Jan. 29, said the signs seem so obvious to her now. The self-inflicted injuries. His obsession with a cross in an old cemetery. His deteriorating grades at school. And those last four days when he was so nice to everyone, even her boyfriend who he never got along with. “I think he already knew. He had his plans. Being nice, that’s the way he was saying his goodbyes,” she said.
Julie Zielinski, whose son Matthew shot and killed himself on June 1, 2005, said her son showed no signs at all. A Chelan County Sheriff’s deputy at the time, Zielinski had just gone through a break-up with his girlfriend and shot himself outside her house with his service weapon. “It was a snap decision,” his mother said. “Matthew had no signs, absolutely no signs whatsoever. I spent the weekend with him. He was happy. He was goofing off,” she said.
To get help
Local crisis line
National crisis line
Columbia Valley Community Health
509-662-6000, Ext. 1073
Columbia Valley Express Care Clinic
Central Washington Hospital
Catholic Family & Child Service
Suicide Prevention Coalition of North Central Washington
Chelan-Douglas chapter of National Alliance for Mental Illnes
The Grief Place, coping after a suicide
Danni Everson, whose son, Robert, suffered from depression for years, was also taken by surprise when he hanged himself in the shed behind their Wenatchee home on May 4, 2010. She knew he had been suicidal. She had gone with him a doctor, and to the emergency room. But he convinced her that she should take her annual trip and leave him at home. “He seemed to be getting better. His demeanor seemed different. He was smiling, and he didn’t have that hallow look in his eyes,” she said. “Later, I was told, sometimes when a person makes that decision, they are just at peace with themselves.”
These women shared their sons’ stories with The Wenatchee World, with the hope that talking about suicide and the pain it causes will help prevent others.
Rafael’s death in January generated widespread media attention following reports that the Cashmere Middle School teenager had been bullied because he was gay. It remains unclear whether bullying played a role in Rafael’s decision to kill himself.
His mother said Rafael had loads of friends, and his family was comfortable with his homosexuality. “He was gay, and he was proud of it,” she said. She knew he had trouble once with other kids once at school after moving from Wenatchee to Cashmere. She told him to tell his principal about it, and assumed it had been resolved.
But Rafa — as she and others called him — had many other problems.
“He was a cutter,” a term used for people who harm themselves by cutting their skin, Malinda Morelos said.
She said the school knew about the problem, and said they were checking his arms weekly. He also fought constantly with his two little brothers. She thought he was being a rebellious teen.
WENATCHEE — It was the Friday before spring break, and some 450 students in Wenatchee High School’s sophomore class were noisy and restless as they filed into the school auditorium.
But when Julie Rickard started talking about suicide, the reasons people take their own lives and the ways to recognize when you need help, a hush came over the room.
“My hope is that you all realize it’s normal to have thoughts about wanting to die, or wanting to run away. They should come, and they should pass through, and they should go,” she told them.
When those thoughts don’t go away, or if those thoughts reach the next level of planning out a method, a location, or a date, then it’s time to get help, she said. “Suicide is a permanent choice. Problems are temporary,” she said. “Suicide is never a good choice.”
As manager of behavioral health at Columbia Valley Community Health, Rickard in February formed the Suicide Prevention Coalition of North Central Washington in response to record high suicide rates in Chelan County.
So far this year — in just three months — a string of 8 suicides left counselors at the community health center scrambling to help families and friends distraught by these deaths, Rickard said.
That was after record-high numbers for the past two years: 17 in 2010, and 18 in 2011, county officials say.
Morelos said she noticed in December that something was really wrong.
“His depression went from zero to about nine or nine-and-a-half,” she said. She knew Rafa was in a “dark place,” but didn’t know where to turn. “I went to the sheriff’s department, because I’m not from here. They told me it was not their profession to help me,” she said.
She also went to Rafa’s probation officer with her concerns, but that just resulted in more tension at home when the probation officer told Rafa about her visit.
Morelos said she and her son did see a counselor together. “He’d ask a question, and Rafa was like, ‘Yeah. Umm Hmmm.’ They’re not going to say their problems in front of their parents,” she said. “What needed to be done is one-on-one (counseling).”
She wishes she had known where to go to get him help.
At a community meeting in Cashmere on suicide after Rafael’s death, Morelos said she was struck by all the services available. “I wanted to cry. I said, ‘Look at all this help. All these booths.’ If I would have gotten the help for my son, he probably would still be with us today.”
Matthew Zielinski had everything going for him. He was 27, and had moved back to Wenatchee after a four-year stint as a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant. He’d recently gotten a deputy’s job with the Chelan County Sheriff’s Office, and was planning to join the SWAT team. He loved his family and friends, he loved to hunt and fish, and being a deputy was part of his lifelong dream.
Then, his relationship with his girlfriend suddenly ended. And just as suddenly, Matthew ended his own life.
“I know his heart was crushed to the point that he couldn’t see beyond it,” said his mother, Julie Zielinski, a tennis coach at Wenatchee High School.
She said her son had helped prevent several other people from killing themselves. “As a sheriff’s deputy, he didn’t want to arrest people, he wanted to help people,” she said. “I believe that in the next second, if he had thought about it, he wouldn’t have done it.”
Zielinski recently finished a book about her son’s suicide called, “A life too short. Matt’s story.” It’s with a publisher, and she expects it will be in bookstores in October.
It looks at suicide from the military and law enforcement perspective, careers with high stress, and high suicide rates. “One law enforcement officer takes his or her own life every single day,” Zielinski said.
Zielinski said she thinks it’s important for people to talk about suicide.
“Suicide has such a stigma to it. People look at you as a loser, or stupid. But I’ve researched this topic, and that’s not the case,” she said.
She said sometimes, she finds people are insensitive to the pain family members suffer.
“I know people don’t mean to be cruel,” she said. “But I’ve had people compare it to a dog that died.”
She suggested if you don’t know what to say, just tell someone that you’re thinking of them, or you love them, or give them a hug.
Another remark she finds painful is when someone jokes about killing themselves, even if it’s just an expression.
“People are always saying, ‘I think I’ll just shoot myself.’ This joking around about it, it’s not funny.”
Mostly, she wants people who think about suicide to know that the pain for those you leave behind does not go away. In an interview in late March, when talking about how long it had been since Matthew had died, she immediately knew. “Six years, nine months and 29 days,” she said without hesitation.
“I think that’s a good part of what all these presentations need. People need to know this isn’t fun. The pain goes on. Remember the people you’re leaving behind.”
Robert Everson suffered with depression off and on for a number of years. He was a machinist in the aerospace industry, but left his job due to a physical disability. At age 49, he was living in his parents’ home in Wenatchee when he went into a severe depression.
Counselors hadn’t helped him much in the past, but he did benefit at one time from group meetings with other people who suffered from depression.
Danni Everson said she was glad to have her son home, where she could watch out for him. A Wenatchee physician put him on a series of anti-depressants, but Robert kept experiencing side effects. Eventually, he took himself off the drugs, and his doctor told him there was nothing more he could do. That’s when he told the doctor that he might as well have put a gun to his head, Everson said.
She said not long before his death, she had a feeling in the middle of the night something was wrong. She went downstairs. “He was in a very dark place, and that’s when he told me what he had told the doctor. He said, ‘I just want to kill myself.’”
Everson took her son to the emergency room. They asked lots of questions, and called someone from mental health who couldn’t see him for five hours. Her son wanted to go home, but Everson said she insisted on seeing a mental health professional. She said both the doctor and crisis health professional asked him if he had plans for taking his life. “He said, ‘I’m going to hang myself. Or step in front of a train,’” she recalled. Then, they prescribed a sleep medication and told to go home and call a counselor in the morning.
At the time, the contract for emergency services was held by a different agency than the one that responds now, and their only duty was to determine if someone should be committed to a psychiatric hospital because they could harm themselves or others.
The next moring, Everson made the call for her son. “They set an appointment for three weeks down the road,” she said. “By this time, I’m furious. I just didn’t know what to do. It’s like they just shut the door on us, and said, ‘Just deal with it.’”
But then, her son seemed to get better. He stared eating regularly, and convinced her not to postpone her trip to Long Beach Peninsula.
He hung himself three days after she left.
“I knew the signs, but I was in a place of denial. I thought, ‘He’ll never do that,” she said. “There are so many things I would have done differently if I had had more knowledge.”
Everson said the more she talks about suicide, the more people she finds who have been touched by it.
“I think just getting the word out that it’s OK to talk about suicide will help,” she said. “There’s such a stigma about depression and suicide, and there shouldn’t be,” she said.
“I think that in every instance, it’s preventable,” Everson said.
K.C. Mehaffey: 997-2512