He was smart and handsome with a master’s degree in business and a loving family. He was the dad who spent hours playing outside with his children.
By outside accounts, Paul, a 42-year-old corporate salesman, was a happy guy.
But Judy, his wife of 13 years, and others close to him knew otherwise.
“He was a man who had struggles,” Judy said. “He had nine jobs in 13 years. He was getting treatment for depression.”
Still, she never expected his illness would drastically change their lives forever. But it did, on the on the first day of school in 2011.
Judy, a Mukilteo schoolteacher, and Paul began the day by taking daughter, Sydney, 6, and son, Jack, 12, to their new classrooms.
After that, Paul lent a hand with Judy’s new batch of second-grade students, as he did every year, charming the youngsters off to a good start. Paul left mid-morning to finish up some paperwork at home.
Sometime after he went to a gun store and bought a shotgun.
That afternoon he was found dead at their Bothell home from a self-inflicted gunshot blast to the head. A neighbor saw the blood-splattered walls through the open blinds.
After school, Judy and the kids pulled into their street to a swirl of sirens and horrified onlookers.
Officials shielded her from the gruesome sight inside. Neighbors whisked Sydney and Jack away.
“We went to a friend’s house. They got the hamster out of the house,” Judy said. “We went to Target. I had to get pajamas and toothbrushes. It was surreal.”
It stayed surreal for months to come. There was no going back to their old lives.
There were so many whys.
Why did Paul kill himself? Why on that sunny September day? Why in the home office?
“There were pictures of the kids; there was art they had done,” said Judy, 46. “There was no note. And even if there is a note you are still, ‘What could I have done?’”
That’s a question that torments many survivors, said Kathy Albin, a Swedish Hospital Edmonds counselor.
“There’s a lot of, ‘I should have been able to save them.’ A lot of guilt and working though the issues,” Albin said. “It is a very complicated grief process.”
The Suicide for Survivors group Albin leads is one of the many free bereavement and grief programs offered by the hospital.
“The group helps people build coping strategies,” she said. “They feel isolated in their grief and disenfranchised. There is a stigma around suicide. They don’t get the kind of emotional and practical support that other types of death might get.”
According to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 38,000 people died by suicide in 2010. About half used a firearm.
Depression is a leading cause of suicide.
“It is a potentially fatal disease,” Albin said.
Paul’s life insurance policy regarded his depression as an illness and paid the benefits.
Stigma lives on
“It affected the whole neighborhood,” Judy said. “Suicide has tentacles that go out and go out and go out.”
Their house in the picturesque development of 40 Craftsman-style homes took on a macabre identity. That night at dinner, parents on the block had to explain the yellow police tape and why the devoted dad who often played outside with his children was dead.
Parents in Mukilteo, where Judy taught for 17 years, also groped for explanations to give their children about Mrs. Schneider’s sudden disappearance from the classroom.
“I was Mrs. Schneider. I was a public figure. I was this institution,” she said. “I was part of the second-grade team. And it was the first day of school and it was sudden. Your teacher is there, then your teacher is gone.”
Suicide is a difficult topic for any age to grasp. “If he would have died from cancer, people would have been able to talk about it,” Judy said.
She and the kids, along with the hamster, dog and cat, stayed with a friend, then at a hotel before moving into an apartment. The Bothell house was sold.
She eventually went back part-time to the classroom and finished out the school year in an attempt to retain some normalcy of family life. The stress was too much, so she took the next year off to focus on recovery.
Last year, she married a Boeing mechanic, Brian Wallace, and moved into a new home in Mukilteo. She returned to teaching, but resigned before the end of the semester.
“I was having huge anxiety and PTSD,” she said.
This week, she started taking culinary arts classes at Edmonds Community College. She wants to open a bakery.
A divided life
It’s as if their life is divided into two parts: before and after Paul’s suicide.
Sydney, now 8, has fond memories of the “old parts” of her life. She smiles when she looks at photos of her father.
“He was a nice dad and he was really caring for me,” Sydney said. “When I was going off to school we used to do funny faces to each other. He worked at home and when I got home he was there. He used to get me all these treats.”
When Jack was a toddler, the family moved to Australia for a year while Paul to attended Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane.
“We used to travel a lot. He was fun to be with,” said Jack, now 14, and a spitting image of his father as a teen.
“When people ask about my dad, I just say he died. If they ask how, I say he was depressed, because he was, and I say what happened.”
Sydney deals with it her own way.
“I just kind of walk away because I don’t want to talk about it,” Sydney said. “I usually just keep it a secret. I don’t tell many people unless they are really close friends.”
The children have gone to therapists and support groups. They are well versed in the five stages of grief.
“I’ve accepted that it happened,” Jack said. “I’m not in denial, because it did happen. Even though I have accepted it, I still get sad and angry. So all three of those at the same time.”
Holidays trigger the reality of the loss.
“We haven’t spent a Christmas Day at home,” Judy said. “For Sydney, the holiday she was concerned about was Mother’s Day. She was like, ‘What am I going to do for Mother’s Day? I won’t have anyone to take me to buy anything for you.’”
Judy deals with mixed emotions. “I can have empathy one moment and the next moment be totally mad that he left his kids,” she said.
She became an advocate for stricter gun sale laws.
“Mental illness and gun laws contributed to Paul’s death,” Judy said. “He was able to, in an hour from leaving my classroom, buy a shotgun and without any waiting period go back to our house and kill himself. They had to identify him by dental records. There was nothing left of his head.”
A year after his death, she contacted the gun store where he bought the shotgun.
“I wrote an email saying this is the anniversary of when you sold the gun that the father of a 12- and 6-year-old killed himself with,” she said. “And they wrote back saying, ‘I hope you are getting counseling.’”
She was. And is.
Andrea Brown; 425-339-3443; firstname.lastname@example.org
Help for survivors
Survivor of Suicide Support Group, Swedish Hospital, 21601 76th Ave. W., Edmonds: Eight-week group sessions, 6 to 8 p.m. April 16 through June 4, for family members and friends who have lost a loved one to suicide. Registration and an intake interview is required. For more information, call 425-640-4404 or go to http://bit.ly/1pI5olh.
Providence Health and Services has bereavement and grief services for children and adults.
For more information, call 425-261-4807 or go to http://washington.providence.org.
For more information about suicide warning signs, support and statistics, go to American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at www.afsp.org.
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