By Martin Kidston
It was an August afternoon in 2014 when Helen Kelly took her book to the patio. She had only begun reading when the doorbell rang. Her son’s childhood friend was standing on the other side of the door.
The man had just received a phone call from Helen’s son, Jamie Kelly, saying he was going to take his own life. The man said Jamie sounded calm. By the time Helen’s other children arrived at the house, concerned, a local television station had already posted the headline: An adult male had shot himself at Playfair Park.
“It wasn’t our first time down this road,” said Helen, adding that Jamie, who was 46, had attempted suicide earlier that year. “Playfair was a sacred place for him. The best memories of his life were playing baseball as a little boy. We knew it was him, even though the news didn’t have a name yet. We drove over and saw his car.”
Helen still remembers the numbness in her chest, the thoughts that clouded her mind. She was not angry with Jamie – she never was. For many years, she had watched her son struggle with depression and addiction. While he tried to get help – tried to find his footing – it was a battle he wouldn’t win.
Shortly after 2 p.m. on August 7, Jamie’s struggle ended.
“There’s nothing worse for me, knowing every day of my life I had this child who was in so much pain, and I couldn’t fix it,” Helen said. “I knew that all that pain was over for him.”
Over the past few weeks, Helen shared her grieving process, her thoughts of guilt and her own progress toward healing. It isn’t something she has forced along but rather, it’s something time and perspective has helped her achieve.
Still, there are moments of guilt and wonder, though talking about them has become easier.
Helena was already coping with the passing of her husband of 49 years when she was hit with Jamie’s suicide. While the two deaths took place just months apart, she views them differently, saying one has been harder than the other.
“My son, who I loved very much, was in such terrible pain that he took his own life, and that’s a grief that you never really reconcile with,” said Helen. “To lose a child is the toughest loss there is. To lose a child to suicide – I’ll always ask myself what more I could have done. What should I have done?”
When Helen asks herself what more she could have done, she considers Jamie’s past and sees a brilliant son, one gifted in so many ways. He was handsome and funny, and when he laughed, she said, he laughed harder than anyone else.
He was a talented writer, known around Missoula for his columns in the Missoulian. He was a fine jazz pianist and a self-described cynic, which Helen now likens to a disappointed idealist. He had a wonderful sense of humor, and when he was happy, Helen says, no one was happier.
But there was also a flip side.
“There were a lot of incidents in his life where things would just fall apart,” said Helen. “I should have been more proactive. Part of it is, Jamie hid a lot of things from us. He tended to hide from his family, distancing himself in some way.”
As the Missoulian sought to trim its budget in 2012, Jamie joined several other newsroom staffers in voluntarily taking a buyout. Without a job at the paper, Helen said, he quit writing and struggled to find new direction.
Jamie went back to college and soon landed a job as a paralegal, though Helen says it didn’t make him happy. Not the way writing did. Not the way playing the piano brought him joy. And while he once took medication for depression, without health insurance, he stopped taking the prescription.
Helen said there were other warning signs as well.
“I kick myself a lot of times for not pushing harder and waiting for him to come to me,” Helen said. “By the time Jamie came to me, things were always in a crisis. I do wish I pushed a little harder, tried a little harder to make him get the help he needed.”
Helen reflects on the signs, though she knows it’s only in retrospect. Hers is a story of healing and recovery – a so-called suicide survivor trying to reconcile the past and move on. Getting to this point hasn’t been easy. She still feels the pain, saying it will likely never vanish.
“We took his ashes to Glacier National Park, because he worked there in college,” said Helen. “I remember driving in that car, having his box of ashes on my lap and thinking, ‘When you were a little boy, I held you on my lap.’ It’s always going to hurt that he’s gone.”
Sometimes that hurt has made others uncomfortable, Helen said. There was a time when her presence as a suicide survivor made people uneasy. When she walked into a crowd, she sometimes felt the hush follow her through the door. It felt as if the air was being sucked from the room.
She was the woman whose husband had died. The woman whose son had completed suicide. She was the woman who was now alone at the age of 70, and people felt sorry for her. They didn’t know what to say, or do.
“For a while, it became who I was – I was the victim of all this terrible stuff,” Helen said. “There are still people who treat me like they’re sorry for me. Maybe it has made me more determined to be a person I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for. I don’t like that feeling, and maybe that’s been part of it – the reason I’m determined to fight back against it.”
In a room of her house, Helen has taken a box from the closet. It’s full of Jamie’s old columns clipped from the Missoulian. Now that she’s able, she plans to read through them once again, searching for pieces to include in an anthology she hopes to publish in the years ahead.
Helen calls it her winter project. She’ll complete the task between time at the gym, her service at First Presbyterian Church, and her time with family – including her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
These are the things that make her happy. And at the age of 70, she says it’s time to be happy.
“I’ve certainly discovered a lot of strength in myself I didn’t necessarily know was there, and I’m more resilient than I would have guessed,” said Helen. “You get to a point where you realize there’s nothing you can do about the past. As you get older, living for today becomes more of a reality.”
Helen’s path down the road of healing actually began before Jamie’s death. Her husband, Pete, had been diagnosed with lung disease earlier in 2014. While the doctors gave him two to eight years to live, he died within four months – roughly one week after the couple returned from a vacation in Arizona.
Helen joined a grief counseling group to deal with her husband’s passing. She’d followed the expert advice, waiting for a little time to pass before jumping into the group. She’d attended just two grief sessions when the doorbell rang that August afternoon with news of Jamie.
“I was already in a group, and it certainly helped to have a place to go, where you could see other people’s pain and express your own pain in a safe place,” said Helen. “You can only do so much of that with your family. There needs to be a place where you can just unload.”
Safe in the grief sessions, those who had experienced loss could talk about anything. For Helen, that meant being completely honest, knowing it wasn’t going to affect anyone else in the room, including other family members.
During the sessions, Helen met two other women who’d lost children. Even when the group ran its course, they continued to meet weekly for coffee. They understood each other’s sorrow. They also taught Helen something new about herself.
“I appreciate people and their friendships much more than I ever did – the kindness of people,” Helen said. “It has meant a lot to me in a way where I really begin to see the goodness of people. I want to love the people I love as hard as I can, and as much as I can.”
When Helen worked at Dr. Craig McCoy’s OB-GYN clinic, the staff for Mother’s Day would send out cards, saying the decision to become a parent was the most momentous decision one will ever make. The cards continued: Becoming a parent meant living with one’s heart outside their body for the rest of their life.
Helen reflects on the Mother’s Day cards, saying they summarize her thoughts on being a parent. Mother’s Day, she adds, was the day she brought Jamie home from the hospital after his birth back in 1968.
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at email@example.com