‘I Don’t Understand.’My Journey Through Suicide Loss

by Chrissy Lowery

Jake Lowery
Jake Lowery, 07/16/1999- 06/15/2016

“Another one…?” I couldn’t help but hear it repeat in my head. “Really, another one?”

My body shook with chills and my stomach knotted itself, just as it does now remembering the story. I wondered if hearing these stories will always affect me this way, and if they would always jolt me back to that instant gut-wrenching fear that I felt on June 15, 2016.

I’m an RA for a freshman residence hall at Christopher Newport University in Virginia. We have weekly staff meetings in which my boss updates us on our duties and requirements for the upcoming week, and sometimes keeps us informed on campus happenings as they relate to our residents. On February 26, 2019, my boss shared the shattering news that another student at my university had attempted suicide. It had happened over the weekend and the student was still in the hospital.

Other details were scarce, as the family had requested privacy and my boss explained as if reading from a script. Despite my curiosity, I refrained from asking any questions. I remember being a part of that aforementioned ‘family’ and I remember the overwhelming feeling that came with everyone asking ‘how’ and ‘why’.

I remember getting choked up the last time a friend asked me why I was so passionate about suicide prevention, because somehow sharing my story on my own accord felt so much easier than sharing it when someone asked me directly.

Luckily our staff meeting wrapped up after that heart-wrenching announcement, and I proceeded upstairs to my room where I suddenly broke down and cried, something that is uncommon for me. I called the first person in my recent contacts without really knowing why, other than that my extrovert self can’t handle being alone at times like that.

As I thought about my feelings and tried to explain them over the phone, I reached for the journal I had written in on the day of my cousin’s death over two and a half years ago. I read the passage from that day aloud to myself, wondering if I would ever be able to share those words publicly, maybe on stage at an awareness walk, or in a blog post for anyone to read. I imagined giving hope to someone who had also suffered a suicide loss and I imagined impacting someone who struggled with suicidal ideation. I imagined saving a life.

I had studied that journal entry more than any other I’ve ever written. It started with the direct intention of painting the picture of a very regular day. I had eaten Fruity Pebbles while watching the Today Show that morning in the summer of 2016 and I met my two best friends for lunch at our favorite restaurant before

I ran an errand at Walmart later that afternoon

Of course, that’s not what I remember about that day, and that’s what makes those details so important. I was having a very regular day, filling myself with friendship and checking off some things on my to-do list before starting my camp counselor job for the rest of the summer. At the same time, my 16-year-old cousin, Jake Lowery, took his own life by firearm.

I remember hearing the word ‘suicide’ and feeling my head spin around the room. I remember sobbing into my brother’s shoulder onto his navy blue Nationals t-shirt and I remember repeating “I Love You” over and over as he repeated it back to me. I remember hearing my dad call me ‘Peanut’ for the first time in years when he got home from work and embraced me.

That night I wrote in my journal

The last paragraph of that entry reads, “I’m so in shock and unable to process anything. I’m afraid to sleep because I’ll have to remember it all again in the morning—and attempt to convince myself it’s true. I wept initially but haven’t cried since. I’m afraid for Jesse [Jake’s brother]. I loved and still do love Jake. I wish he knew how much he meant to so many people. I don’t understand.”

The healing process continued for weeks and months and years, and to this day I can’t say my cousin’s death doesn’t sting me randomly sometimes.

It stings me on June 15 of each year, when I reflect on another year that Jake didn’t get to witness and as I try to fathom the amount of time that he has been gone. It stings me on July 16 of each year, when I picture Jake being another year older. It stings me on Thanksgiving and Christmas and the Fourth of July as I picture him holding my hand as our family prays before a feast of a dinner.

It stings me even more when I hear of the death of another young person who felt that life was ultimately too painful to bear any longer, as I envision another family going through the thoughts and feelings that myself and my family underwent in the summer of 2016.

On February 27, 2019, I learned that the student who attempted suicide on my campus died in the hospital a few days after his attempt. While I wish to maintain his family’s request for privacy, I believe talking about his death is the only way suicide will lose its stigma.

As I’ve tried to grasp an understanding of suicide since that day, I have come to appreciate the connection that suicide survivors share. It is by talking about suicide, sharing our stories, and destroying the stigma of mental illness that we may combat suicide as a community.

I share my story publicly because it is real and painful, and because no one deserves to feel the loss of a loved one to suicide.

Chrissy is chairman of the Out of the Darkness Walk at CNU, Newport News, VA
Walk Date: 04/07/2019
Walk Location: Christopher Newport University – Newport News, VA
Check-in/Registration Time: 9:00 am
Walk Begins: 10:00 am
Walk Ends: 12:00 pm

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15 thoughts on “‘I Don’t Understand.’My Journey Through Suicide Loss”

  1. Mrs. Phillips,
    I am so sorry for your loss. Our campus has been grieving with you and you are not alone in your pain. Thank you for sharing your heartbreaking story; it must not be easy to talk or write about. I do hope that peace begins to find you, even amidst a very emotional time.

  2. Donna, my heart breaks for you. It has been almost 6 months since I lost my son to an accidental overdose and I, like you, want him to be remembered. There are no words or platitudes that ease the pain — just surviving a day at a time.

    1. Thank you Maureen! I am so sorry to hear about your son. It is the most unimaginable pain. Longing to see them again to hold him again, to make everything better. And knowing that’s an impossible Hope. Is like daggers to your heart. I’m amazed every day That somehow I have Survived it. Hearing stories where others have made it. Wishing that could’ve been my story instead of what it is. I will love Ethan forever. And hold his precious memories in my heart and mind always.

  3. Chrissy, this is Donna phillips. I am the mother of Ethan Phillips the student that you mentioned above. I feel much comfort in reading your article. It’s hard to express the loss that I feel. The overwhelming feelings of hopelessness. Struggling to find a reason to continue on. Ethan was the most intelligent kindhearted soul that ever was. He struggled daily for many years in search of his purpose and reason for carrying on. I was blessed to have found a couple papers that he had written. Two In January and one in February 2019. They were written for one of his psychology classes. In Ethan’s own words he expressed his personality and feelings that he had. On February 19 of 2019, he had written a dream journal where he had had several dreams that night. He analyze them and said overall they were positive. I will never forget the call at 8:45 PM February 23, 2019 from Christopher Newport letting us know that Ethan was at the hospital that he had hanged himself in his dorm closet. We had a 5 Hour Drive from Hillsville to get to Newport News. Hardly no words were spoken in the car. The fear and anxiety awaiting us over took our ability to talk. We sat in silence dealing with their own emotions not knowing what we were going to find it not knowing what to expect. Clueless to what could have happened. Why didn’t he reach out? Why did he call several times that week talking about how everything was going so good and then this? Why? Why today?? Upon arriving at the hospital we found Ethan in room 4550. He was laying there lifeless On a vent. Our hearts were broken immediately. The hopelessness just felt that much stronger. Like a ton of burdens laying upon your heart ,suffocating the life from your soul. So many unanswered questions. After Approximately 41 hours and 58 minutes After arriving, we would have to say goodbye to Ethan’s earthly body. Clinging to my faith that his soul was free from pain now. The days that follow has been a constant nightmare. Waking up to struggling through another day without the hope of seeing his handsome face. In 9 hours and 15 minutes from now will mark 3 weeks from the time he decided to take his pain away. Feels like eternity to me. Every day is a milestone. Maybe in time I will find some peace.

    1. Crying Donna. I remember those first weeks after my son, Charles’ suicide and my heart hurts so much for you. You will find some peace in time in his memories. It is just not real yet and your heart has not accepted the loss. It softens over time. You will heal but have scar tissue. You will laugh again, love again, live again. And there is pain, heartache, hurt, struggle and many lovely things, too, that happen in that process. Please know my heart is with you. I heard about this one since I live in virginia. And it hit me like a dagger. Thank you for sharing Ethan and your story.

      1. I’m hoping to keep Ethan’s memory alive. I’m a person who finds healing through talking to others. I want to tell everyone what a wonderful son. I was blessed to have 22 years raising him. I have 22 years worth of memories that will carry me through this lifetime. The pain at times feels so overwhelming. You never know how strong you can be until being strong is the only choice you have. I’m trying to focus on keeping his memory alive. As long as I have a breath to breathe I will honor his memories. I Must continue on somehow. The Lord is my strength. I was blessed to raise Ethan and I am so proud To be his mother. He will never be forgotten.

        1. My son, Alex was a sophomore at CNU who took his own life last October. I am traveling one tear drop at a time. I am sure he didn’t realize how much he was loved, and the gap in the community his leaving would cause.

    2. Donna,
      I am Ginger Germani. My son, Austin, took his life in his dorm at CNU on April 24th, 2017. I have been looking for a way to reach out to you. I am so thankful that Chrissy has shared her story so that others will know that they can talk about it and so that I could meet you.
      There is no way that I can fully express how I wish you were not on this journey with no end. I love all that you said about your son. Please keep saying his name and talking about his life. Anne Moss is a huge source of strength for me. She represents a promise that I will find some peace even in my son’s absence. I am in Charlottesville, along with the mothers of McKellar Cox and Alex Hagen, two CNU students who died by suicide between the dates of my son and yours. You are not alone. Please reach out at any time you are ready. I spend my days working to change the conversation around mental health and save lives. Sending you so much love, understanding and hope.

  4. Chrissy you are a caring beautiful compassionate cousin. Your picture of cousin Jake in that boat on that body of water with his catch must be a favourite reminder of your beautiful cousin. My beautiful son Riley aged 19 left us on the 29th January. Out hearts are broken into a million pieces and Riley’s siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts and grandparents like you and your family are trying to grasp an understanding of ‘why’ and ‘how’ suicide is seen to be an option for lads like Jake and Riley.
    Like you I am supporting my kids (Strephon 23, Annabelle 21, MacCoy 15) and Riley’s loving tribe of friends to speak out to others about anxiety and depression as they enter back to their work, school and uni space as Riley’s outgoing fun loving nature masked his struggles but in hindsight a lot of his friends now realise that in the past 3 months he had started to reduce his social activities. We like you want to speak out and support others to be aware of the subtle signals that may present. Instead of asking friends if they are OK do we need to change the dialogue to – are you feeling happy?
    Your story about your family’s experience has made me understand that in time I need to write, phone and visit the tribe of cousins and friends and support each other as we all work through our sorrow learning how to live without Riley like you are for Jake.

    1. Louisa- I’m so sorry about your loss. I lost my son to suicide and figuring all that out is heart wrenching. Thank you for commenting and telling us about how your family is dealing with this tragedy.

    2. Louisa,
      I am so sorry to hear that you lost your son, Riley. The days ahead will seem long and often so hard you will struggle in ways you never imagined. But you will survive. You and your family should talk of Riley every day and all of the wonderful things he brought to the world. I will continue to work to keep others from sharing our journey. Sending you love and strength. Please reach out any time.

  5. Chrissy, my son works with you in York. He speaks so very highly of you. Thank you so much for sharing your painful, yet moving thoughts about your dear cousin’s death. I have lost several friends to suicide. One was a dear family friend who I miss to this day, after almost 25 years. Your words will help people. I pray that fact comforts you.

  6. Thank you for sharing your heartbreaking story, Chrissy. Your description of the otherwise normal day resonates deeply. I’m so sorry for the loss of your precious cousin. You are honoring his memory as you write and talk about suicide loss and prevention. ❤️

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