Suicide Survivors Find Comfort With TAPS
By Elaine Wilson
American Forces Press Service
ALEXANDRIA, Va., Oct. 12, 2010 Miranda Kruse sits in a hotel lobby here, sharing her story as dozens of her friends pass by. She waves at some and jumps up to warmly hug others, carefully guarding a plate of sandwiches for her three children, who are off playing with friends.
Miranda Kruse attends a Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Suicide Survivor Seminar in Alexandria, Va., with her three children, from left, McKayla, Elizabeth and Tristan, Oct. 8, 2010. Kruse sought help from TAPS following her husband’s death in January 2006. DOD photo by Elaine Wilson
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, Kruse could barely leave her house, gripped by a loneliness and depression triggered by her husband’s suicide that nearly swallowed her in darkness.
“Loneliness is so horrible after a suicide,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “There’s such a stigma and everyone wants to point a finger.”
It wasn’t until she attended her first Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors seminar that she truly emerged from the darkness, she said. TAPS is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the survivors of fallen military loved ones.
“TAPS got me back on my feet,” she said. “They understand what you’re going through. We may cry and get emotional, but they understand.”
Kruse is among the more than 200 family members who traveled here from across the nation last weekend to attend the 2nd Annual TAPS Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp. Participants range from parent to spouse, sibling to battle buddy, but all lost a military loved one to suicide, some as recently as a week ago.
It has been nearly five years since Kruse’s loss, but the emotion still seems raw for her as she recalled her husband’s decline. It was only about a year into their relationship that Kruse first recognized something was very wrong with her future husband, Navy Chief Petty Officer Jerald Kruse.
It began with his severe insomnia, then progressed into nervous rocking and incessant nail biting. One night she heard him yelling and cursing at someone in the bathroom. But when she opened the door, he was alone.
Kruse urged him to get counseling, but he hesitated, afraid of the stigma of seeking military mental health care. He eventually agreed, although reluctantly, and was told to cut back on caffeine. They switched to another counselor, who said it might be attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a diagnosis they dismissed after some research.
They went to one last counseling visit on Aug. 5, 2005, and Kruse begged him to reveal the true depth of his troubles as he went in to talk to the counselor alone. After the appointment, he broke down in tears.
“What happened?” she asked him. “They don’t have answers,” he replied. “I’m done with this.”
Five months later, on New Year’s Day in 2006, Kruse went out in the evening for a while. When she returned, she found her husband in the backyard. He had shot himself.
Kruse slipped into a sea of depression and isolation until, years later, she found the support and acceptance she so desperately needed at a TAPS seminar, similar to the one she was attending now.
“Suicide survivors are desperate for a place where they can get some help and connect with others experiencing the same thing,” said Kim Ruocco, director of suicide education and support for TAPS. “It’s powerful to be able to find people who can look you in the eye and just get it. They truly understand.”
Ruocco knows personally how important these connections can be. Her husband, Marine Corps Maj. John Ruocco, an accomplished AH-1 Cobra helicopter pilot and father of two, killed himself in January 2005. Like Kruse, she and her children turned to TAPS for help.
TAPS seminars build up the support systems that aid people through their grief so they can start to live again, Ruocco said.
“We want people to remember the love, the journey they had, and not just focus on how their loved one died. Suicide is what it is; we may never fully accept it, but you can go on to love again and live a productive life.”
The close relationship between survivors was evident at the seminar’s opening ceremony. The hotel ballroom was packed with family members and newfound friends, some quietly talking of loved ones and others busy catching up after a year-long separation. Most proudly wore bright red shirts bearing the TAPS logo on front and back.
“This is our safe place, this is our home, our reunion, our chance to be together,” Bonnie Carroll, TAPS founder, said in her opening remarks.
TAPS, Carroll continued, is “a place where we can look across the room and with that knowing glance understand we have support.”
Ruocco echoed Carroll’s remarks. “It’s a sigh of relief,” she said. “Families face so many uncomfortable questions. People assume, because he was military, that he was killed in war and ask, ‘Was he in Iraq? In combat?’ This is a place where the questions aren’t probing.”
The bonds formed at seminars run deep, Ruocco said, and sometimes offer breakthroughs to people wracked by isolation and loneliness following a suicide.
“At last year’s seminar, I talked with a mother who had been grieving her son’s death for four years,” she said. “She had been mostly by herself, reclusive, in a small town. She didn’t want to admit he had died by suicide. She was suffering from hiding this secret.
“But after the seminar, she came to me and said, ‘I can’t wait to go home and start to live,’” she continued. “She’d just barely been surviving. But here she felt the switch. She can start living again. There’s life and love after.”
To make a big impact in a short time, the seminar is jam-packed with group sessions and peer groups with mental health providers, as well as specialized sessions dealing with topics such as sibling loss and trauma and stress reaction.
While the experts have much to impart, the true intent of these seminars is to encourage people in different stages of loss to share their stories, and offer hope to others as a result, Ruocco said. Younger children attended the Good Grief Camp, which involves play that fosters the sharing of feelings. Older children also attend “circles,” where they talk about loved ones and write letters or fill memory boxes. The camp concludes with a group balloon release. Each balloon contains a written message to a loved one.
“It’s most powerful, being with other kids who have been in the same place -- not ashamed or shy –- there’s no judgment,” Ruocco said. “School is difficult enough but then they have the added stigma. Here they can talk about their issues with their peers. They feel safe.”
Survivors of suicide experience a grief that’s unlike any other, noted Dr. Frank Campbell, a renowned suicide expert and seminar speaker. The element of trauma coupled with a societal stigma can make for a tough recovery, he said.
“The biggest challenge is the stigma attached to suicide,” he explained. “People don’t know what to say –- there’s shame and confusion -- and they want details that are painful for the family member to comprehend.”
Military families have an added difficulty, Campbell said. They not only must confront the loss of a loved one, he said, but also the loss of a deeply personal support system. They often pack up and move, Campbell explained, leaving behind their closest friends and supporters.
This all happens amidst the confusion of loss, he said.
“People wonder why it happened, what could they have done, are my fingerprints on this body? That doesn’t occur with most deaths. It gets very complex,” Campbell said.
Compounding the matter, most survivors don’t find help for an average of four and a half years, Campbell said. But TAPS has found a way to reach families much sooner. Hundreds of military families now are getting help within days or months, rather than years. “This doesn’t happen on a national level,” he said.
“People need this opportunity to vent,” Campbell said, referring to the seminars. “This is a toxin that if left untouched will eat you alive.”
Judy Swenson calls the seminars her “lifeline.” She turned to TAPS after the death of her son five years ago.
Army Spc. David P. Swenson Jr. loved the Army, Swenson said, but had recently transferred to a new unit on Fort Hood, Texas, and sorely missed the battle buddies in his old one. He disappeared one night and his squad leader called Swenson to see if she could track him down. She found him at his sister-in-law’s house. He told his mother that he hadn’t slept in three days and wanted to return to his former unit so he could deploy with them in November.
Swenson spoke to him of his responsibilities and how important it was to fulfill them. “One of the hardest things -- and there are many things that are hard -- is my son begged me, ‘Please don’t make me go back,’ but we raised him to do what’s right,” she said, wiping away tears. “He had a job to do so I made him go back that night.”
The soldier drove back to post, took all of the decals off his truck so his father could have it, then called a close friend. He threatened to harm himself so his friend called the police. The police were enroute when Swenson’s son shot himself in the head.
He left a 6-year-old son, Timmy, behind. Swenson and her husband had been caring for him, and after their son’s death, worked to adopt him. The adoption was finalized last week, she said.
“I waited 10 years to have him,” Swenson said of her son. “I thought I’d never be a mom again, but now I’m a mom again. I’m joyous, but with a big cloud overhead.”
Timmy struggled for years with his father’s death, refusing to believe it was a suicide. “He didn’t think it was humanly possible for a parent to kill himself if they have children,” Swenson explained.
He finally accepted the truth while attending last year’s TAPS suicide survivor seminar in San Diego, she said.
“It hit him like a bucket of ice water,” Swenson said. “He came to the realization that maybe Daddy killed himself. TAPS got through to him and helped him through it.”
TAPS is their family now, she said.
“TAPS is where I can talk about Davy,” she said. “People care; they didn’t know him, but they care. It’s not just lip service -- it’s heart. There’s nothing like it anywhere.”