Loved ones of McHenry County suicide victims work to reverse stigma

Loved ones of suicide victims meet to share stories of loss, remembrance

It’s been nine years since Carol Fruin lost her teenage son to suicide.

Grant Fruin was 15, a week into his sophomore year at Marengo High School, when he decided to take his own life with a gun.

Even years after his unexpected passing, it’s a moment his mother struggles to process every day.

“It was heartbreaking, awful, shocking and terrible – pit-in-your-stomach unbelievable,” Fruin said, standing in front of the Survivors of Suicide Grief Support Group on Saturday afternoon. “But you do go on. Sometimes you don’t feel like you’re going to get through the next day, but you do.”

In a room inside the National Alliance on Mental Illness McHenry County headquarters in Crystal Lake, Fruin joined more than a dozen people from all over the county who have lost loved ones to suicide.

The weekend gathering marked National Survivors of Suicide Day and offered a safe place to share stories about the grieving that happens in the wake of a loved one’s suicide.

In 2017, 43 people killed themselves in McHenry County. To date in 2018, there have been 26 suicides.

A pair of recent suicides rattled the communities of McHenry and Crystal Lake. In September, 11-year-old Lilyana Soto, a sixth-grader at McHenry School District 15’s McHenry Middle School who loved Batman, origami and “Harry Potter,” took her own life.

At the end of October, 15-year-old Crystal Lake South sophomore Maxwell Bennett, remembered as a funny kid with a big heart, killed himself in his parents’ backyard.

Jenny Balleto, chairwoman of the Survivors of Suicide Grief Support Group, said a stigma remains around suicide and mental health struggles. It’s groups like this one, she said, that aim to dissolve that stigma.

“There’s so much more to each individual’s story, and we don’t always get to see those things until hindsight,” Balleto said. “This is for SOS members to talk about their experiences with people who have been there.”

For many who have lost loved ones to suicide, the final act came as a surprise. It often takes suicide survivors looking back after their traumatic losses to see the warning signs that had been there all along.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

The start of Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” is how Bill Wilson remembers the day he learned his 39-year-old son had taken his own life.

Matt Porter was engaged, working at Centegra Hospital – Woodstock in the material services department and one course away from his bachelor’s degree in counseling.

The weather was nice the day he died.

“The grief and pain was unbelievable,” Wilson said. “The struggles for survivors are many; the questions are endless. We are left to deal with those the best we can.”

The emotion many suicide survivors encounter is anger. Wilson already had a short fuse, but when his son died, Wilson said he entered a level of that emotion he never knew existed.

“I tried to find healthy outlets for the anger: journaling, working out, taking a 10-count before I respond when I’m upset,” Wilson said. “I can go from wanting to smash everything in my path to gut-wrenching sobs in 2.4 seconds. Sounds familiar, right?”

Eventually, Wilson realized it wasn’t his son who made the decision to end his life. It was the mental illness brewing quietly beneath the surface.

“He was ill, his judgment clouded, his brain chemistry altered,” Wilson said. “When I think of those things – how ill he was, how much pain he must have been in, psychologically and emotionally, to believe this was the only way out of his problems and pain – my anger turns [to sadness].”

To Wilson, who continues to live and grieve in Woodstock, it’s important to spread the word about mental illness.

“The good news is there is more help than ever before,” Wilson said. “For those battling mental illness, it is an epidemic hiding in the closet. We must continue to make people aware of this issue and continue on.”

John Dillon, pastor at Ridgefield-Crystal Lake Presbyterian Church, offered a prayer for the lost and loved ones left behind.

“Remember their passion, their talent, their touch, the sound of their voice, and let that be the image that stays with us forever, not the way they were at their end, but the way they were at their best. Let the tears flow, for each tear washes away a little of the pain and brings a little peace,” Dillon said.

Anyone feeling depressed is encouraged to call the McHenry County Crisis Line at 800-892-8900.

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