Barbara Legere: I Lost a Loved One to Suicide and Here is What You Should Know

An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

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The number one thing a person grieving a suicide loss needs is empathy. Unlike other losses, this one can carry with it blame and shame. We blame ourselves for not being able to prevent this outcome. We’re judged by others for not being able to prevent it. The unspoken blame speaks loud and clear “you should have known the person was suffering, you should have been able to stop it.” Even if we know about their thoughts of ending their life, it’s not always possible to stop someone. Therapy and medication can be offered, love and support can be given, but they don’t always save someone. It is NEVER the fault of the person/people left behind.

Losing a loved one to suicide is a heart-wrenching experience. It can also be confusing, and it usually comes with a lot of mixed-up feelings, including anger and guilt. What are some things that family members would like other people to know about losing a loved one to suicide?

In dealing with her son’s illness, Barbara Legere gained a firsthand understanding of addiction, mental health, and ultimately the heartbreak of losing her only child to suicide. As a result, she became a passionate advocate for addicts and people suffering from mental illness. She is the author of the bestselling book “Keven’s Choice–A Mother’s Journey Through Her Son’s Mental Illness, Addiction and Suicide” and currently writing her second, “Talk to Me, I’m Grieving–Supportive Ways to Help Someone Through Grief”.

Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I personally understand how hard this is. Before we dive in, can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?

I’m a native of California and for 29 years was a single mom to my son, Keven. My professional career was working as an executive assistant. For the last two years, after losing my son, I wrote a book and am writing my second one. I’m always on the lookout for someone going through child loss, overdose loss or suicide loss to offer empathy and support. It’s my therapy to help others.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes! My new book, “Talk to Me, I’m Grieving”, is to help people better understand what grieving people long for while processing their loss. It’s written for both the grieving and those who care about them. Too often we use unhelpful cliches or avoid speaking of the deceased person. Which can cause more harm than good.

Along with the information, there will be space to make notes and journal thoughts. It’s a practical guide that can be applied to any type of loss. It will be out in summer 2023.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

~ Henry Ford

This is a reminder to me that my thoughts are powerful. It helps me keep my attitude in check when I start to doubt myself or think I’m not capable of handling challenges and opportunities that come my way.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your loss?

Yes! My life is now devoted to sharing Keven’s story in hopes of bringing more compassion and understanding to those having depression, anxiety and hopelessness. Because society is so uncomfortable talking about suicide, most people aren’t aware of the severity of the problem. There are three suicides for every murder in the U.S. and we hear about murders every day in the news. We consider talking about suicide offensive or off-putting. Those suffering need less shame not more. Shame makes us hesitate to ask for help.

What was the scariest part of it? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?

The scariest part of his death was hearing the gunshot in his bedroom and knowing that at that moment, my son was gone from this world. I’d anticipated this possibility for years because he warned me he’d one day end his own life. I didn’t think I’d be able to move on. I thought of ending my life to join him. It’s the absolute worst thing that can happen to a parent.

How did you react in the short term?

After running upstairs to find him, I screamed for what seems like hours. I lost my voice. I was numb. I went through the motions of calling the authorities. They kept me out of my house for hours while they investigated “the crime scene”. In the weeks and months that followed, I felt a physical pain in my heart. My only child was gone. The devastation was intense. He’d been the center of my life for 29 years. I felt very empty, like I no longer had a purpose. I doubted I’d ever be able to experience joy again.

After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?

The most important thing I did was to rely on a support group for compassion, empathy, and understanding. It’s a group for parents who had lost a child to overdose or suicide. They were the only ones who knew firsthand what I was going through, and there was comfort in knowing they survived, so I would too. I also began writing a book about it. Writing has always been therapeutic for me. I became very vocal on the topic and started a website focusing on any topics related to grief, loss, drug overdose and suicide.

Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal, at least to some degree?

Parents never completely heal from the loss of a child, but life finds its new normal. For me, being around other parents, joining online groups for suicide loss and reaching out to others helped me heal. I felt compelled to dispel some myths surrounding suicide–for example; it is rarely a selfish act but some people think of it that way. Keeping his memory alive also brought me comfort. I never want Keven to be forgotten. His life mattered.

In my own grief journey, I found writing to be cathartic. Did you engage in any writing during that time, such as journaling, poetry, or writing letters? If yes, we’d love to hear about any stories or examples.

Here is an excerpt from my book, “Keven’s Choice — A Mother’s Journey Through Her Son’s Mental Illness,Addiction and Suicide” -

“If not for losing Keven, I wouldn’t have seen a need for this book. It’s impossible to convey the agony of a parent who has lost a child. Losing a child is unlike any other loss because our children come from us — they are part of us. We mother and fathers brought them into the world, and they were supposed to be here when we left, not the other way around.

In those first days, it felt like part of him was still lingering around, especially in his room. The moment my hand turned the doorknob, my senses went into overdrive. Stepping in, his scent surrounded me like a warm embrace. I never wanted it to go away. His bed was gone because it had been covered with his blood. His dirty clothes sat in one laundry basket and clean ones in another. I buried my face in his T-shirts, crying, knowing that the scent would eventually fade.

Without Keven in the house, it was quiet, which was a constant reminder that he was gone. Every room held memories of something Keven had done or said over the last 29 years. The fridge was full of his favorite foods, a pack of his cigarettes was outside by the ashtray, TV shows he’d recorded were on the DVR, his favorite chair still smelled like him.

From the outside, I looked the same, but my inner self was being tossed by waves of grief. It was hard to breathe.

People who haven’t experienced child loss look at me differently. I imagine a parent that’s lost a child to an illness or accident gets an immediate response of sympathy and compassion. Not always so when you say you’ve lost a son or daughter to an overdose or suicide. I think most people feel bad for me, but there are also those who judge both Keven and me.”

Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?

I choose to believe that my son is still with me. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t, but believing he’s here brings great comfort. Each day I talk to him. I say goodnight to him. I tell him how much I love and miss him, but that I understand why he had to leave. Whenever I can, I keep his memory alive by writing and talking about him.

Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?

About a year after the loss, I had coffee with a close friend. We don’t see each other often, but had worked together for 15 years so we were very close. She told me she wanted to listen — that I could share however much or little I felt like sharing about my grief. We talked for an hour and other than asking a few questions, she didn’t interrupt me once. She gave me her full attention. Being heard is an important part of healing for many of us. The discomfort surrounding suicide causes a lot of people to avoid talking about it, but this friend opened her heart and ears and I will forever be grateful.

What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?

Prior to losing Keven, I was a quiet, somewhat shy person. I would never voluntarily speak out, especially in front of a group of people. After the loss, I stopped being self-conscious about what people thought of me. Everything in life was trivial compared to losing my son. This gave me a boldness I never had before and I started sharing on social media, writing a blog, writing my book, being a guest on many podcasts and reaching out to all the new grieving parents I met along the way.

Recently, a group of young people that were residents at a drug treatment program joined our grief group meeting. It was a requirement for them, and you could see on their faces that they were hesitant to be there. By the end of the evening, after all the parents shared, they felt accepted, cared about, and loved. When they waited in line to hug me afterwards, I could feel my son saying to me, “good job, mom, they needed to hear that and they know you’re sincere.” Those are the moments that bring me joy.

What did you do to get help and support for yourself?

As mentioned earlier, finding a support group specifically for parents in my circumstances was the biggest help. I didn’t go to therapy, but it can be very helpful to some. One book that helped me was “It;s Okay Not to be Okay” by Megan Devine. It explains that whatever we feel in our grief is “correct”. We’re all different. There is no right or wrong way to grieve.

What signs would you tell parents, friends or loved ones to look for in people they think may need help?

The biggest sign is withdrawing from the typical things they used to enjoy. Not wanting to go out. Staying alone in their room for long periods of time. Sleeping more, eating less or more, not taking care of their personal hygiene. My son had warned me that his life would end this way. I did everything humanly possible to get him help, but in the end, it was his choice. He felt it was his only option. Therapy, medication, unconditional love can help, but there are no guarantees. I think letting the person know you are there for them 24/7 is very important.

Thank you for sharing all of this. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what are five thing you want people to know about losing a loved one to suicide?

1. The number one thing a person grieving a suicide loss needs is empathy. Unlike other losses, this one can carry with it blame and shame. We blame ourselves for not being able to prevent this outcome. We’re judged by others for not being able to prevent it. The unspoken blame speaks loud and clear “you should have known the person was suffering, you should have been able to stop it.” Even if we know about their thoughts of ending their life, it’s not always possible to stop someone. Therapy and medication can be offered, love and support can be given, but they don’t always save someone. It is NEVER the fault of the person/people left behind.

2. We want to talk about our loved one. Grief is lonely, suicide grief is the loneliest. Please don’t avoid us thinking that by bringing up our person, you will remind us of the loss. The loss permeates our lives. We are constantly aware of it. By asking how we’re doing, offering to listen or sharing a memory, you offer comfort. The simple expression “I miss him/her too” soothes the grieving person’s broken heart.

3. Be patient with us. In the beginning, we may seem like we’ll be despondent forever. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it distances us from the initial pain of the loss. After a month, ask us out for coffee, invite us to social events, but don’t be hurt if we’re not ready yet. We will never stop grieving, but we will find joy and laugh again.

4. There are certain days of the year that will be extra difficult for us–birthdays and the anniversary of the death. Everyone reacts to these dates differently. The birthday after he died, all I wanted was for his friends to come over and talk about him. We shared memories and laughed. We talked about how much we missed him and looked at some old photos.

When someone close to you loses someone, write the date on your calendar to repeat every year and ask them if they plan to do anything in remembrance. Offer to take part or plan something. If they prefer to be alone, respect that, but be sure to send a text or call that day to let them know you’re thinking about them. It will mean a lot.

During family gatherings, be sure to bring up the missing person. If they aren’t mentioned, even if passing, the person closest to them will feel they’ve been forgotten. My niece once said at Christmas dinner, “If Keven was here, he’d be eating all the dinner rolls!” We all laughed, and it made my day.

Healing from grief isn’t about trying to forget our loved one, it’s about keeping their memory alive.

5. After losing someone to suicide, we don’t need to be “cheered up”. You don’t have to fix us or take away our pain. It may be uncomfortable for you to be around us, for our sake, endure the discomfort. Knowing people care helps tremendously, but so many of us lose friends after this type of loss. People we thought would be supportive disappear from our lives because it’s too much for them to handle seeing us in pain or it’s too awkward for them to be around us.

Feeling abandoned adds to our misery and shows us who our genuine friends are. It surprised me that some people I’m not that close with were more attentive and sent more “I’m thinking of you” messages than people I’d known for years. I have one friend who calls me once a month to check in, it means so much to me. Sometimes we laugh, sometimes I cry–and he lets me. No one should have to apologize for their tears, be the person who is safe to cry in front of.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Kindness! As simplistic as it may sound, if we all treated each other with kindness, we would feel better about ourselves and those around us that are hurting would be reminded that they were important. I like to put myself in the shoes of others. We never know what’s going on in someone’s life. As some recent celebrity suicides have shown us, all may look wall on the outside, but inside there may be deep hurt. A hurting person is much more likely to reach out if there is someone in their life that shows kindness toward them.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

Lady Gaga, to thank her for bringing awareness to the need for more mental health services and less stigmatization of the mentally ill.

How can our readers further follow your work online? My website has links to all my social media.

Website: https://www.barbaralegere.com/

Thank you so much for your courage in telling your story. We greatly appreciate your time, and we wish you only continued success and good health.

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Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.