'Living a roller coaster': Two years after the suicide of her son, Heather Berry is still haunted by grief and trying to adjust to a new normal
Editor’s note: This is the fourth in an 8-part series of weekly feature stories written in conjunction with the ongoing “Inside Out” community campaign to normalize mental illness. This story is the first of a two-part feature on the topic of suicide, examining the issue from the standpoint of a mother who lost her young son (in this story), and then from a woman who has herself had suicidal intents (that story will be published Sunday, March 24, in print and online).
March 4 would have been Ethan Berry’s 17th birthday.
At the request of about 20 of his closest friends, his family hosted a celebration at their house in Ogema that day. They all ate pizza, played games and sang “Happy Birthday.” They shared stories about their favorite memories of Ethan, and they lit remembrance lanterns in his honor.
Ethan’s mom, Heather Berry, says she was “doing good” up until the kids started singing the birthday song. Then, she couldn’t stop the tears from falling down her face.
Ethan has been gone since April 5, 2017, and the boy who was so beloved for his big, contagious smile and even bigger heart of gold is still far from forgotten.
“It’s been two years, and they still miss him,” says Berry of Ethan’s friends and family. “They still miss him that much (that they wanted to have a party for him)… Ethan left behind a lot of people that love him. It’s not just me and his dad and his brother and sisters that miss him.”
Berry says “hundreds and hundreds of people” were hurt by Ethan’s death, including extended family, friends, teachers and the community as a whole. And for her, at least, that hurt will never really go away.
“People say that time heals. That’s a lie. Time doesn’t heal anything,” she says. “You learn to live with the new normal, whatever that might be. But it’s not easy.”
Berry’s “new normal” is carrying on with life as a Special Education Paraprofessional at Ogema Elementary School, as a wife to her husband, Cory Berry, and as a mother to their other three children, Alyssa, Rylie and Ryder. But there’s not a day that goes by that she doesn’t think of Ethan, and miss him like crazy. Grief hits her in waves, and it sometimes sneaks up on her at unexpected times.
“It’s like living a roller coaster,” she says. “Some days are really good and you feel like maybe you have finally conquered the grief, and other days the grief hits you like a ton of bricks and you feel like you’re living it all over again.”
She might be walking down a hallway at school and smell someone’s cologne that reminds her of Ethan, and she’ll have to fight back tears. Or she’ll hear a life flight fly overhead, and it’ll spark a flashback. But she does her best to stay strong, determined not to let Ethan’s death “put me in a position where I can’t function as a mother and a wife.”
When she found her four-year-old son crying on the couch for his older brother, for example, she wanted to be able to be there for him, to comfort him, to hold him, and to try and explain things to him. But how do you explain to a four-year-old that the big brother he’s so desperately missing is never coming back? How do you make sense of a seemingly happy 15-year-old kid who suddenly, without any obvious warning signs, comes home from school one day and kills himself?
The day Ethan died was seemingly ordinary. It was just a regular Wednesday in April, Berry says. Ethan took the bus home from track practice after school, and was laughing and acting happy. He hung out with his brother and sisters outside for a few minutes, playing a quick game of basketball with his older sister.
“Then he went downstairs, went to the garage, and he shot himself. All within 15 minutes,” Berry says. “To this day, we’re blown away. You just can’t wrap your head around things. You can eat yourself up about the ‘What ifs?’ and the ‘Shoulda, coulda, didda,’ but you just can’t let yourself do that.”
The Berry family is still coping with feelings of shock and confusion about what happened. No one saw it coming. Berry says Ethan seemed “a little off” earlier that day, but not alarmingly so. He had an orthodondist’s appointment in the afternoon, and at first wanted to go back home with his mom for the rest of the day, but ultimately told her, “Nope, I’ll be fine, mom,” and went back to school.
“Those were his words,” Berry recalls. “I’ll be fine.”
He hid it well, but Ethan had a vision disability. He was legally blind. Berry says that didn’t stop him from trying out for every sport possible, and he had coaches who encouraged him along the way. He was on the track team, but his depth perception was bad, and that made some sports a real challenge, including football, which he loved — he was a huge Vikings fan.
“It was hard for him to see his peers being so active in sports, and he couldn’t be,” says Berry. “Driver’s Ed was hard for him, too, and he started getting depressed.”
He hadn’t quite been acting like himself, Berry says, “but he was still happy. He still had a smile on his face.”
Right up through the day he died, Ethan’s spirit shone bright. He was an active kid who liked fishing, hunting, cookouts, campfires, riding dirt bike and just being outdoors in general. He lit up a room wherever he went. Everybody knew him as a kid who put others first, and who liked to give back to the community. He once took money from his own piggy bank to start Ethan’s Care Project, collecting money to send care packages to troops overseas.
“That’s just the type of kid he was,” Berry says. “I want him to be remembered for his big smile and his kind heart… That’s how I want him to be remembered, not by his suicide.”
Berry shares her family’s story now because she wants more people to understand what life is like for those who lose loved ones to suicide. She and her husband, and their kids, and Ethan’s classmates, and everybody else — no one is quite sure how to continue on without him, she says.
“I just wish Ethan could see how many people truly love him and care about him, and how much his death has hurt us all,” she says. “My greatest goal for today is to let people know, who are considering suicide, that you’re not just ending your pain, you’re creating a whole lot of pain for everybody else. I’ve watched my family hurt for the past two years… and our extended family, friends, classmates, teachers… they’re still shedding tears two years later. I don’t want anybody to feel what I have felt for the last two years.”
To get through her days, Berry tries to focus on all the good times she had with Ethan, and to hold on to all the good memories she has of him. And when others go to her for advice, she tells them to try and do the same.
“I tell his classmates, ‘You can’t stop living life just because he did,’” she says. “They stare at me with open mouths when I say that, but it’s true. Ethan made a choice. It’s a really crappy choice, but it’s his choice. And they need to choose to live life.”
If you don’t focus on the positives, she adds, “it’ll eat you up.”
She wants every person out there who might be feeling depressed, or having suicidal thoughts, to know that, “for every dark day, there is a brighter day — there is help out there. It’s not always doom and gloom. It will get better. And your life does matter. Reach out to anybody, just anybody, to get help.”
The fourth “Inside Out” video, featuring Heather Berry speaking about her son’s suicide, is also available to watch at www.beckercountyenergize.com, along with other videos in the series. The website also contains additional information about mental health resources in the community.
SUICIDE ON THE RISE: STATISTICS
- Suicide deaths in Minnesota have been steadily on the rise since at least the year 2000. In 2017, there were 783 deaths from suicide. That’s up from 440 in 2000, 547 in 2005, 606 in 2010 and 730 in 2015. Almost every state in the nation has reported similar increases.
- Suicide is the eighth leading cause of death among the general population in Minnesota, and the second leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24. That’s above the national average.
- Among American Indian/Alaska Native populations, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34. It’s the leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska Native girls ages 10 to 14.
- Worldwide, an estimated 800,000 people die from suicide each year, a global mortality rate of 16 people per 100,000, or one death every 40 seconds.
- In the U.S., about 123 people die from suicide every day.
- An estimated 9.3 million adults in the U.S., or 3.9 percent of the adult population, reported having suicidal thoughts in the past year.
- An estimated quarter-million people become suicide survivors every year in the U.S.
- Of people who seek treatment for depression, 80-90 percent are treated successfully using therapy and/or medication.
*From the Minnesota Department of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE)
THE WARNING SIGNS, AND HOW TO BE SUPPORTIVE
According to Dr. Jonathan Aligada, a psychologist at Sanford Health, suicide can be “very difficult” to predict.
In the “Inside Out” video on suicide and suicide prevention, released this week by Leighton Broadcasting, Aligada explains that, “Suicide doesn’t really have a single factor that’s really predictive of it… So the reality is that a lot of people just don’t always see it coming.”
Many people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts feel hopeless, depressed and alone. They may get more withdrawn, isolate themselves, engage in risky behavior or start using (or increase their usage of) drugs and alcohol. But others show few, if any, warning signs at all.
Some have a diagnosable mental health disorder, but many do not: Aligada says 54 percent of people who die from suicide have no diagnosed condition.
People who have experienced extreme stress, trauma or significant loss are at higher risk for suicide, but suicide is a global issue that spans all ages, races and life experiences.
Friends or family who suspect that a loved one “is starting to drift into a darker place,” says Aligada, should try to create a safe environment for that person, and then talk to them about what they’re noticing in a supportive, non judgmental way. Don’t try to shy away from the problem, or ignore it. Be a good listener, and acknowledge the person’s feelings.
“One myth that’s out there is that you shouldn’t talk about suicide because it’s just going to make them think about it more,” he says. “I can tell you as a provider that people who struggle with suicidal thoughts are thinking about it all the time anyways. You asking about it or not isn’t really going to change that fact… We know that emotional problems become worse when we have to suppress those feelings, and so, when people are allowed to talk about their suicidal thoughts, or the lack of purpose, or the things that bother them, I think that actually helps facilitate them feeling better.”
Aligada has had patients tell him they were actually relieved when a person close to them brought up the subject of suicide; they were finally able to talk about it, and it was freeing.
“I can’t overstate enough how important it is to people to just feel accepted,” Aligada says. “People need to feel validated. What they’re feeling at that moment, to them, is true.”
If someone is saying, for example, that they feel worthless, like they’re a nobody, you can respond with something like, “I hear you. You feel pretty down right now, and you feel worthless...but from my perspective, I see these other great qualities… And I get that maybe you don’t feel that way, but I do.”
“That counters a little bit of that narrative of ‘I’m such a horrible person,’” Aligada says, while still validating the person’s feelings. From there, they might be open to being steered toward solutions, such as seeking professional help. Offer to support them through that process.
If there’s a sense of urgency or crisis — if you suspect that the person may be actively planning their suicide — then it’s important to act, and fast. Urge the person to call a suicide crisis line, or 911, or visit their local emergency room. Or make the call for them. Stay with them through the process of getting professional help.
- Becker County and White Earth Reservation 24-Hour Mental Health Crisis Line: 218-850-HELP(4357)
- National Suicide Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK(8255)
- Minnesota Crisis Text Line: Text MN to #741741
- Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (or text #838255)
*Visit beckercountyenergize.com for even more mental health resources
MORE ABOUT THE 'INSIDE OUT' CAMPAIGN
"Inside Out: A Step Inside Mental Illness" is a Detroit Lakes area project to raise awareness of mental illness and erase the stigmas surrounding it. A community partnership between local media and regional healthcare and crisis organizations, the campaign consists of a series of online videos, newspaper articles and radio discussions that shed light on some common mental health disorders, putting local faces to those disorders. Topics covered include depression, PTSD, anxiety, ADHD, suicide and others.
Videos are being released once a week for eight weeks (the campaign started the week of Feb. 25), and are available to watch free on Becker County Energize's website, beckercountyenergize.com. There will also be a program airing each week on lakestv3.com. Newspaper articles are being published in the Wednesday print editions of the Detroit Lakes Tribune over the same time span, as well as on the newspaper's website, www.dl-online.com. Participating radio stations include Leighton Broadcasting's local stations, Wave 104.1 FM, KDLM 1340 AM and 93.1 FM, and KRCQ 102.3 FM.