By Joseph Robertia
Three suicides in a month on the central Kenai Peninsula — all young adults — have sent family, friends and co-workers into a state of sorrow and shock.
Those left grieving for the deceased may be struggling with questions that don’t have answers, such as, “Why did they do it?” “Why didn’t I see it coming?” and, “Was there anything more I could have done?”
“You can learn a lot from those kinds of questions, but you have to be careful not to get stuck on them,” said Pegge Erkeneff, of Kasilof, speaking firsthand about coping with loss of a loved one. Sunday marked the 10-year anniversary of the date her 16-year-old-son, Justin, died by suicide.
“With an unexpected, abrupt death, there’s a trauma that happens, and it takes time to learn how to shape your life around it,” she said. “The important thing to remember is suicide takes someone out of their life against their will. It’s not a rational choice in the way a mentally healthy person would make a decision.”
According to the American Association of Suicidology, there were 167 suicides in Alaska in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available. This equated to 22.7 deaths by suicide per 100,000 people, making Alaska the second-highest state in the nation for per-capita suicides, behind Montana with 251 suicides, or 24.5 per 100,000 people.
These deaths have a ripple effect. According to the AAS, for every death by suicide, an average of 147 people are affected. Among those, 18 will experience a major life disruption.
“There’s no right or wrong way to get through. I have no bumper sticker platitudes to share because I always hated hearing them. It just takes years — YEARS — for the shock to wear off,” Erkeneff said.
Even 10 years later, she is still surprised at the grief that can unexpectedly come over her.
“You get through it. People say you will, one step at a time, but for me, I got through crawling. My shower became my best friend. For months afterward I would stand in there, so I could be alone and cry with no one hearing. I’d stay in there ’til the water got cold,” she said.
Eventually, she found that talking to others was invaluable to her well-being, Erkeneff said.
“You have to walk it alone, but you need to talk to people when you’re ready,” she said.
When Erkeneff started communicating with the people in her life, a picture began to present itself that otherwise wouldn’t have, especially since her son didn’t outwardly display a lot of the suicide warning signs, such as: Talking or joking about suicide, researching suicide methods or shopping for firearms, talking about feelings of hopelessness or not having a reason to live, talking about feeling trapped within their life or feeling like a burden to others, using drugs or alcohol, acting agitated or behaving recklessly, withdrawing or isolating themselves, sleeping too much or too little, displaying extreme mood swings or showing signs of rage or seeking revenge.
“In an attempt to try and understand it, after he died we started talking to his friends and our neighbors, and we began to learn things we individually couldn’t have noticed. Things began to fit like pieces of a puzzle, but it was all things that we couldn’t have known. It all came after the fact, and that’s another complex thing about suicide,” she said.
Erkeneff said that this is why it is so important for parents to talk to kids about suicide.
“He wasn’t capable of understanding the repercussions to everyone else, the pain of his absence with everyone else,” she said.
Erkeneff still lives with the pain of not having Justin in her life. She is still healing, but also is still moving forward.
“The only way through is through,” she said.
For those in crisis, grieving after a suicide or worried about someone hurting themselves, Careline Alaska has a 24-hour, toll-free hotline at 1-877-266-4357 (HELP), or people can text from 3 to 11 p.m. Tuesdays though Saturdays, by sending text4help to 839863.
There also is a local Mental Health Emergency Line at 907-283-7511. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). For emergencies, dial 9-1-1.