On April 8, 2019, my daughter Katie, at the age of 23, was pronounced brain dead as a result of taking her own life.
Katie and I had been estranged for a couple of years prior to her suicide. Years of her being in and out of mental health facilities put a strain on our relationship, and she came to a point that maybe it hurt her to face me--a reminder of her own hurt perhaps. As a mother it was agony to watch my child suffer inside for over a decade. The hours in the hospitals, the over 52 suicide attempts, they had me in a place that I often prayed that God would have mercy on her and end her pain.
I watched for two days as we did what was medically required to prove viable life unlikely so that she would be able to donate her organs as she would have wanted. Why? Because that first night at the hospital I made a promise to her--a promise that I would make sure that her life counted--that I would help her give meaning to her suffering.
Katie was an amazing young woman. She loved animals. She had a gentle spirit. She had a smile that lit up the room, and a mind like no other. Katie saw things as they are as well as how they could be. She would sacrifice herself to help another, and would smile through the pain. One of her greatest dreams was to become a doctor and it is through her death that she was able to help countless others through organ and tissue donation. Katie’s life mattered. Your life matters too.
"It wasn’t until months later that I was able to bring myself to read some of the journals she kept during her times in the hospital. It felt like a violation of privacy at first, then disbelief and heartache over what I read, until finally incredible compassion for the battles that she fought I had known nothing about."
Katie’s journals became a last source of connection to her, and they told a story--her story. But not just her story, the story of others she had helped even in her darkest hours, quotes she loved, songs she had heard, and random hopes for the future. Her journals became a way for me to understand a glimmer of what deep depression and mental illness can feel like and I knew that these journals were a way that I could help her to help others.
It wasn’t until March 2020 that I began to really bring myself to think how we could honor Katie’s memory while helping others like her. After the COVID-19 pandemic broke out across the U.S. I felt compelled to do….something. So I reconnected with Amy Wolff, the founder of the Don’t Give Up Signs Movement out of Oregon (www.dontgiveupsigns.com), and ordered 40 yard signs with positive messages to help encourage others. I thought maybe just a few friends would put them up, and perhaps I could beg a few neighbors, but to my surprise my community was craving to hold on to hope and before I knew it, it was the beginning of May 2020 and I had placed over 300 signs in 6 surrounding Central PA counties and received over $2,800 in donations to help keep the message going. Through sharing Katie’s story, I learned of many other stories similar to hers, and heard the pain of those who have lost someone they loved to suicide or who experienced depression themselves.
"As parents, we can hardly think of anything worse than surviving our own child. What I remember most about that night I got the call is sobbing in the waiting room, and thinking how much I wanted Katie’s life to count. I think it is easy for us all to go through times in our life that we feel like we don’t matter. We can feel buried in our emotional pain until we aren’t able to see light anymore. When we can’t see light, we begin to only see the pain, and sometimes the only way out that we see is death."
Weeks after the sign project, the promise I made to Katie that night in the hospital kept echoing in my ears, “I will make sure your life counts for something.” I just knew in my “mom heart” that Katie’s story can help so many others find the healing that she was not able to find. I knew without a doubt that it is my job as her mom to continue to carry her story forward---but how?
Chronically Strong is Born
In June 2020, I founded Chronically Strong--it was part of Katie’s Instagram handle. While in its infant stages, Chronically Strong will serve as a nonprofit to not only raise mental health awareness at a community level, but advocate for mental health reform in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as well as raise funds so that we can help families of those afflicted with mental illness receive the support that they need.
"If Katie were here right now, she would want you to know that you matter. She would want you to know that no matter what, don’t give up. And as her mom, it is my mission to continue to share Katie’s story to help others, to shine light in the dark places and to encourage conversations about it all."
#Chronicallystrong is here to raise community awareness about issues like mental health, sexual assault and domestic violence.
Chronically Strong coordinates community efforts to raise mental health awareness in all age groups in memory of Katie (2/5/1996-4/8/2019) and others whom have lost their life to suicide. No parent, spouse, sibling, or friend should be alone supporting those they love who are hurting because of mental illness. At Chronically Strong we know that by connecting to support you can walk through whatever life brings your way because you will get #strongereveryday.