Turning Tragedy Into Ministry

contributed by Colleen Holt

Mary K. Meacham of Brinkley is the perfect example of how working through grief can bring benefits to thousands.

After Mary’s son, Kyle, died in 2010 by suicide, she couldn’t imagine ever feeling happy again. Over time, she was able to turn her grief into constructive work that is truly keeping his memory alive. Not only did she become a member of the board of the Arkansas Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide, she also began working with 200,000 More Reasons and the Mental Health Task Force with the Arkansas United Methodist Church.

“I have often said that a mother’s love for her child does not end with her child’s death. That energy must go somewhere. It can go into guilt, shame, anger and other negative emotions, or we can find somewhere to put that energy to help ourselves with our grief journey and help others,” she said. “When Kyle died, I could not imagine how my life would ever achieve any form of normalcy again. The things I did know is I could not let Kyle’s memory fade and I did not want my other children to feel their mother figuratively ‘died’ to them after his death.” Mary has two other children, Grant and Kathaleene.

Mary said that prior to Kyle’s death, they were aware of his “mental distress” and were searching for help. This help, however, was not particularly accessible. Being a teacher by profession, educating those in need is a vital part of Mary’s being.

“Beginning in May 2009, Kyle came to us and admitted he was in trouble. He was depressed and debilitatingly anxious about many areas of his life. We got him to a psychiatrist and into therapy. We thought the ‘professionals’ would take care of this. A few months later, he admitted he was addicted to online gambling, which had taken over his brain and his life. We tried to find him additional help (which is almost nonexistent) as well as supporting him in this fight as best as we knew how,” she said.

This dual diagnosis was hard to treat, and the family then found out about another issue: Kyle was also fighting continuous suicidal ideation. “The day I got out of school for Christmas vacation, I came home to chaos. My daughter and husband had found Kyle in his room, intoxicated, holding a shotgun, saying he wanted to die. He had been gambling and felt he would never be able to control this destructive addiction. I didn’t know much about suicide, but I did know enough to insist we go immediately to the emergency room in Little Rock and get help.”

Looking for support, Mary said she called her pastor. “Who else do we turn to for help in times of crisis? I asked him if he knew how to talk to someone about suicidal thoughts or about addiction. As well as I can remember, his answer was simply, no. He offered prayer. He never contacted me about this after Kyle got out of the hospital. I was incredulous that not only did he know nothing about how to talk to us, but he also didn’t know of others who could help,” Mary said.

On March 2, 2010, Kyle “lost this battle and ended his pain.” Afterward, Mary felt angry and abandoned, finding no help in dealing with this type of crisis from professional arenas.

“My church family was wonderfully supportive in all the regular ways, but no one knew how to talk to me or where I could get some guidance as I tried to understand how our beautiful, smart, talented, supported son could feel so hopeless and worthless he felt his death would be the only way to end his pain and would be the best for those who loved him,” said Mary. “I began a crisis of faith I never imagined I would experience. Looking back, I know my pastor was not comfortable or knowledgeable about talking about suicide. His response, or lack of one, was most probably a simple lack of education.”

Mary soon took a foray into the world of therapy. She eventually accepted a diagnosis of clinical depression “requiring medication and participating in a wonderful 6- to 8-week workshop called ‘Walking the Mourner’s Path’ that is held at an Episcopal church in Little Rock.”

Through this workshop and continued education, Mary learned that there are people outside the mental health profession who can help families such as hers. These resources seemed to Mary to be something a faith community should have at its disposal.

“I believe that making sure people in our faith community learn as much as they can about mental health support, suicide prevention and suicide intervention is critical. I believe this should be mandatory for our pastors and critical for members of our churches,” she said. “This education can make the difference between life and death, not only physically, but also spiritually, for so many people. Ending suicide starts with honest conversations to reduce stigma and education about how best to prevent suicide as well as intervene with those in a suicidal crisis. This applies to everyone, not just our pastors. The opportunities are there.”

Thus began her association with AFSP and the Mental Health Task Force. “As I became more familiar with the educational aspect of AFSP, it became obvious to me I could play a part in educating others about suicide prevention and intervention and maybe that could help others avoid the tragedy that occurred in our family.”

Mary said she doesn’t remember how or when she actually became aware of 200,000 More Reasons and the Mental Health Task Force, but she “immediately saw how a partnership between the Arkansas Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention could be very important in making our communities suicide safer places.”

“I serve as the chair of AFSP Arkansas program committee and in that capacity coordinate suicide prevention/intervention programs across the state. Our churches are important parts of every community and could provide a perfect place to provide education about suicide prevention as well as serve as an important place around which to normalize conversations on mental health and suicide. Through education and conversation, our churches can serve as critical pieces in reducing the stigma that still exists around these issues.”

A lifelong, active Methodist, Mary feels the United Methodist Church is now playing a huge role in offering comfort and support for those in crisis. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our Methodist churches were the first to accept responsibility to make sure we are prepared to offer comfort and support for those in this type of crisis? If we want our churches to be a place we can depend on for this support, we must take action. 200,000 More Reasons has already identified mental health as a priority. It is my hope that this will lead to concrete action that can make a real difference in saving lives.”

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