Survivor Spreads Hope, Starts Group

Theresa Gray of St. Clairsville said she wants to be a little bird in the ear of people grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide.

“I’ve got proof,” she wants to reassure them. “I’ve got proof. You will come back from this.”

Gray, 38, “came back” – twice. Her father died from a self-inflicted gunshot when Gray was 11. Twenty-three years later, her husband hanged himself in the garage of the couple’s new house.

After her father’s death, Gray retreated into herself and began wearing all black. She was angry at God. She went to counseling for two years, which helped, although she “had to do a lot of hard work” to heal. But she was young, and she was able to move on.

When she was 28, she married Chad Gray and had two children – a girl and, four years later, a boy. They built a house in Marshall County, where they both grew up. Chad was being treated for depression, but Theresa didn’t realize how bad the illness was affecting him. He denied to his therapist that he was suicidal.

After her husband’s death, Gray sunk into the worst depression of her life. “I remember not being able to get off the couch.” She said she also was afraid to not be the grieving widow anymore. “You get a pass,” she said, on everything.

But she remembers two significant moments when she began the journey out of despair. The first: She was standing in her kitchen about a year after Chad’s death, and, although she doesn’t recall what exactly prompted it, she distinctly remembers feeling a glimmer of hope.

“I cried because I got excited that I felt joy. I cried because I thought I’d never experience joy again,” Gray said. Later that year, while putting clothes away she cried to God: “I am never going to get past this!” Then she heard God say: “If you follow me, you will be more than you’ve ever been.”

She then made the choice to reclaim her life.

Grief is a painful process to begin with, but when a loved one dies from suicide, the grief process gets distorted and prolonged.

“It’s a very slow process with suicide, slower than a normal death. You have to work through the ‘whys.’ … It’s a very complex thing,” she said.

“People coping with this kind of loss often need more support than others, but may get less,” noted a Harvard Women’s Health Watch article. The reasons are many but include the stigma associated with mental illness and suicide, and the lack of support groups specifically for suicide survivors.

In an effort to help others like her, Gray is reaching out. She has started a support group called Hearts Worth Healing, specifically for adults who have lost loved ones to suicide. It meets the second Tuesday of every month on the lower level of The Experience Church in Bridgeport. The next meeting is 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 10.

In researching statistics for a grant she is writing for the group, she found that an estimated 1,000 people in the Ohio Valley are affected personally by suicide.

“I think there’s a strong need (for the group). Once you realize life is there, but it’s a choice, there’s a strong need for others to help people know that the choice is there,” Gray said.

She attended a similar group in Pittsburgh every week for a couple years before paying her own way to take the two-day facilitator training from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“I really want to get across to people there is hope, because it feels like you’re over. It feels like you’re done,” Gray said. “The worst part is feeling like you’re never going to feel OK again.”

Group members can be dealing with a recent loss or a decades-old one. They do not have to register, they don’t have to be affiliated with The Experience or any church, and they do not even have to talk, Gray said, noting she was silent during her first three Pittsburgh meetings. People can be grieving the loss of anyone to whom they were close. Her co-facilitator’s son died from suicide 20 years ago, so in addition to Gray’s perspective as child and wife, the parental perspective also is represented.

Through the informal group, she hopes people will learn from each other and not feel alone.

“I want them to know there’s another place you can come where you’re understood, you can vent your rage and heartbreak and nobody’s going to get sick of listening to it,” she said. The group has been meeting since July, but only three or four people have been in attendance. Even so, it has been beneficial, and she hopes more will come.

“Group is a very positive place to go when you’re rebuilding. It offers a lot of friendship, a lot of insight and a lot of hope,” she added.

In the meantime, Gray is continuing to build her life with her children, now ages 9 and 5. Although still healing, she is grateful she was not angry with God after Chad’s death the way she was after her dad’s.

“I needed God for strength to be able to raise my children on my own,” she said.

“More than anything I want to empower them.” One way is by teaching them healthy coping skills. Another is by showing them by example how to turn tragedy into something positive.

“I’m telling them you can get a blessing by being one.”