“Suicide can happen to anybody. It can happen to your brother, your sister, your father, your mother, your grandfather. Suicide shows no prejudice,” said suicide survivor and Gordon County resident Marissa West. “The people that are left have to pick up the pieces.”
In what was a historical day for West, whose son, Josh Hammond, committed suicide in 2009, the month of September was officially proclaimed as Suicide Awareness and Prevention month in Gordon County on Tuesday.
Roberta Charbonneau with Family Connection of Gordon County described to those present at the proclamation signing, that West challenged the Gordon County community to provide education and awareness, after attending the first Chalk it up event last year.
The annual event welcomes anyone who has lost someone to suicide, to use sidewalk chalk to make a mark of the memory of that person on the sidewalks at the BB&T Park in downtown Calhoun.
“I was amazed when I walked through the ‘Chalk It Up’ to see how many survivors were in Gordon County because at that time I thought I was going through it alone and I actually wasn’t,” said West. “I think the proclamation will make a difference. The eye opener should be the numbers. The numbers speak for themselves. If you give people the resources, if you give people a place to go they will go, if they know where to go they will go.”
West’s son, Josh, committed suicide in 2009 at the age of 34 by being struck by a vehicle on Interstate 75.
West believes sharing the story of Josh’s struggle with substance addiction, previous suicide attempts and the prior suicides of his father and best friend will help others who have lost a loved one to suicide, and hopefully let them understand they are not alone.
On the day of Josh’s death West returned home from a trip to the grocery store to a phone call from a Dalton hospital informing her that Josh was in an accident.
West said she knew her son was dead before the two uniformed police arrived at her residence to ensure she had contacted the hospital.
West asked the officers if Josh had died, though she said she already knew the tragic answer, and though the officers did not say the words, West said she sat down on her front porch and began to sob.
“I walked into the hospital in Dalton in the emergency room, and they opened a door, and they lead me back through the back way and I started shaking. Not wanting to hear what I was going to hear,” West said. “As soon as they opened the door I saw the chaplain, and my knees kind of buckled; I kind of knew what was coming. They brought me his wallet. He (Josh) had put a black cross with masking tape on the back of his wallet. I knew then that he was gone, but I knew that was God’s way of saying he’s okay, he’s with me now.”
At the hospital after learning of her son’s death, West can speak of the broad reaching effects of suicide on the family and the community.
West says the vehicle that killed Josh, who walked into the oncoming car, was a young family, and was at the hospital on the day of Josh’s death. West still thinks of that family and prays they have found peace with the accident.
“There was a young lady, I think she had several family members in her car, she lives around locally, and when I left the hospital I began to pray for her family too, because I felt like it could have been her child and not mine,” said West. “From what I heard at the hospital she was extremely upset and distraught and certainly she tried not to hit him. I think of her today and hope that she is overcoming this in her life. I don’t have any ill feelings towards her whatsoever. It was an accident as far as she was concerned, she tried to avoid it and she couldn’t.”
At Josh’s funeral, West said roughly 300 people, family and friends, showed their respect for Josh, and West says that she doesn’t know if her son knew how loved he really was.
The days following Josh’s death was difficult for those he left behind, but West says she believes suicide impacts children more than anything.
“I am actually raising my grandson now, Austin, he is 15, and he has been ongoing in counseling since 2009,” said West. “He has adjusted and is emotionally stronger now than when he was when his dad first died. It is emotionally traumatic for children to have to lose their parents in any way, especially suicide, I think it makes it more difficult.”
Since Josh’s death, both West and Austin have been working to bring an end to suicide through many avenues of support and education.
West wants her grandchildren to grow up in a world without suicide she says of the reason behind her efforts.
“The teenagers, they are special to me. My son left behind three children, and I care what happens in the lives of my grandchildren as far as their future goes,” said West. “That’s the reason why I really wanted to do something worthwhile as far as the community goes to help prevent this, because its such a great loss. Nobody knows until they have to actually deal with this, the whole family becomes survivors and that affects every family member in different ways.”
West’s grandson, Austin who was 12 at the time of the accident, has emerged a sort of heroic figure on his journey of healing since the death of his father.
Though West has helped initiate a “Survivor of Suicide,” (SOS) support group in Gordon County, alongside Charbonneau and Whitney Gates with Family Intervention Specialists, for anyone whose life has been affected by suicide, the young Austin attends and helps work with the younger children who are affected by suicide.
“He wants to do it in his dad’s memory. Austin and his dad were really close and he sees now the need even in himself at the time when it happened, he has seen how it helps to have somebody else to talk to. He is doing extremely well, I am very proud of him,” West said.
The group is the only support group of its kind in Gordon County, whose suicide rates are the highest in the region, and the second of its kind in the state of Georgia, alongside Floyd County.
Additionally, West has worked with many community members and started a Gordon County Suicide Awareness and Prevention Coalition to educate medical personnel, law enforcement and the public on statistics and overall awareness.
“These are works that I think are necessary for Calhoun,” West said. “The Gordon County area has the largest rate of actual attempts of suicide and completions of suicide in region one, and that is a high number, and I feel like we can do something as a community to help. It’s been three years, since Josh has done that, and I feel that something good can come out of this by helping others. That’s my main goal is to reach out to somebody in need, and let them know that we do have the resources in Gordon County to help as far as preventing suicide.”
West said both Austin and she attend the SOS groups, and because the group is an anonymous support group for lives affected by suicide, West said she sees family members and friends of Josh’s from time to time.
“Austin is coordinating part of the SOS group to be a peer for other teenagers and the smaller children in the program, so I think it is going to be a good resource for Calhoun,” West said. “It actually gives us a group, and everybody didn’t necessarily want to be in that group, but we wound up in that group and we have a place to go. It’s not a counseling session, it is a support group so I think it’s really been a blessing for Calhoun.”
West, along with two others in Gordon County recently ventured to Atlanta to become certified survivor support group facilitators, which keeps the groups from being a “counseling group,” and West said what is said in the circle stays in the circle.
Both Austin and West are committed to their cause of suicide prevention and awareness. Austin hopes to help others in his father’s name, and still carries his father’s wallet and bible.
West believes since the death of her son, that she has discovered her calling in life to help end suicide through education, awareness and prevention.
The second annual Chalk It Up event will be Saturday, Sept. 15 from 9 a.m. until noon at the BB&T Park in downtown Calhoun.
Everyone is invited to come draw a picture, write a poem, say a prayer or simply remember a loved one who has completed a suicide. Sidewalk chalk will be provided. The event is sponsored by the Gordon County SOS Group and for more information contact 404-593-4410.
The next Suicide Prevention and Awareness Coalition meeting will on Tuesday, September 11.