A survivor's story of life after suicide
May 2, 2013
FORT BRAGG, N.C. - It was a cool, fall day when Erin Thede walked onto the back porch of the home she shared with her husband, Juan Thede, and found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
"It's complete and total chaos," Thede recalled as she talks through the scene at her home after finding her husband and calling 911. "It seemed like a split second that my house was full of people - detectives, police officers, medical examiners, photographers taking pictures of every room."
As she discussed the various things that occurred that tragic day, there's one thing that stands out most in her mind, "I was supposed to know this was gonna happen. I know what to look for. I know the signs, and I didn't see it."
Thede has been serving in support of soldiers and their families for more than a decade. Though currently serving as the U.S. Army Reserve's director for the Employer Partnership Office, she previously served as the chief of Soldier and Family Support Services at National Guard Bureau where she faced the subject of suicide head-on as both a trainer for its prevention as well as providing programs that help with resiliency and coping with loss.
"We were like any other couple. We fought, we laughed, we cried, we had great vacations. We had difficult car rides - just like everyone else," she said while acknowledging the lack of indicators that would've helped her to intercede in her husband's desperate decision to end his internal struggle with pain.
"It's not unlike any other deaths, with the exception that you're still trying to find answers. On top of everything else, you're trying to understand why," she said.
The most important message she wishes to share with those who are survivors is one backed by years of experience, training and now - hindsight.
"It is not your fault," she said.
"This happens, and if you didn't see those signs? It's OK, because you probably didn't see all of them, or enough of them to have been able to stop it," she said.
As Thede conveyed her lack of understanding over her husband's decision to take his life, she wished that he would've considered the impacts of that decision - not only for their shared life together, but also the impact of that decision on other important people in his life.
"His daughter got married on the first of February, and he didn't walk her down the aisle. ... His youngest son is going to be graduating from college and he's not going to see that," Thede said alluding to not only the impact for her husband, but for those that are left behind to pick up the pieces.
When asked if the Army is effectively engaging against an enemy that many military leaders are now calling an epidemic through its various resiliency initiatives, Thede's response is immediate and clear.
"I think the Army message is a good one," Thede said. "It's one I support 150 percent, or I wouldn't be here talking about this. ... Resiliency doesn't mean you can't acknowledge pain or you can't say you need help.
"Resiliency is about knowing enough about yourself to acknowledge you need help and that it's OK."
Thede defined her husband as someone who was larger than life, bulletproof even. As a retired gunnery sergeant with over 21 years of service in the Marine Corps, his record reaffirms her characterization of him.
"There was no way that he was ever going to let anyone see (weakness)," she said.
Thede has one more message for those considering suicide.
"Talk to whoever it is that makes you feel comfortable - a spouse, a family member, a priest or member of the clergy. Your commander or maybe even your battle buddy," she said. "Being resilient means you don't have to be bulletproof."
As for how Thede is coping with the loss of her partner, she acknowledges her faith has helped her through a very difficult time.
"I don't think I'll ever get over it. I'll come to grips with it. I will never understand it," Thede said.
She concedes that she takes everything one day at a time, "Starting back on November 13, they were all bad days. Eventually, I had a good day. Then, I had a couple more good days."
She looks forward to the day when those good days finally outnumber the bad ones.
EDITOR's NOTE: If you are currently struggling with life after someone you care for has completed suicide, if you have knowledge of someone considering suicide that has confided in you, or if you have had thoughts of dealing with your own pain by taking your life - talk with someone. You are not alone and there are extensive programs and resources available to help you deal with the issues you are facing. Here are just a few of many 24-hours-a-day resources available to you:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Crisis Help Line: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
U.S. Army Reserve Fort Family Outreach & Support Center