Story by Chris Graham
Aaron McGowan was a computer whiz.
“A story that I often tell is when he was 14 years old, I walked into his bedroom, and on the computer screen, it said, Official Site of NASA: Access Granted. And I was like, Aaron, what are you doing? You want the FBI at our house? He just had that ability,” said his father, Sean McGowan.
Aaron wrestled in high school and seemed to be on his way. And then at age 21, “It was like somebody turned on a light switch, and his mental illness came forward,” his father said.
Aaron attempted suicide five times between January 2006 and June 2006. He was successful on his sixth try, dying at the young age of 22.
Sean McGowan “didn’t want him to have died in vain,” he said, so he started a suicide-support group – the Staunton-based Survivors of Suicide Support Group, which has grown in the past two years from two members to 15 members who get together twice a month to grieve together, and heal together.
Suicide, McGowan said, is “a very stigmatized death. If you tell someone your loved one died of cancer, they’d say, Oh, I’m so sorry. Or if they were killed in a car accident, Oh, I’m so sorry. But if you tell them they died by suicide, their initial reaction is, Well, what was wrong with that person, what caused him to do it?
“Not looking it as an immoral issue, they look at it as a moral issue – as if they must have done something wrong. Which is why I don’t like to say that he committed suicide, because it looks like a crime. I would rather say that he died by suicide or completed suicide,” McGowan said.
There were more than 40 suicides in the Greater Augusta area last year. McGowan notes the figure as another motivation for jumpstarting the local support group.
“We started the group with the hopes that we could reach out to those who have also lost loved ones to suicide,, and make it a really soft place for people to grieve and to get together and remove the stigma of suicide and mourn together and grieve together, but more importantly to heal together,” McGowan said.
Grieving loss to suicide is “a very lonely grieving, because it’s not something that you can readily share with someone,” McGowan said. “I hate to belabor the fact that it’s stigmatized, but it’s so hard to talk to people, because they want to know more about how the person died and how did they become that way rather than looking at the survivors and saying, These people could use our help and love more at this point than it is to find out what happened to the loved one.
“We like the members to feel welcome to share their grief with us,” McGowan said. “It’s OK to cry. People should be crying if they’re grieving and just going through a death. But at the same time, we like to lift each others’ spirits up. And know that we are survivors of suicide. Survivor meaning that we must go on, and we must continue to go on, and we must continue to grow.
“You’re still going to hurt,” McGowan said. “We can’t make the pain go away, but we might be able to ease the burden a little bit by sharing.”
McGowan still gets emotional talking about Aaron, “because he was my son, and we loved him dearly. What I am left with is the memories of him, and the charge that his death put inside me, to reach out, not to say that I can save someone from suicide, but to reach out and help someone heal from suicide.
“If I was able to prevent suicide, my son would still be alive,” McGowan said. “I don’t know that much about the aspects of why people commit suicide from the mental-health standpoint or any another, but I do know what it’s like to grieve from suicide. I know what it’s like to sit in a chair and just have tears rolling down your face without even trying to cry.
“I also know what it’s like to be hugged by someone who’s gone through the same experience. It’s a hug of understanding. That differs a lot from a hug from someone that doesn’t know. There’s a lot more warmth to it and a lot more depth,” McGowan said.
WHAT: Survivors of Suicide Support Group
WHERE: Christ Lutheran Church, 2807 N. Augusta St., Staunton
WHEN: Second and fourth Tuesdays each month, 7:30-9 p.m.
INFO: Cynthia Long Lasher, 540.256.8366, Sean McGowan, 540.490.COPE.
Chris Graham is the executive editor of The Augusta Free Press.