If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. In San Antonio, call the Center for Health Care Services Crisis Helpline at 210-223-7233.
The smell of fresh-cut grass and exhaust that hung in the air. The snow and bitter cold of a New England day in March. The sound of a gunshot, then silence.
The sensory memories are vivid for Matt Mattera – of the moments before and after six of his family members died by suicide and overdose, starting with his father when Mattera was only 6 years old and ending with his own teenage daughter’s untimely death in 2015.
They, plus two uncles, a cousin, and Mattera’s younger brother are interred side by side at a cemetery in his Rhode Island hometown of Narragansett.
An active-duty service member now residing in San Antonio, Mattera speaks to groups about his loss, the aftermath, and preventing suicide among young people even as he searches for the answer to a question many have sought – why?
In 2018, more than 48,000 people in the U.S. died by suicide. For every one of those people, at least 135 people are affected, according to a 2018 study supported by the Military Suicide Research Consortium.
That’s more than 100 people who knew the person who took his or her life, and adds up to nearly 6.5 million who are exposed to suicide every year.
Mattera’s daughter Elizabeth began struggling with anxiety and depression at an early age and survived several suicide attempts. After numerous long deployments at sea and while stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, Mattera managed his schedule so he could be there when his daughter arrived home from school every afternoon.
On a sunny day in mid-May, he watched from the seat of a riding lawn mower his daughter disembark from a school bus, wave hello to her dad, and then go into the house. “That was the last time I saw her on this side of eternity,” he said.
Mattera recalls every detail of those moments – the smell of grass, the eerie silence when he removed his headphones, walking up the stairs and into the kitchen, calling out his daughter’s name. Shock and terror and a blurring of time followed.
“Get somebody over here now. I do not want to be alone,” he told emergency dispatchers. “I feel like I’m living in a nightmare.”
It was a nightmare Mattera had experienced before, having walked into the room just after his father died by suicide, and in 2004 learning his 18-year-old brother had overdosed after a bout with depression. “I grieved but I didn’t necessarily grieve the right way,” he said. “I found it hard. I was mad at God.”
The tragedy didn’t end there. In 2005, 2007, and 2012, he received calls while stationed abroad that his uncles and a cousin had died by suicide. Each time, the emotional fallout was gripping.
By the time of his daughter’s death five years ago, while he grieved deeply, he wasn’t mad, he didn’t blame God, he said. A support group of church members and professional counseling helped Mattera and his wife Erica through the funeral and after. In 2018, the family moved to San Antonio to be closer to Erica’s hometown.
Mattera pins much of his daughter’s problems on social media and a school’s mistreatment of her behavioral problems. He blames society’s growing suicide rates on a lack of spiritual support and direction. He is writing a memoir, titled Hope, he said will be published in the spring.
“Suicide brings with it layers of complicated grief – there’s really no way to prepare for it,” Mattera said. “Suicide brings with it this unnatural deviation from the desire for self-preservation. Human beings, we’re the only species on God’s green earth that when we struggle with mental health, with emotional health issues, are the ones that will actually self-destruct sometimes.”
On Sunday, families and friends who have been touched by suicide will gather to bring awareness, share resources, and raise funds for suicide prevention during the annual Out of the Darkness Walk sponsored by the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). The event is free and open to the public.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, this year’s event will be a drive-through experience, versus an actual walk, in the parking lot of Nelson Wolff Stadium, 5757 Hwy. 90 West.
Michelle Ramirez, chairwoman of the South Texas chapter of AFSP, said the organization remained committed to doing the event despite social distancing restrictions. The AFSP is not a crisis call center, Ramirez said, but that doesn’t stop people from calling for help.
“I will not say that I have gotten more calls [during the pandemic], I’ll just say that I have gotten more calls [from] people needing and requiring help a little more,” she said. “People do have a little more desperation because there’s a little more added stress in addition to maybe what they were already struggling with before.”
One of those who plans to participate in the AFSP event is Christian Bove.
Christian’s only brother Hector Bove, a Harvard University graduate and corporate attorney, died by suicide in July. His death came just two days after Christian last spoke to him by phone, when nothing seemed amiss, and within days of Hector having gone house hunting with his mother.
Soon after Hector’s death, Christian started an Out of the Darkness campaign to raise funds to benefit Fiesta Youth, a nonprofit that serves LGBTQ+ teens, young adults, and their allies, and where Hector had volunteered his time. Fiesta Youth also established a scholarship in Hector’s name.
Though donations poured in for the walk, exceeding his $10,000 goal, Christian also had hoped the walk would give Hector’s many friends and large extended family the opportunity to come together in their grief. Attendance had been limited for the memorial. So the family has planned a private walk in a local park and will attend the AFSP event later on.
Hector had overcome depression in the past, and though recent quarantines had contributed to some “cabin fever,” Christian said he saw no signs that the brother he looked up to was suffering.
Like Mattera, he also asks why.
“It goes back to that mental illness aspect of it – it’s got to be something like that,” Christian said. “If not, how else would he not know how much love and support he had and how much people would miss him.
“The message that I’ve got for other people … just don’t take any second for granted. Continue to check up on your loved ones … really take the time to dig deep and to really find out how your loved ones are doing.”
The AFSP will hold its annual International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day on Nov. 21.