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Cheektowaga mom who lost son to suicide helps comfort others

Joyce Orlowski speaks with families at ECMC, Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

Joyce Orlowski speaks with families at ECMC, Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

The weeks after Matthew Orlowski took his own life five years ago were hard on his family.

His father, Phillip, who already had lost a son from a previous marriage – Marine Lance Cpl. Eric Orlowski, killed March 22, 2003 in Iraq – painted the whole house.

Matthew’s brother, Michael, slept on the couch to be closer to his parents.

“I curled up in a ball and couldn’t move,” said his mother, Joyce.

“We all deal with things differently,” she said. “I went to talk to a counselor. Phillip didn’t. It took a couple of years and he went once. He said he felt better, but he only would go that one time. That’s his way. Everybody processes grief in a different way.”

Tears still come at times when Joyce Orlowski thinks of Matthew, who was living with his girlfriend and planning advancement in his career at UPS when he committed suicide Oct. 14, 2011. He was 26.

The sorrow remains palpable – and something she sometimes will let others see as she goes about her work as a family support partner in the Erie County Medical Center mental health units and the Buffalo Psychiatric Center.

[WARNING SIGNS: See a list, and how to respond, at the end of this story]

“I learn so much from the people I meet,” said Orlowski, 58, of Cheektowaga, who will be among the panelists from 1 to 3 p.m. next Saturday, Nov. 19, when the psychiatric center hosts a regional program during International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.

The event in the Butler Rehabilitation Center Auditorium, 400 Forest Ave., also includes the showing of the film, “Family Journeys: Reclaiming Life after Loss.” The program is free; registration is requested by calling (716) 816-2011 or emailing buffalopc@omh.ny.gov.

Five years after the loss of her son, Orlowski and her family wish they had more answers. They have to live with the fact that they don’t – though they are aware of this statistic: 90 percent of those who commit suicide are struggling with a mental illness.

“Matthew was so calm and so quiet,” his mother said. “He was probably struggling with something. We don’t know what.”

Risk factors for suicide include a diagnosed mental illness, substance abuse, a family history of suicide, a serious medical condition or severe pain, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Environmental risks include the death of a close loved one, a big financial hit, the loss of a job, a relationship break-up, an arrest, or bullying. Access to methods of suicide during these periods can increase the risk.

Those concerned about risks to themselves, or a loved one, can call Crisis Services anytime at (716) 834-3131 for help.

[RELATED STORY: Sharing the pain suicide of a loved one brings]

Orlowski hopes the message she shares in her work with those who have attempted suicide – as well as their loved ones – will give others a greater sense of the anguish that suicide causes. She also wants them to know there is hope and support, even during the darkest of days, and that those who deal with such loss do not grieve alone.

She and Kenneth Houseknecht, executive director of the Mental Health Association of Erie County, also encourged friends, family members and other loved ones to offer support to those who have lost someone dear to suicide – despite any discomfort they may have.

Families don’t get a casserole when dealing with a mental health crisis, said Houseknecht, who lost his wife, Diana, to breast cancer early last year. “But it’s even worse than that. Not only do some people not give you the support that they give you if you’re going through cancer or other things, a lot of people just drop out of your life because they don’t know what to say…

“Just be honest. Say, ‘I know it’s going to be a hard day for you. If you just want to hang out with somebody, if you want to go get a cup of coffee, if you want to have lunch, if you want to go have a beer, or if you prefer to be left alone, whatever feels right to you, I’m happy to do whatever you want.'”

Orlowski likes to remember her son. He was born prematurely and was hospitalized two weeks before she could bring him home. He liked to lift weights, keep in good shape and listen to Southern rock. He played goalie on his soccer, ice hockey and lacrosse teams.

A photo of him driving an ATV – another of his popular pastimes – was on his funeral prayer card.

“My best friend (Tina Glapinski) sent me flowers on Matthew’s birthday” after his passing, his mother remembered. “And I had another girlfriend send me flowers on the anniversary of his death. And my husband sent me flowers on both days because he’s a great guy. They get it.”

Q. When do you tend to share Matthew’s story?

When someone else has had a loss. I have pictures with my sons. I have a notebook. If they are a patient and they’re suicidal, I tell them “I’m glad you’re still here. I’m glad you’re here in the hospital for help.” I might say, “My son committed suicide and I miss him every day. I wish he would have come here for help. I wish he would have reached out.”

I give hope that tomorrow will be better. Every day you wake up and it’s a new day, a new start.

“I tell them, ‘You can get through this.’ ‘It’s not your fault.’ It depends upon what they’re saying to me as to how I respond. I don’t want to bring more sadness. For folks who are in the hospital, I tell them, ‘You are worth something and your mother or father will miss you or your children will miss you.' I’m also telling them things will get better.

Q. What did your first Survivors of Suicide Loss Day mean to you?

I felt that I wasn’t alone. I felt it was OK to grieve. It was OK to go in the shower and cry and then go and face the day. It was OK to drive and cry and get out of your car and go to work. You’ve got to be kind to yourself.

Q. What do you wish the public understood most about suicide?

That as a family member, it’s not your fault. It’s OK to grieve. It’s OK to think about your loved one. It’s OK to talk about ’em. It’s OK do whatever you need. Self-care is huge. Take care of yourself, take care of your close family.

Q. What things do you try to underline when you talk with other families in the midst of a mental health crisis?

I try to help them navigate through the system. I talk to them about things that have worked for other families. I tell them that there’s hope.

Q. What are loved ones most concerned about after a suicide?

Their other children. It was such a horrible thing, my first born. I went to a counselor for a while because I needed it, for two years. At first I just went and cried. Sometime thereafter, maybe a year after, I said to her, “I didn’t even cry this hour.”

I’m not a big advocate of medication (for grief) but if you need to take it, even for a short time, you have the power. Do whatever you feel you need to do.

Q. What would you say to someone who’s in your shoes, who’s thinking about going to the event and is afraid?

I understand how that feels. The first year, I was a little apprehensive, too. It’s very personal. It’s very raw. There’s a lot of pain. But after I went – they had a film and a candle-lighting ceremony and they showed pictures of loved ones – I felt much better. I felt like I wasn’t alone. People get it. Life does go on and it’s OK to think about them anytime you want.

Q. Does acceptance come?

It does. I think it’s realizing that he’s never coming back (that makes it real).

Q. Your work has been helpful?

My therapy is that I’ve shared my story with a lot of people, a lot parents, in the hospital. I feel that I’m not alone and there’s many people who have many, many different illnesses. Before this happened to me, I never knew it.

WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE

• Talking about wanting to die

• Looking for a way to kill oneself

• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose

• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain

• Talking about being a burden to others

• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs

• Acting anxiously, agitated or recklessly

• Sleeping too little or too much

• Withdrawing or feeling isolated

• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge

• Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:

• Do not leave the person alone

• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt

• Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)

• Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional

Source: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

email: refresh@buffnews.com

Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon

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