Kasey Shea was an incredible cook, avid Buffalo sports fan, and one of the top dart players in the city. She also struggled with depression, chronic Lyme disease, and, in the last few months of her life, a series of migraine headaches.
She died by suicide last year, several hours after cooking her family a New Year's Day feast. She was 24.
"When a person takes their life, it's like they pull the pin on a hand grenade while they're in the middle of a circle of all of the people who know them. The shrapnel lands on everybody," said her mother Kathleen Gaffney Shea, former artistic director at Studio Arena. "Your heart shatters. Your life shatters."
Gaffney Shea will be among the panelists from 1 to 3 p.m. next Saturday, Nov. 18, during an International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day program in the Butler Rehabilitation Center Auditorium at the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, 400 Forest Ave. The screening of two documentaries, “The Journey: a Story of Healing and Hope,” followed by “The Journey Revisited,” will precede the panel. Doors will open at noon and a light lunch will be served. The event is free, but registration is requested by calling 816-2011 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gaffney Shea, her husband, Roger Shea, and their daughter, Karrieanne, recently started a nonprofit, Kasey's Key (kaseyskey.org) to help others find creative ways to reinvent themselves after losing a loved one to suicide.
Kasey Shea lost someone close to suicide in 2011 and a cousin, age 14, several weeks before she completed suicide.
Q. How have loved ones tried to make sense of, and address, what happened with Kasey?
I've been working with a therapist since the first suicide in the family. She's a very gifted woman. After Kasey died, we began as a family going to a suicide support group. My husband and I together also went to a grief counselor. … I think the first thing all family members want to know is, Why did this happen? How could I have prevented it? That's getting through the guilt and remorse phase.
Q. You discovered during the process that those with serious health challenges, including mental health conditions, and who have experienced trauma in their lives have a higher risk of suicide. What else have you learned?
That the biggest risk factor was having other suicides in the family. As we were finding these things out and trying to make sense of a life without her, Roger and I realized we were grieving differently, and that was OK. We learned that we needed to give each other space when anger or irritability surfaced.
The ground rules were to be exceptionally kind to each other. You can be proactive with that. We wrote on the back of old business cards, "I give you a pass." There were many times a day where we had to give each other those cards. We've always had a good marriage but our marriage has improved. We've taken great comfort in each other, and Karrieanne, too. We've grown closer. We've learned that the resources we sought were essential, that we couldn't make this journey by ourselves.
Q. What is the mission and focus of Kasey's Key?
To affirm life after suicide loss, in "postvention" programs and prevention programs. The postvention programs will have two ways of manifesting themselves. One is an interactive website where survivors can go and find creative activities that can help them. When a suicide happens, your life is destroyed. There's no getting around that. But you do have the ability to create a new self. It will take time and you can't leap into it after two or three months.
Many people say, "I don't know who I am anymore." When you reach that, it's a good time to go on to Kasey's Key and the "Road to Renewal" part of the website.
Q. What are some of the ways you share during programs about how to pour grief into productivity?
Engage your mind and imagination so that you can view the world through different eyes. Proust said, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes."
Q. Has the process helped you to feel differently when you think about your daughter? How do you remember her?
Gosh yes. Both Roger and I decided she was not going to be defined by her death, that we would define her by her life. She was interested in so many things. She loved Buffalo. She loved living here, the Bills, the Sabres. She had been on a swim team. She had been in a play. She was very loving, so we remember how she loved us.
She had relationships with all kinds of people, all colors of people, and would stick up for anyone who was being bullied (in part because she was bullied online when she was in elementary school). She was extremely empathetic and playful, with a wicked sense of humor.
We thought a lot initially about what we lost and then we were able to look in the opposite direction and see what we had with her, all the things that she gave us, all the love.
Q. What have you learned about suicide contagion and some of the ways to address it?
I've been doing a lot of my own research because this seems to have been a factor in Kasey's suicide. When someone loses a loved one to suicide, it's important to reach out for resources and support – and not all people do. Some people become isolated or often feel judged by others, including some who blame them (for not preventing a suicide attempt). Seeing the signs are not as easy to identify as people might think. You learn to accept.
Q. How do you work toward that?
A lot of people ask, "Why did this happen to us?" "Why did this happen to our family?" "Why did this happen to our daughter?" You have to get beyond the why. It isn't going to lead you anywhere. So Roger and I decided that, given these three suicides – especially the suicide of our daughter – we had to have new purpose to live.
Our purpose now is to help others. The other truth is that neither one of us could have gone through this alone. We had to have each other, and other people. A lot of Kasey's friends have joined the board of directors. We knew that a great predictor of suicides is to know somebody who completed suicide. We wanted to keep them safe and close and this has helped all of us. We look to host our first seminar in Western New York sometime early next year, possibly February.
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
– Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
Depression, other mental illness and addiction is treatable
For help, call the 24-hour Crisis Services hotline at 834-3131, its 24-hour addiction hotline at 831-7007, or the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Twitter: @BNrefresh, @ScottBScanlon