Diane Benczkowski looked at her Christmas tree, brushing aside tinsel to retrieve an ornament wrapped with green yarn. The small wreath her daughter, Kelly, made in 1992 displayed the photo of a chubby-cheeked smiling girl.
"This one is a favorite," said Benczkowski, as she scrutinized her daughter's photo. "Kelly was a happy child, always having fun with her sisters."
This will be the first Christmas since Kelly committed suicide in March. She was 28 and a registered nurse. Kelly suffered from depression and anxiety for much of her teenage years and adult life, said Benczkowski, who is town supervisor of Cheektowaga.
Benczkowski, 59, has earned a reputation as a strong-willed, hard-working administrator who does not back down when her authority is challenged.
She broke into politics the hard way, running against the Cheektowaga Democratic Committee's endorsed candidates for town offices in 2005 and 2007, and losing both races. In 2013 she was endorsed by the Democratic committee and won a seat on the Town Board. In 2016, she won the supervisor's race.
"I thought she was tough from the first time I met her," said Councilwoman Christine Adamczyk. "She doesn't back down from many things."
Benczkowski took two weeks off from work after Kelly's death. She said she would have returned to Town Hall after one week, but she came down with the flu shortly after her daughter's funeral.
"Politics set me up to have thick skin," Benczkowski explained.
But nothing could prepare Benczkowski for the death of her daughter.
"Decorating the tree was hard," she said. "We got through Thanksgiving OK. But Christmas is looming. On Christmas Day the family will be together."
Recently, Benczkowski took a day off to finish her holiday preparations. She planned to wrap presents and bake cookies, but in the quiet house all she could do was think about Kelly.
"I couldn't wait until I returned to work," she said.
Coping with the loss of a loved one during the holiday season can be a trying process, said Nancy Sabatini, a licensed mental health counselor for 30 years.
The loss of a child is a parent's worst fear, said Sabatini.
"You're losing a piece of yourself when you lose your child. You're losing hopes and dreams of growing old with them and watching as they mature into adults – a beautiful thing – and they want that person back. The rest of the year you can manage your pain, but it's especially difficult during the holidays."
"Holiday time is for all of us," said Sabatini. "It is so full of beautiful memories of the person they lost. As therapists, we see a lot of people during holiday times."
In recent years, suicides in Erie County increased steadily, rising from 59 in 2006 to 114 in 2014, said Jessica Pirro, chief executive officer of Crisis Services. In 2015, the number of suicides in Erie County dropped to 96.
Statistics provided by Crisis Services also indicate that in 2015 more middle-aged people (ages 40-59) died from suicide, a total of 45, than any other age group. A majority of those suicides were committed by males.
"National statistics indicate in an increase in suicide among young women," Pirro said. "We're not seeing that here."
It was all an act
Benczkowski wears a suit of armor as Cheektowaga supervisor, but every time she walks through the front door of her home she faces a minefield of memories. Framed family photos are a constant reminder. Tall, blond and slender, Kelly had the natural looks of a model. Like her two sisters, Kelly was a dancer, but she excelled at gymnastics.
In middle school, Kelly was bullied, said Benczkowski.
"It wasn't about name-calling. Kelly was being left out. She was very sensitive," Benczkowski said. "In seventh grade, she stopped eating in the cafeteria because she was voted off the lunch table. Somebody else wanted to sit there, and Kelly wouldn't give up her seat. They booted her off like the reality show 'Survivor.' "
A stay-at-home mom, Benczkowski spent hours each week driving her girls to dance lessons. Her husband, Kenneth Benczkowski, worked as president of Broetje Automation-USA on Lawrence Bell Drive in Williamsville.
"That was my job, to take care of my kids," she said.
Three years apart, Kelly and her sisters – Dana, now 30, the oldest, and Tara, now 24, the youngest – were often photographed together. Among the many photos hanging on the walls of the Benczkowski house, one stands out. It was taken on Dana's wedding day in 2015 and shows the bride with her sisters. Kelly had colored her hair brown, in stark contrast with her blond-haired sisters.
"It was one of the things she did to be different," Benczkowski recalled. "Kelly wanted to have dark hair. In high school she stopped dancing and picked up gymnastics. And she started taking art classes."
Benczkowski saved one of Kelly's drawings. It showed a figure, dark and sad.
Kelly graduated from Depew High School in 2008. She was home-schooled her senior year because of her anxiety, her mother said. At John Carroll University near Cleveland, Kelly was two days into her second semester when she called home and asked her parents to come and get her, her mother said.
"We'd get her help, some medication. I didn't know where to go for help. There are so many different doctors. There were times when she functioned fine. I always thought that was light at the end of the tunnel," said Benczkowski.
Kelly could be an active participant in family activities, her mother said. When Benczkowski marched in the town's many parades, Kelly would be there watching. When Benczkowski was sworn in as supervisor, Kelly held the Bible.
Later Kelly told her mom it was all an act.
" 'Mom, don't you know I put this happy face on? I'm not feeling happy inside,' " said Benczkowski, recalling what Kelly told her.
"I almost feel she was at a point where she thought she was a burden and she was doing us a favor," Benczkowski said. "That's what I think happened because there was no note."
Suicide is the end result of other issues, said Pirro of Crisis Services. Many factors contribute to a person's death from suicide. Finding a trained professional to provide mental health treatment can be an arduous task.
"It's a lot of work for people to get connected with the right person who will help them with mental health. If there is challenge after challenge and there is no sense of hope, that's when we see people dying from suicide.
"Loss of a loved one and exposure to other suicides are risk factors. Childhood trauma is a risk factor for a younger person," said Pirro. "Making comments that life is not worth living is a warning sign."
The pain of loss experienced by loved ones after a suicide often is accompanied by a sense of guilt and regret, said Sabatini, the mental health counselor.
"Parents may think: 'I thought I was so involved. I'm supposed to be a good parent. What did I miss? What could I have done?' " Sabatini said. "And finally, 'Could I have prevented it?' No one has a quick answer."
In the weeks preceding Kelly's death on March 16, she discovered that a high school friend died by suicide, Benczkowski said.
"She was bothered by that and she reached out to her sister, Dana," said Benczkowski. "That person was always nice to her in school. It played on her mind.
"Nobody likes to talk about suicide. We need to learn from Kelly that it's OK to talk about mental illness and suicide. Hopefully other families will know it's OK, too."
The local hotline for suicide prevention is 834-3131. The national suicide prevention hotline is 800-273-8255.
Support from a friend
When Benczkowski's daughter died, Adamczyk, the town councilor, made sure she attended the wake and funeral service. She told her colleague she would be there for her, mother to mother.
Ironically, Adamczyk would soon be experiencing the loss of one her children.
Daniel Adamczyk, 26, the oldest of four children, suffered a fatal overdose on March 30, two weeks after Kelly's death, said Adamczyk. Her son had injured his back years ago when he fell down stairs while working as a paramedic, his mother said. Daniel became addicted to opiates, said Adamczyk.
"I could not believe it," Adamczyk said. "I would never in a million years think that I would be going through the same thing two weeks later. After Kelly died, I told Diane I was there for her. Who would have thought she would be returning the same text message to me?"
The tragic loss experienced by each woman created a bond of support between them.
"Diane and I talk about the good times we've had with our children," Adamczyk said.
"Because this happened to both of our children who are the same age, within weeks of each other, we've become each other's support," said Benczkowski. "When you can go to someone who also lost a child, it's tremendous. Chris understands the pain I'm feeling."
Crisis Services operates a 24-hour suicide hotline at 834-3131.