Kimberly A. Starr

@kimberlyastarr22 | contributor
Kimberly A. Starr earned a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre from Whitman College and a Masters in Theatre Production from Central Washington University. After her son 16-year-old son, Tom, died by suicide in March 2015, she started writing as a way to process her feelings around her loss. Her pieces about her grief and the aftermath of her son's death have been published by The Mighty, Our Side of Suicide, The Ugly Shoes Club, and other national and international blogs and publications. She compiled the writings from the first 457 days of her loss into a book called, 457 Days; A Mother’s Journey Along Grief’s Path. In addition, Starr owns and operates StarrBright Suicide Prevention Presentations. After Tom’s death, she felt called to learn more about suicide and mental health conditions. Starr regularly presents research-based information in combination with her son’s writings with a broad range of audiences in hopes others will not experience the depth of pain involved in losing a loved one to suicide. Previous audiences have included Pacific Northwest National Laboratory Wellness Program, Yakima Valley College Grandview Campus – in classrooms and for student groups, Kadlec Hospital, Washington State Day of Remembrance Conference for Gold Star Families, Prosser School District – in classrooms and for school staff, Prosser Rotary Club, and multiple mental health and suicide prevention summits.

Supporting Your Child Who Just Came Out as Transgender

A few months ago, our 23-year-old child, who was assigned male at birth, called us and said they were thinking about suicide. After losing one child to suicide, we were distraught and panicked, but we also knew what steps to take to help. Our child immediately started counseling, which brought to the surface a truth they have known for most of their life but could only verbalize through assistance from professionals. Our child invited my husband and me to their home and shared with us that her spirit does not match her body. She is transgender. We listened intently, working to understand this new normal. She told us she has chosen to live the gender of her soul. We did not argue with her by telling her she was wrong or that she needed to give it more thought. We did ask if she was sure. She told us this is the surest she has been of anything in her life. We physically and emotionally embraced her and told her we love her unconditionally, and we are happy she has found herself. We expressed we are glad she chose life, even if it is in a different shell. She is taking steps, in her own time, to help her body match her truth. Because we are supportive, interested and respectful, she answers our questions with candor. She has adopted a new name, wears fingernail polish and is growing out her hair. We can see the change in her eyes. There is joy in her spirit and step which we did not know was missing until we saw it there. Was this a surprise? Yes. An adjustment? Yes. But using her correct name and pronouns has been easy because she is our child who we love deeply and intensely. We choose to accept her for who is she is, even if we do not completely understand. We will continue to ask questions and research so we can support her on her journey. We love you, Gwyn. And we are here for you.

What It's Like on Mother's Day When You've Lost a Child

The moment my children were each first placed in my arms, a door to a part of my soul I did not know existed opened up and flooded with a warmth like no other. I felt my heart fill with this new kind of love which surpassed anything I had ever experienced. It is truly a love like no other, and it is difficult to describe. But most anyone who is a parent understands the feeling, even if they can’t put it into words. At that first moment with our child, we know, with a doubt, we will love this new being with everything we have. As my children grew, my emotional investment in their lives never wavered. I watched their successes with pride and their failures with empathy. I felt their celebrations deep within my soul, and their physical falls when my stomach fell into my toes. I did everything I could to set them up for success and supported them when they stumbled, sometimes without even saying, “I told you so.” We know our children have no understanding of the depth of our love, although we hope they will someday, if they choose to have their own children. Mothers and fathers gets one manufactured holiday celebration every year when our children are expected to recognize our unwavering dedication to raising them into men and women. Gifts, cards and phone calls, some heartfelt and some obligatory, are exchanged and, hopefully, feelings of mutual love are shared. For the majority of families, when parents pass before the children, the children still think of their mother or father on those designated days, perhaps sending flowers to a final resting place or raising a glass in toast to their memory. But in the cases where a child passes first, we are left with a gaping hole in our heart, constantly aching for the love of a child whose outward expression of love can no longer reach us, so this specific day comes and goes with little if any acknowledgment of the child and our loss. We still carry the never-ending love for the child, but our love reserve is never refilled by the lost child. It is an emotional and often physical drain. If you’ve lost a child and can relate, let Kimberly know in the comments below.

How Losing My Son to Suicide Has Had Far-Reaching, Lifesaving Impacts

Five years ago today, late in the afternoon, we received the call which shattered our lives. Our son, Tom, killed himself. My memories of that day are incomplete due to trauma. I do remember snapshots and short videos of the horror of the day which still have a hold on me, although, through counseling, no longer suffocate me. Within hours, our family made the decision to be transparent about the cause of his death without realizing the significance of our early choice. Tom’s suicide impacted many people. Our family is forever changed by the overwhelming grief of losing him. His friends speak of the pain of his absence. Our community’s sense of security crumbled, realizing it is not immune to this kind of loss, and the school district found money to provide increased mental health services. People started to speak more openly about mental illness and suicidal ideation. Tom’s passing created a swell of change. I have few memories of the first year or so after he died. I remember going to work, desperately trying to hold myself together and adjust to life without my son while my students and teaching peers did their best to uplift and support our family. We still hold in our souls the kindness of strangers and friends who reached out with food, flowers, gifts, kind words and prayers. Our community showered us with love and acceptance. Several months into our grief journey, I started writing and sharing about it through social media. Readers responded in positive and supportive ways which brought us much comfort. We also received feedback my messages were equipping others to help loved ones. In my mind, Tom’s death started to take on a bigger purpose. Almost a year after he died, I researched suicidal ideation to better understand the beast who told my child lies and eventually stole him from us. I concluded Tom likely experienced undiagnosed depression on top of his untreated anxiety, and I also identified the signs of his suicidal ideation we missed. I wrote a piece sharing this information in hopes it would help others by starting important conversations around the difficult topic. Doing so was terrifying because it felt as though I was admitting I failed as a parent; however, readers were encouraging and thankful. Over the course of the next few weeks, I felt called to become even better educated around the topic and to start presenting to groups. With my husband, LJ, by my side, I spoke to small gatherings while holding two part-time jobs, confident we were making a difference. Within a few years of that call and on a leap of faith, I left teaching theater to start this work full-time as the market allows. To date, my husband and I have shared with over 1,000 people our messages of prevention and the need to change the way our culture speaks about suicide and mental illness. We hope our choice to accept this call continues to create a flow of information which educates others, reduces stigma and saves lives. In addition to speaking, I published a book, and I continue to post pieces on suicide loss survivor blog and support pages and other associated web pages like The Mighty. People from around the United States, as well as other countries, have contacted us desiring direction and mentoring on doing similar work, to thank us for helping to reduce stigma and, in some cases, sharing how our work helped save specific lives. The days after Tom’s death blurred into weeks, months and years. Then, last November, our surviving child called us with news which would once again shake our world — they were experiencing suicidal ideation. Had Tom not died, we would not have been equipped to help in a constructive and loving way. But, because of our knowledge and experience, we knew how to assist them. I have no doubt Tom saved his sibling’s life. Within weeks of starting counseling, our surviving child shared with us she is a transgender woman. She has chosen to live her truth, and we are embracing this change because we love her deeply and unconditionally. During one of our recent conversations, she shared how grateful she has been for our support, as well as her desire to explore changing careers to work with transgender individuals (who have a higher rate of suicidal ideation than cisgender and other LGBTQIA+ individuals). Had we not known how to support her during her darkest time, she may not be alive to pursue helping others traveling her similar journey. Should she follow that path, her loving assistance could reverberate throughout her community. From the positive changes in our own town, to the reach of our prevention work and the potential life-changing and affirming work our daughter may pursue, it is apparent the ripples of hope emanating from Tom’s suicide are many. We are able to move through our grief knowing Tom’s spirit lives in each of the lives we touch.

How Being Honest My Son Died by Suicide Has Helped Me

There are many things I remember about the day my son, Tom, died. I remember the last thing I said to him and his reply. I have the last text he sent me about the books he ordered for his next quarter at college. I also have the last text I sent to him when he was not home when expected. I remember calling his dad and asking if he knew where Tom was because he wasn’t home yet. I remember his return call telling me Tom was dead. I remember arguing with him over the phone Tom was sleeping and he couldn’t be dead, and his dad repeating over and over he was not sleeping. I remember driving to Tom’s dad’s house shaking and wailing in disbelief and walking up to the house with strangers watching me from a distance with bowed heads and hushed voices. I remember saying I could not face seeing him in that state, but still climbing the stairs to his room, reading the short handwritten warning note on the door, and seeing him lying before me. I remember many of the horrible and vivid details of the scene which, although dampened by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) counseling, still haunt me. I remember sitting on the front stoop of the house wailing with my husband, LJ, by my side, both of us in disbelief and not truly understanding the significance of how our lives were going to change. And then making calls to key people in our lives. I remember emergency personnel moving us to the backyard so we would not see Tom’s body being wheeled down the stairs, but looking through the glass door and catching sight of the yellow body bag rushing by. One thing I do not remember was the moment our family decided to be honest with our extended family, friends and community about how Tom died. I know we had that brief conversation, but I can’t remember if it took place in the kitchen, dining room, back patio or front yard. I know it was short, because neither of us wanted to be anything but honest, so the decision came quickly. And I do know that one important decision has impacted my healing process and my life. Initially, it was difficult to accept our son died by suicide. I immediately felt 100% at fault for his death. However, through extensive counseling and much research, I now better understand depression‘s tie to suicide. I am grateful I do not live in fear of the truth of Tom’s death being found out, because there is nothing to hide. There is no shame in his illness or his passing. Our upfront honesty freed us to travel our grief journey openly. As I walk through my life after, I vacillate between fearing people see and judge me as a mother who lost her son to suicide, and hoping they do, because that means they have not forgotten Tom. And it might give me the opportunity to talk with them about our wonderful son and the illness which took him. Tom’s death changed the course of my life journey. Our loss compelled me to become better educated about mental illness and suicide and called me to become a public advocate and educator around prevention and safe messaging. It also called me to be an informal counselor for parents who are concerned about their own children. (I always refer people to experts after our initial conversation.) I also meet with loss survivors, so they do not feel alone on this painful journey. I am grateful our community lovingly embraced us early on, so I am strong and empowered enough to give back through advocacy and education as a part of my healing process. Because we chose transparency, we have presented to more than a thousand people over three years regarding suicide prevention, safe messaging and how best to speak with those who have lost a loved one to suicide. In return, we feel blessed when people contact us and share how our story started conversations with their loves ones or opened their eyes to their own situation, allowing numerous opportunities for intervention. We have a responsibility to use Tom’s story as a way to educate others, and I am proud it is his legacy.

Community Voices

An Invitation for An Explanation

My husband, LJ, and I spent the day running both personal and volunteer-related errands in the Tri-Cities, about 30 minutes from our house. We stopped at Olive Garden for linner (lunch and dinner) around 2 PM. It was much busier than we expected with lots of families spending quality time together.

My eyes were drawn to a woman with her maybe three or four year old son across the room from us. They were sitting on the same side of the booth completely engaged with one another. They talked, giggled, played with his stuffed animal, and shared their food. There was no electronic device in sight, just pure human connection.

My mind and heart wandered back to the times when Tim and Tom were younger, and I would take them out for dates when I was alone with them during the summer months. Sometimes it was a trip to our local Starbucks; other times we would go out for a sit-down lunch date in our little town or in a larger neighboring one. I always looked forward to those special times and have incredibly happy memories of our adventures together.

This afternoon, as I watched the pair, a sudden sob escaped my soul and startled me, taking me aback and causing LJ to ask what I was experiencing. (How blessed I am that he understands my grief.) By then it was a full-on bawlfest. Although this is not the first time l have surreptitiously and longingly watched families interact, this time it struck me really hard. Tears rolled down my face as I jealously observed them. I wanted to go to her and tell her to hold tightly to these moments because soon he will be grown up.

I am struggling with understanding why this impacted me as such today. Losing Tom does not change the joy I felt spending time with him. If he had lived, would I react this way? It is not that I am unhappy, because I have been blessed with support and love through my grief journey and although my life is different without him, I would not say that I am drowning in sadness as I was when he first died.

I usually write to solve these conundrums and the answers ordinarily work their way from my mind through my fingers and onto the keyboard. Today, an explanation is not coming forthcoming. I invite you to share your thoughts with me.

(C) 2019
Mental Health

Guidelines for Talking About Mental Health and Suicide

A few weeks ago, I was having coffee with a friend. We were talking about how we were both preparing to leave the teaching profession. Her exact words were, “If I had to go back another year, I would either slit my wrists or strangle a kid.” I sat silently gobsmacked and unable to find the words to express the pain elicited by her flippant words. This woman knows my son died by suicide. Before Tom died in 2015, I used what I now understand to be stigmatizing language around suicide and mental health conditions. I did not do so purposely; I was simply speaking about the topics the way I heard others do so. It was not until I started researching about suicide in order to become an advocate and trainer on the topic that I became educated about appropriate ways to discuss and depict mental health conditions and suicide. Using best practice language is important because it helps to decrease the stigma around mental illness so those who are struggling can talk openly about it and pursue treatment options without fear of judgment, ridicule or shaming. Therefore, I would like to share some insights with you in hopes you will choose to transition into using non-stigmatizing language. In a 2017 Psychology Today article entitled, “Ten Commandments for How to Talk About Mental Health,” Dr. David Susman suggests: When using diagnostic terms, put the person first. Instead of saying, “My neighbor is bipolar,” say, “My neighbor lives with bipolar disorder.” This language allows us to think of the person, rather than the mental health condition first. Avoid insensitive terms (crazy, insane, psycho, nuts, etc.) to describe someone. For example, use the phrase, “She frustrates me,” instead of, “She makes me crazy.” Avoid using diagnostic or mental health terms to explain individual idiosyncrasies. Instead of saying, “I am so OCD about my clothes closet,” you might say, “Everything in my closet has its own place.” Use the phrases “died by suicide” rather than “committed suicide,” and “attempted suicide” rather than “attempted to commit suicide.” The word “committed” as related to suicide ties back to a time when suicide was a crime. In addition, in some religious circles it is considered sinful. In both cases, this language creates a negative connotation. Talking in non-judgmental ways opens the door to safe conversations. Do not use language like a “successful” or “failed” suicide attempt. A successful suicide almost sounds like a celebration of something terrible, and a failed attempt sounds like the person did not do a good enough job. Neither phrases are constructive when talking about suicide. Use language which does not illicit pity, but rather speaks in factual terms. Use the phrase, “He experiences suicide ideation,” rather than, “He suffers from suicide ideation.” Some other best practice guidelines around talking about suicide include: Do not talk about means when discussing suicide. Someone experiencing suicide ideation may identify with that person/means and can lead to copycat suicides or suicide clusters. Do not make jokes about suicide. One example is an exchange on an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” when Penny reacts to a painting Amy commissioned of the two of them. When Penny sees it, she says something to the effect of, “That painting is so ugly the artist should kill themselves.” Jokes like this make light of others’ illness and desensitizes viewers to the nature of suicide and its aftermath for those left behind. It can also make someone feel they will not be taken seriously if they ask for help. It is important to note language is always evolving. What may be appropriate today may change in the future. Recognizing these guidelines for constructive dialogue about mental health conditions and suicide, I would like to challenge you to become an advocate for safe messaging. Here are some examples of poor messaging I have observed and how even one person can make a difference in how our society talks about suicide. I have a friend who regularly stops with her family at a locally owned store. For years, she noticed an ice cream flavor called “Chocolate Suicide.” A few weeks ago, she wrote them about how much she loves going there with her family and was troubled by this flavor’s name. In her message, she emphasized that the thousands of travelers through their store all have stories, some include painful experiences with suicide, and even an ice cream flavor’s name can create unforeseen tears or heartache. Although my friend did not receive an email reply, she visited the store four days later and discovered the flavor name was changed to “Chocolate Overload.” She made a difference with one email by explaining how the flavor name stigmatizes the idea of suicide and can be unintentionally hurtful. About a year ago, I was watching an episode of Northwest Justice, a television series filmed in Washington State which follows Department of Fish and Wildlife officers. On one episode, an officer was assisting a man experiencing suicide ideation. Unfortunately, he used outdated and stigmatizing language which could have increased the individual’s distress rather than deescalate the situation. I contacted the network which produced the show as well as a media official from the DFW. Although I never heard back from the network, I received an email from the DFW officer who agreed the officer (and others on the force) needed updated intervention training. Hearing back from him felt like success to me. I have reached out to many other entities including Safe Schools (an online teacher training program) and Dear Abby. In many cases, I never heard back, but feel I am making a difference by helping to change the conversation. Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I didn’t understand the impact of my words until I did. I hope you will consider being a warrior for change by rethinking how you talk about mental health conditions and suicide and by helping educate others. For those of you who have experienced the helpless feeling which comes from losing someone to suicide, helping to change the conversation around mental health conditions and suicide is a way to honor them.

Why It's Important to Ask Someone If They're Thinking About Suicide

An acquaintance of mine recently stopped by, coincidentally on Suicide Prevention Awareness Day. I met her last year, and as we spent more time together, I saw a change in her that concerned me. I asked her if she was thinking about suicide, and she said, “Yes.” I immediately connected her to professional resources, and she thankfully received the help she needed. When I saw her on Tuesday, she gave me the most heartfelt hug and told me she came by because she specifically wanted me to see how well she was doing. She said she spent five months in counseling and worked with a doctor to find the right medication to help her. She was bouncy, enthusiastic and thankful. She told me I saved her life. She told me I was the one person who saw a change in her affect and asked her if she was thinking about suicide. The reason I knew how and what to ask her is because after my son Tom died by suicide, I learned the signs of depression and suicidal ideation and how to approach someone about whom I am concerned. My mission was twofold. I wanted to be able to help people I care about and to teach others to do the same. Had I not received this training and had the confidence to ask this question, things might have worked out very differently. I messaged her that night and asked her if I could share her story. Her written response was, “I wouldn’t mind at all. My situation definitely serves as a good example!” I am sharing this story with you to tangibly illustrate suicide prevention education works. She is someone’s daughter, sibling, aunt, neighbor, coworker and friend. There were many people she saw on a daily basis, but none of them asked her this question. One person who knows to ask this question can make a difference. By taking the time to learn this information, you can be prepared to assist someone. You too, can help someone struggling and maybe even save a life.

Tips for Suicide Prevention Presentations From Suicide Loss Survivor

The author’s son I wanted to get involved in suicide prevention work soon after my son, Tom, died. When I expressed my desire to speak on the subject, mental health and prevention professionals encouraged me to wait two years and to connect with online and in-person resources first. It was difficult for me to hear their recommendations because I had passion and energy to put towards the work, but because I waited and followed their suggestions, I have been welcomed into the local prevention community as a stakeholder and now present to a broad range of groups. Here are a few important items I have learned about how to approach suicide prevention through research and talking with professionals: Instead of starting the work soon after your loved one’s passing, wait until you are a few years into your grief journey, so you are able to speak passionately but not emotionally. Instead of rushing into the work and speaking from a place of only your experience, take the time to do research and verify you are following best practices. Instead of being unsure if your presentation is suitable for certain audiences, ask mental health and prevention experts to review your presentation for appropriateness. Instead of allowing your emotions to flow, keep them in check so your audience can focus on your message rather than your feelings. Instead of speaking extemporaneously, plan what you want to say so you can practice and are prepared to control your emotions. Instead of focusing on the devastation of the suicide’s aftermath, focus on the hope which available interventions provide. Instead of discussing the means your loved one used, present ways to limit access to suicide means. Instead of using emotionally charged or guilt inducing language, speak to the facts of the topic. Instead of speaking to assemblies or large groups of people, present to people in groups of about 25 so listeners feel safe. Instead of discussing a precipitating incident which you believe led to your loved one’s death, discuss suicide’s risk factors. Instead of presenting by yourself, invite mental health or prevention professionals to join in the conversation. Instead of working on your own, join a local prevention coalition so you are working with others who are passionate about and also invested in the work. We want to tell our stories and there is value in doing so, but it is important we do it in ways which are safe and productive for our listeners. Please make the effort to be a positive and vigilant force for education around this important topic.

Community Voices

My Life - The Tragicomedy

Yesterday, in the last ten minutes or so of my Drama 101 class, we were discussing genres of plays. I defined tragedies for the class and shared with them some examples. Because I am more aware and sensitive about how #Suicide is portrayed in plays, movies, and television, I used the opportunity to discuss how suicides are often used as plot devices in stories which perpetuates the myths and stigma around why people die by suicide. We had a great discussion about both the genre and mental illness.

We then moved on to the genre of tragicomedy. I defined the term as a play which usually starts off funny but during which there is often significant loss. I included a quote from our textbook which defines the genre as, “A tragedy which ends happily.” I pondered a moment and said, “As I think about it, I guess I would define my life as a tragicomedy. I have experienced some tremendous losses, yet, I am still able to find joy and laughter in my life.” As soon as I said it, the lights in the room started turning off and on by themselves. The entire classroom was still as we all looked up at the lights and each other.

I asked the students if I had shared with them my story about Tom and blinking lights. They indicated I had not, so I told them when my boys were young, we would wake them in the morning by blinking their bedroom lights on and off while we sang “Reveille.” I went on to explain in the last few years of Tom’s life, when we would retire to bed before he did, he would open our bedroom door and turn the lights on and off, often mischievously leaving them on so one of us would have to get out of bed to shut them off. I explained that in the early days of my #Grief journey, I decided any time lights around me flicker or blink, I imagine Tom there, playfully reminding me he is still with me, and that I also decided I would verbally acknowledge him.

Throughout this explanation, the lights continued to turn on and off by themselves. When I finished telling them the backstory, I explained Tom was my student in this same Drama 101 class which was held in this room in the fall of 2014, and that there have been a few times the lights have blinked in the room since he died. I told them, “When this happens, I usually take a moment and acknowledge him by saying, “Hello, Tom.” So I looked up at the lights, and a handful of students joined me in saying, “Hello, Tom.” Immediately the lights stopped blinking and stayed on. There was a heavy silence as we all looked at one another in disbelief. After about 20 seconds they started turning on and off again. That seemed like an appropriate time to dismiss the class based on the clock and the experience we all had just shared.

When I write about experiences like these, I always feel the need to tell skeptics that I realize there is likely a logical, mechanical explanation for these kinds of occurrences. But I appreciate and value that I have chosen to use these moments to remember and acknowledge the joy Tom brought to my life and the possibility he walks beside me even now. Perhaps making this choice is why I can see my life as a tragicomedy – a tragedy which ends happily.

© 2018

Community Voices

Anxiety’s Lies

I recently attended a gathering which included the opportunity for people to pay homage to a shared mentor during an open microphone time. There was an individual who commented loudly on almost everyone’s anecdotes and in some cases, even told the punch line of their story. As the evening wore on, we became equally annoyed at and embarrassed of her behavior. No one said anything directly to her, but there were shared snickers and eye rolls as the evening wore on.

When I returned to my hotel room and reflected on our reactions to her behavior, I experienced an epiphany related to my #Anxiety. The way I felt about her during that event is the way my anxiety makes me believe others feel about me in almost all social situations. My anxiety gnaws at my conscious, convincing me that every time I say or do something, people are judging me in the same way I judged her. And even though others can tell me that is not the case, the nagging feeling is there, needling me and convincing me that I am at most, unwelcome, and at the least, a minor annoyance, with which people put up.

I am working with a counselor to reframe my responses to social interactions in truth rather than listening to anxiety’s lies, but it is slow going, as my anxiety is a deep-rooted, persistent sucker. With her help, I am learning to identify the lies, and then choosing to dismiss them without believing them.