Day By Day
Story by Amanda Bedgood – Photo by Penny Moore
Every day for Michelle Crouch is a day without her son. Every day is also another chance to share his story and perhaps save a life.
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There are some things you never get over. There are some tragedies so great that even time cannot heal these wounds. You simply move further away from them in the timeline of your life, but they are always there with you. These are the things that change who you are as a person.
Michelle Crouch knows this. She knows there will be good days. She knows there will be bad. And today she knows “This is the day the Lord has made…”
She tells herself this on the hard days. She claims God’s promise that no matter how dark, He is there.
“It puts you in the right frame of mind,” Michelle says on a sunny afternoon with a nod and a faint smile.
Finding the right frame of mind has to be a struggle in the wake of losing your only child. And since her son’s death in 2005 Michelle has run the gamut from absolute shock to outright denial to where she is today – accepting.
Today Michelle knows Jacob is gone. But, she also knows she is here.
“I should’ve just died on the spot when I found out, but I didn’t,” she says of the night she learned of her son’s death.
It was December 2005, only days before UL’s graduation and Michelle was out to eat with her husband, Kenny, and friends.
“Oh, my God – it was awful,” she says softly shaking her head. “It was raining. It was a Wednesday.”
A family friend picked up Kenny and Michelle to take them to the home Jacob, a UL senior, shared with three friends. “They said something happened to Jacob.” Michelle had never faced anything so tragic. She had never even heard of anything like it happening to people she knew. But, on that wet December night she found herself in the front yard of her son’s house with police lights flashing and a crowd of friends gathering to pick up the pieces, grappling with the idea that the life of the party had died at his own hand. Officers on the scene wouldn’t let Michelle see her son. And as though it happened yesterday Michelle recalls the policeman in a blue windbreaker explaining he would want someone to stop his mother from walking in on the scene.
“I hugged him and said thank you.”
She was calm that night. Jacob had shot himself and she was in shock. She wonders now the details of it all. Was he on the floor? Was he on the bed? She knew he was in his room. He closed the door and left a note on the outside asking his roommate to call his brother (Kenny’s son from a previous marriage) not his parents. “Does it do any good to know that?” she asks of the dozens of details left blank. “Does Jacob know what he did? Does he realize? Because of the (Jacob Crouch) foundation I know they are not in their right mind.”
The foundation has taught Michelle a lot. It has been her therapy in a way and through it she has learned so much about what it means to be a survivor of suicide. The door to a world she had no inkling existed has been opened thanks to the foundation. But, it didn’t happen overnight. And it’s clear the road to healing is a long one Michelle will trod, likely, for the rest of her life.
In May of 2006 Jacob’s friends put together a luau in honor of the former football player and Kappa Alpha devotee. Jacob, Michelle says, liked to host parties and loved to throw a good luau. They turned it into a weekend long event with a family night crawfish boil on Friday followed by a weekend of music, food, fun jumps, face painting and dunking booths. As word spread about the event, organizers asked for donations to defray the cost of food and entertainment. What some thought might be a simple party turned into a kind of mini-festival. “It was amazing what they put together. And more than $30,000 was donated after it was all done,” she says.
Michelle, Kenny and Jacob’s friends gathered to discuss where to put the money. Clearly, an organization promoting suicide awareness would be the perfect match. But, there was nothing local.
“They said let’s start one.” Michelle knew it would be an undertaking and took a few weeks to think about it before ultimately pursuing it. Attorney Jack McElligott did some serious pro bono work to get JCF legally ready to operate as a 504 c3 and by fall they were ready to go.
They quickly hooked up with powerhouse foundations with a similar cause in New York and Florida to learn the ins and outs. “Our mission is prevention and awareness,” Michelle says simply.
It’s all about removing the stigma from suicide, educating people that there’s no shame in being honest about the fact you’re considering suicide. Through JCF, students are learning the signs of suicide to look for in friends and Michelle hopes they are seeing that it’s better to admit you are sad or depressed and considering suicide than to fake it, live in agony and ultimately take your life.
“We want to educate kids so they can help themselves or a friend,” she says.
Michelle, along with Jacob’s friends and family members, give presentations at area schools. They tell Jacob’s story and they give students the tools to help themselves or a friend who is suicidal. They also host Crouchstock every year to raise funding for the programs.
“This is something that happens to someone else,” Michelle says of most people’s attitude toward suicide. “We did the right things. We went to church. I thought we had a good close relationship.”
Michelle has days where she wonders if she loved her son enough. Then she wonders if he loved her enough. But, she says she knows he knew she adored him and she knows how much he loved her. “Why didn’t I pick up on the signs?” she asks with a far away look in her eyes that lets you know this certainly isn’t the first time she’s asked herself the question and enough time has passed that she is learning she will never know the answers. In retrospect she sees a few signs. Jacob had panic attacks, issues with self-esteem and social anxiety, which seemed uncharacteristic for a bold young man who loved to throw parties. At one point he had been on medication. “But, he said he was fine.” Michelle says if she could go back she’d probe more. “I would’ve asked him if he was thinking of killing himself. I thought ‘he’s too popular, he’s doing too well.’”
In fact, Jacob was slated to graduate within days of his suicide. He was buried on graduation day. Michelle says there are rumors she’s heard that maybe he wasn’t going to graduate. She knows people looking from the outside in will speculate. But, she knows there had to be more than that to lead to his decision. “It has to be a lot more. He had all of these issues for a while. But, I can’t go there and wonder.” Michelle knows there is no simple answer to why. Jacob did leave one note – for her and Kenny. She has yet to read it. Kenny did and while Jacob talks about his fear of the future, there are no cut and dry answers. There is no big secret behind his decision. And while many survivors of suicide feel anger or shame, Michelle says she just can’t be mad at her child and she doesn’t feel ashamed that he took his life. “From the beginning I said – ‘Take suicide out of the closet.’ It’s not that you’re crazy or your family did something wrong. Let’s let people talk about it and have people feel okay to admit it so that if someone is considering suicide they will reach out for help.”
Jacob’s death has taught Michelle a lot. She says she doesn’t sweat the small stuff any more. She has much more of a stop-and-smell-the-roses attitude. She calls it a gift from Jacob.
She has learned that a person will not die of a broken heart. “If you could die from a broken heart I’d be dead.” Her relationship with Kenny has changed for the better. While the statistics for marriages after a child’s death are daunting – she tells me 75 percent end in divorce – her’s has never been stronger. “This has only brought us closer,” she says. “We are both lucky to have each other.” But, perhaps the most difficult part of life after suicide for Michelle is learning to be something other than Jacob’s mom. She is a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend. But, what most defined her from the moment Jacob was born was being his mother. “I’m not just Jacob’s mother. I was someone before Jacob. I wonder – what is my purpose? That part of me is gone and lost. I do my best when I live in the present,” she says. A dear friend who lost a child told her not to wait for time to heal all wounds and she agrees. “It gets different, not better.”
But, now when the sad days come Michelle knows they will pass. She knows there will be good days. She once believed if she started crying she might not ever stop. She knows now that eventually she will. And perhaps most importantly, the experience has transformed her faith. The night of Jacob’s death she lay in bed with the lights off reciting the rosary again and again into the wee hours. “Then there was a wonderful peace at about 2:30 in the morning that came over me. God give me the strength to live without Jacob. To live without my baby boy the rest of my life.” And since that night she has taken a tremendous journey of faith. “I’ve been Catholic my whole life. I was rote, just following the rules,” she says. Now she believes trusting God and faith is the most important thing. “Without God how could I live without Jacob?”
Michelle reads her Bible and journals. (Often in what she calls Jacob’s room. While he never lived in the new home she and Kenny share, there is a room dedicated to him with jerseys and photos of him.) “What a shame that it takes a tragedy to get there with your faith. I talk to God all the time. He’ll be the only one to get me through.” Michelle says when it all comes down, “faith is the most important thing.”