Published: 10/4/2009 2:50 AM
Last Modified: 10/4/2009 3:38 AM
On the day Chelsea Parnell took her own life, nothing in her behavior seemed unusual.
She awoke on June 12, 2007, and went to work as a bank teller in Bixby, said Chelsea's mother, Joan Benedict.
Chelsea took an early lunch about 10:30 a.m., stopping by a car dealership to check on repairs for her 2004 Honda, a vehicle she had recently purchased.
Next, Chelsea stopped at the tag agency to buy a car tag, which cost $780.25. Chelsea arrived home about 11:15 a.m., picked up her mail and brought it inside the house.
At about 11:30 a.m., Chelsea called her employer and said that she was running a little late returning to work.
At about 12:15 p.m., a coworker, concerned about Chelsea's absence, drove by her home. The coworker discovered Chelsea on a bedroom floor with a gunshot wound and called 911, Benedict said.
Benedict said her 22-year-old daughter had never attempted suicide before and that any problems she had leading up to her suicide were being addressed. Teardrops form in Benedict's eyes as she recalls driving up to Chelsea's home on the day of her daughter's death.
"When I turned the corner and saw the police tape and the medical examiner's car, it was the most God-awful feeling in my life," Benedict said. "They told me that she had been involved in an accident at her home and that I needed to come over. I thought that was odd, but I was not prepared for what I found."
The night before Chelsea died, her behavior seemed normal, too, Benedict said. Chelsea had studied for her final examinations for a nursing class. She appeared upbeat and talkative, Benedict said.
"When I think back, I ask myself: 'What did I miss?' I now have an idea of the signs that were there, but at the time, it was not apparent," Benedict said. "There needs to be more awareness about the signs of suicide."
Chelsea was one of 539 people who committed suicide in 2007 in Oklahoma, according to the State Medical Examiner's Office. The group includes individuals from 11 years old to 80 years old.
Even though Chelsea's behavior seemed normal on the day of her death, she may have been putting her affairs in order, a risk factor for suicide, said experts interviewed by the Tulsa World.
While Chelsea had no previous suicide attempts, she had been treated for depression and bouts of crying, Benedict said.
"When she was a junior in high school, she came to me and said, 'All I want to do is cry.' "
Benedict said that Chelsea made it through this period of her life with her family's support. However, in January 2007, six months before her death, she sought help again. She was placed on antidepressant medication and seemed to improve for awhile.
Chelsea killed herself with a gun, leaving a suicide note that stated: "Please don't hurt n please don't cry there is no one 2 blame but me. Mom please don't blame urself. Keep going 'n b strong. I love u. Please don't ever let me go. Please don't be mad at me. I'm so scared. I'm very scared. I'm so excited 4 no more pain. Tell dad I love him. (Heart) always. Chelsea."
While most families avoid talking about a suicide, Benedict is the opposite. In fact, she has committed herself to raising suicide awareness and honoring Chelsea's life. She has affixed large pictures of Chelsea to her vehicle. When she drives around the Tulsa area in her Trailblazer, she receives honks of encouragement from other drivers. Along with the photographs, Benedict has affixed various words and phrases that read: "Chelsea Lee 1984-2007," "Have You Lost Someone To Suicide?" and "Suicide Break the Silence."
"I see them pull up behind me or beside me and make contact," said Benedict, 52, a regulatory specialist for a clinical research company in south Tulsa. "Some smile and wave and some say, 'I'm so sorry.' "
The Tulsa World interviewed Benedict in her Broken Arrow home. Sitting at a kitchen table, she wears a necklace with two gold crosses and a tear-drop nugget bearing Chelsea's thumb print.
Over Benedict's left shoulder is a picture of Chelsea with her two dogs. During the interview, Benedict points to a unique tattoo on the tops of her bare feet.
"They are Chelsea's baby footprints," Benedict says, wiggling her toes and smiling. "I am not ashamed of my daughter or her name. I won't let suicide take her name from me. I am Chelsea's mom. I will always be her mom."
The effect of suicide on the family is apparent when talking to Benedict. While she has turned the incident into a chance to challenge the silencing effect of suicide, the loss of her daughter places Benedict at the edge of grief often. The grief almost killed her, she said.
"Shortly after Chelsea died, I had my own suicide plan," Benedict says, brushing a thick tear from her eye. "I did not think I could live without her. I did not see a reason for living."
Benedict's brother, Joe Evans, said: "If people really understood what it does to the family, they might think again and not do it. She was so despondent and out of it that when I thought about my sister, I could see her in a casket."
Benedict joined a local support group for families of suicide victims and found a home. "I thought I was the only one who went through this, but I am not," Benedict said. She plans to become a group facilitator.
Benedict admits that some people outside the group don't understand suicide or what she is trying to do. She recalled how a hairstylist suggested that her daughter could be going to hell for killing herself.
"She asked about my daughter, and I said she committed suicide, and she said 'I heard people can go to hell for that,' " Benedict said. "I said 'No, they don't.' My daughter had a brain disease that killed her. I don't think God would keep a person with a disease out of heaven. Would he turn away a diabetic or similar person?"
"I will never give up. God is on my side. He loves me and he is helping me. I am going to make it." Notes written by Chelsea to herself
Benedict said her daughter was not a quitter. In addition to being a cheerleader in high school, Chelsea played softball for 12 years, showing grit and tenacity under pressure. "She finished everything she ever set her mind to do," Benedict said.
In addition to seeking professional help, Chelsea reached for her faith. On little, pink slips of paper, she wrote affirmations and posted them at her station at work. One note read
: "God is on my side. I am going to make it." Another note read: "No matter how bad the battle rages in your mind, you don't have to give into it."
Evans, her uncle, said Chelsea was obsessed with her weight and body image and did not handle rejection well.
"She had everything," Evans said. "She had a family who loved her. A boyfriend who adored her. A career ahead of her. She was beautiful. Whenever she walked into a room, heads would turn."
Whatever the reasons for Chelsea's death, Benedict is living for the future. She said she looks forward to helping others and seeing her daughter again.
"One time, shortly after Chelsea died, I dreamt that I was walking down a hallway with her and I was carrying a box of her belongings. As we walked, I said 'Chelsea, what am I supposed to do with all of this stuff?' and she said, 'Mom, just keep the important stuff.' "
It’s time to talk
Oklahomans kill themselves at twice the rate they kill each other. Suicides have risen 12 percent since 2004 and the state ranks high in suicides compared to other states.
Yet many people whose lives are affected by suicide are reluctant to talk about the issue.
Experts say that needs to change.
Sunday: Oklahoma’s suicide rate doubles its homicide rate
Monday: Life after suicide
Tuesday: Walk to prevent suicide
Omer Gillham 581-8301