The Good Life | Grieving parents promote suicide awareness — (The Columbus Dispatch)

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The Columbus Dispatch

By Amy Saunders

Tuesday August 13, 2013 3:33 PM

The last time Joy and Garry Robinson saw their daughter, she was upset with what they assumed was teenage emotion, the kind that would quickly fade.

Brittany was in her bedroom, watching That ’70s Show — a comedy.

On May 21, 2011, the 17-year-old retreated there after the latest and most dramatic of recent arguments with her boyfriend.

For reasons still unknown to her parents, Brittany and her boyfriend began arguing at a McDonald’s that morning and continued later in the day outside the Robinsons’ home in Galloway. They had never heard their only child together — usually calm and upbeat — yell like that.

Concerned, they took turns checking on her, with Brittany last saying she would join her parents in the backyard once the sitcom was over.

Ten minutes later, on that pleasant, windows-open Saturday, neighbors three blocks away heard Joy’s screams.

Brittany was hanging from her closet door by the cord of her hair-straightening iron. Haunted by her death, the Robinsons suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, which forced Garry to take disability retirement. They’ll always ask “Why” and never learn all the answers.

During the past year, though, the couple have moved past their state of shock, pushing suicide-awareness efforts to the forefront of their lives.

“We know there’s a reason why we’re still here and she’s gone,” Joy said. “Brittany helped people, and we want to help people.”

With most support groups for suicide survivors meeting only once a month, Joy, 55, and Garry, 57, started one that gathers weekly.

On Thursday nights at Columbia Heights United Methodist Church in Galloway, they lead discussions of grief, anger and guilt with as many as a dozen people who understand one another’s pain.

Involved with national suicide-prevention groups, Joy has also spoken throughout the South-Western school district, showing photos of Brittany smiling at the prom and football games.

The Robinsons describe their daughter as well-liked, mature and confident — a junior honor-roll student at Central Crossing High School. Perfect.

In the weeks before Brittany’s death, though, they had seen her become moody and withdrawn as she fought with her boyfriend of three years.

She also seemed stressed about school: taking final exams and the SAT, choosing classes to take at Columbus State Community College her senior year.

But she didn’t want to discuss any of it. Friends told the Robinsons that, as Brittany helped them through their problems, she never mentioned her own.

Then, two weeks before her death, Brittany told her parents that she did something “really stupid,” having taken muscle relaxants and antibiotics from the medicine cabinet.

The Robinsons don’t recall hearing about suicide from anyone at the hospital that day, or from the doctor who prescribed antidepressants for Brittany three days later. And when Brittany said she’d never take such a risk again, they believed her: She had never even been grounded.

They wish they had known more about depression and seen the list they now distribute, which contains 20 warning signs of suicide. In hindsight, they realize that Brittany showed almost all of them:

Acting recklessly. After the fight at McDonald’s, Brittany had taken off on a bumpy country road, speeding at more than 80 mph.

Feeling hopeless. She felt worthless, Brittany had recently told her mom. When Joy insisted that she was anything but, Brittany turned her head away, silent.

Experiencing a change in sleeping habits. After her death, the Robinsons discovered a pillow and quilt in the back of Brittany’s SUV. On nights she had told them about sleepovers, they learned, she was parking down the street so she could be alone.

The Robinsons’ candor in sharing their experiences has helped Eileen and Tom Douchar feel comfortable discussing the loss of their 32-year-old son. Since Brian’s death in April 2012, the couple have driven from Powell for almost all of the meetings.

“Their support has helped keep us going,” said Eileen Douchar, 65. “It gives us hope that other people have survived an unthinkable loss, and we can, too.”

The Robinsons want to increase attendance in their group and travel to other school districts. As they increase their advocacy, they also want to encourage medical professionals to be more proactive in discussing suicide.

They’ve become much more open since losing Brittany, when Garry debated what to tell people about her death.

The truth, they decided.

“If this could happen to Brittany,” Joy said, “this could happen to any child.”