Kathleen Gilligan met her Washington state legislators for the first time last February. Fresh from Forefront’s advocacy training, she knew she had only a few minutes to tell how she had lost her bright, talented, fun-loving 14-year old son to suicide. “I had my points laid out and told them why we needed to increase education [for health providers],” she recalls. “They asked me some questions, but made me feel very comfortable.” The bill passed with overwhelming support from both parties.
Kathleen returned to Olympia on Monday, Jan. 25, for the Forefront volunteer advisory board’s third annual Suicide Prevention Education Day to talk to her legislators about further action needed to help protect loved ones from suicide and tell her story at a luncheon reception at the Governor’s Mansion. She’d spent the previous day helping place 1,111 miniature tombstones on the Capitol lawn—one for each state resident who died by suicide in 2014—and sharing her message on the Sunday evening news. She returned yet a third time to testify for HB 2793, Suicide Awareness and Prevention Education for Safer Homes.
Like many in the social movement to prevent suicide, Kathleen is driven to spare others the grief and guilt she’s endured since the terrible October morning when her son, Palmerston R.K. Burk, ended his life. She and Palmer’s sister suffered more than a year of debilitating depression, anxiety and suicide ideation. “I don’t even know how we stayed alive,” she says. Since connecting with Forefront the following year, she has helped Forefront in many ways, including attending numerous workshops, coordinating the statewide higher education suicide prevention conference and serving as a table captain at Forefront’s annual event.
She and Debbie Reisert, another Forefront activist who lost a teen to a firearm suicide, currently represent the interests of parents on Rep. Tina Orwall’s stakeholder task force for safe firearm storage. The committee includes representatives of the Seattle Police Department, the National Rife Association, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the Second Amendment Foundation, the state Department of Health and others.
Palmer was the youngest of Kathleen’s three children, a star athlete, expert marksman (well-trained in firearm safety) and a leader of his Vashon Island peers. His devastated friends are still recovering from the loss, she says.
At the time of her son’s death, Kathleen was not aware of the warning signs for suicide and the gun was not locked away because she believed there was no ammunition for it. “Suicide was not on my radar,” she says. She wishes she’d had a checklist, or known that he carried a card with the Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number in his wallet. ”I think he went into very deep depression. I couldn’t tell the difference between a boy who was upset and a boy who thinking seriously about suicide.”
She now knows the difference. “We have to do a better job of raising the subject, of letting parents know suicide is a possibility, and giving them the resources to talk to their kids about it. The word was not even in my vocabulary before I lost him,” she says.
Kathleen feels there are many settings where society misses the chance to address suicide, including during pediatric doctor visits, in communication between parents and schools, and even within families themselves. “Mental health in general should be part of the conversation. We talk to our kids about everything else. We should be able to ask, ‘How’s your mental health. Are you depressed?”
As a result, she says, “I am driven to get the information I wish I’d had out to people, to get parents to think about suicide. It’s lifesaving information.” She also wants kids to know they should go to an adult if they’re concerned about a friend.
By channeling her grief into action, Kathleen Gilligan is working for change. “I want to spread awareness and give people the tools to be able cope, to know what to do. I am telling Palmer’s story and know it already has saved lives and will continue to save lives.”