More than 30 years ago, my little sister Barbara Jo took her life with one of the two guns that she possessed. She suffered from drug addiction and mental illness. It remains a mystery as to how she got ahold of those guns. The situation is no better today. In fact, it’s far worse, as gun deaths in our country have increased immensely since 1988. We cannot bring Barbara back, but we must fight to get common-sense gun laws passed to help and save others.
My big brother, Jim, was six feet four inches tall, kind, smart, funny and sometimes depressed. He was a father of two beautiful little girls, 2 and 9 years old. He was a husband and a son.
It has been 30 years since my brother died after shooting himself in the head in our family’s shop. I was holding our newborn son, Matthew, when I got the phone call from my mom. She had just found my brother … dead. I cried and screamed in disbelief. He left a wife and two beautiful daughters, a mother and three sisters, and numerous friends and relatives.
We are all changed. Sometimes it seems like a long time ago and sometimes it seems like yesterday, but it always seems preventable to me. My aunt and my cousin died from suicide by guns too.
We must come together with gun owners, the NRA and our legislators and do all in our power to establish a culture of gun safety and to advocate for sensible gun laws and better mental health care for all.
If somebody could embody “dynamic,” that’s who he was. Always smiling and laughing. He was a few years older—the same age as my brother—so our families were close. Like a best friend, a cousin, another brother. Both he and my brother came out as gay in middle school. In a small southern town, that wasn’t easy. But I never could have expected that February morning, when my mother picked me up from class and told me he had killed himself using a firearm. I was overcome by fear, sadness and one unfamiliar feeling.
A few weeks later, my brother made his own attempt on his life, and I pinpointed the feeling: It was anger. I was furious that they had tried to leave us behind; I was furious at both of their schools for not protecting them; I was furious that someone had sold a gun to an 18-year-old. I couldn’t blame them, though; it was perfectly legal.
This anger fueled my activism. Today I am fueled by my love for the other people working for good and by my desire to help other kids survive and find happiness like my brother has. I hope this fuels you, too.
On November 2, 2012, I was having dinner with friends and my new boyfriend to celebrate my 40th birthday. Two days later, however, I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognize; something inside me said I should answer it. I received the horrific news that my ex-boyfriend, with whom I had broken up a few months prior, had died by gun suicide on my birthday. It was a moment I’ll never forget, and one that literally brought me to my knees. He had once briefly told me that he had a gun, but like everything else with us, I turned a blind eye and never probed further for more details.
While I knew this wasn’t my fault, I also couldn’t deny that the date of his death was chosen for a reason. I still, to this day, have nightmares that this was all a bad dream or a cruel joke. It has been difficult to celebrate my birthday since then without remembering what happened.
On July 25, 1993, I was sitting in my living room when I heard a shot from my son’s room. My heart stopped, and I began to run. As I stumbled up the stairs, I kept hollering “Willy!” “Willy!” “Willy, answer me!” “Please answer me,” over and over. But I knew.
He had been in weekly therapy since the age of 8. He was now 15 and was being bullied at school; plus, his girlfriend had broken up with him recently. My whole body was shaking as I ran to his bedroom door. I didn’t want to open it. I knew we had no guns in our house, but I grew up with guns and I knew that sound.
Willy died of a “self-inflicted gunshot to the head” with a gun that was bought for $75 on the street.
My heart shattered that day and has never healed. For 27 years, 9,855 days, I have cried every day. When I close my eyes, I still hear his laugh and the sound of his voice. I miss him every hour, every minute, every second of every day.
When I was 20 and working at a grocery store, my Uncle John stopped by. It was my lunch break, so we sat outside on the curb and shared a slice of cake. We chatted aimlessly, and then he left. I never saw him again.
Two months later, he left home in the middle of the night and took his own life with a gun that none of us knew he had.
I adored him; we shared a love of technology, and he was teaching me to code. We both loved the outdoors and animals. We made pancakes at my grandparent’s house and played video games. He was my father’s older brother. I knew things hadn’t gone well for him at times, but I always admired how he pulled through. Until he didn’t.
I blamed myself for over a decade, thinking there was something I could have done or a way I could have helped. He never got to meet my children, who would have loved him. Every day I miss him. His photo is on my mantle, and I think of him constantly. I honor him by living my life as best I can and trying to advocate for mental health reforms.
I didn’t grow up with a stable mother-daughter relationship. My parents divorced when I was little, and I hardly knew my dad. My mother was in and out of my life from the time I was three until the age of 14. I did not know it at the time, but my mother has bipolar disorder and refused to take her medication, resulting in her being in a state of mania half the time. I deeply loved my mother, and I still do.
About four years ago, I saw my mother for the first time in about five or six years. I still didn’t understand her condition, and when she wanted to have a private talk with me, I obliged. Little did I know: She planned to shoot me, then herself. The fact that my mother could get access to a gun was disheartening. Thankfully, family members found us and calmed her down. I haven’t seen my mother since then, and I miss her every day.
Eddie was just about to turn 25. His wedding was only weeks away. They said that there had been a movie on the prior night that had Russian roulette in it. Was he playing because he didn’t care if he lost, or was he just watching another channel? I had not seen him for a couple of weeks, even though we lived in the same house. I thought it was because we were both busy. Now I know he was hiding from me, as I was a therapist and had previously talked him out of a suicide plan that didn’t involve a gun.
Denton Odynsky was one of my best friends. He was an incredible musician and recording artist who self-recorded hours upon hours of amazing original music in his basement studio over the last year of his life. He was the type of person who was naturally talented at anything he attempted: Photography? Painting? Building his own guitars? He could do it all. Additionally, Denton was dedicated to studying sociology and worked hard to help people with disabilities.
On November 23, 2008, Denton died by suicide at the age of 25. Over the years, he was plagued by mental health crises and received multiple treatments that should have been a red flag on any background check. While Denton was never a danger to anyone but himself, his history of suicidal ideation and treatments were well-documented.
The heartbreak of losing Denton has never gone away after 12 years without him. We wonder how his music would’ve evolved, what his career would be, if he would have started a family. The world lost someone special, that’s for sure.
My dad was a man of tremendous integrity, intelligence and strength—both physical and mental. He had been successful in his work and was enjoying a comfortable retirement, his days filled with hobbies like kite surfing, golf and skeet shooting. He also spent his days with family who adored him—his wife, her children and their grandchildren. I didn’t live as close or see him as often.
It was an Earth-shattering shock when I received the call telling me that my dad had shot himself in the driveway of his house, with his wife inside making the lunch he was supposed to deliver to a beloved granddaughter.
He was a card-carrying member of the NRA and had a cabinet full of rifles, and other guns. I don’t dispute his right to own them, to enjoy hunting or skeet shooting, but words cannot explain how sad I am to count myself among the survivors of gun violence. I wish we had all paid more attention to his mental state, to his physical and emotional pain (hard because he was so stoic), to the myriad risk factors … He’s gone for good, and my heart is still bleeding.