Suicide survivors help create a community of healing

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Amanda Garay holds a photo of her brother, Chris Langlais, a victim of suicide, at her home in Winslow on Aug. 3. Chris’ family has started a golf tournament in his memory. The money raised funds for 10 campers to spend a week at Camp Kita— a camp for children who are suicide survivors. The camp, held at Pine Tree Camp, was founded by the Mosher siblings, who are themselves suicide survivors, to help children cope with their loss. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

When Amanda Garay lost her brother, Chris Langlais, to suicide in 2015, it was immediately clear to her that she needed to do something to memorialize him and help others who’ve been affected by such a death.

Only a few months after her brother’s passing, Garay and her parents, of Winslow, founded the Chris Langlais Memorial Golf Tournament to honor Chris’ passion for the fairway and to raise money for suicide-related causes. The funds raised from the first two tournaments benefited the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which Garay said is a great cause, but she couldn’t tell donors exactly where their money was going.

Then she found out about Camp Kita, a free camp for children who have been affected by the loss of a loved one to suicide. It’s run at Pine Tree Camp on North Pond in Rome.

“Right before the second golf tournament, a friend of mine sent me an article about these three siblings from southern Maine who started this camp,” Garay, 36, said. Sydney, Morgan and Isaiah Mosher started the camp in 2013, 12 years after losing their father to suicide.

“So I talked to people at the second tournament and they said they loved the idea and thought it was great that it was going to kids, especially kids who lost someone to suicide.”

The tournament raised $8,000 last year — bankrolling the cost of 10 campers to attend this year’s weeklong session, which wrapped up Aug. 11.

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Garay and the rest of the family were looking to raise even more at the fourth event held Sunday at Natanis Golf Course in Vassalboro.

“She puts in so much work throughout the year to memorialize Chris,” said Sydney Mosher, the youngest of the Mosher siblings, of Garay’s fundraising effort. “And it really makes an impact on our bottom line because we’re so, so small.”

In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide, according to a study published by the Centers for Disease Control in June. In that study researchers found that the United States suicide rates increased more than 25 percent since 1999, with the rates in Maine increased by 27 percent.

With the loss of a loved one to suicide come emotional challenges, particularly for the demographic that Camp Kita aims to help. Children or teens who lose a parent to suicide are three times more likely to die by suicide than those with living parents, according to a 2010 study from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. The study also found that those who lose parents to suicide were nearly twice as likely to be hospitalized for depression as those with living parents.

“It’s hard to remove yourself from that death,” Mosher said. “So it’s hard to not sort of perceive some responsibility of their loved one’s loss, so there’s a lot of guilt and anger that comes with it because your loved one chose to leave you, and that’s not the case for any other type of death.”

But the researchers said a support system and psychiatric care could help mitigate the pain of losing a loved one to suicide.

“For the entire week we are mentors, which are adult suicide survivors,” Mosher said of her and her siblings’ role at the camp. “That allows the children to come to camp to see the potential for what they’re life could be 20 years from now: living a fulfilling life, but also being a good role model in the way that they talk about suicide and to cope with their loss in healthy ways.”

Together, with the financial contribution from the golf tournament and the siblings helping to run camp operations, Garay and the Moshers are helping to create a community of healing for suicide survivors, in which they are also finding solace.

REMEMBERING CHRIS

Chris Langlais was the picture of an all-American guy. He captained a two-time state championship football team at Winslow High School as the quarterback. He played hockey and basketball, but loved golf more than either one.

“He was one of those hometown heroes,” his sister said. “He was handsome, and his heart was so beautiful on the inside too.”

Chris was also a devoted brother and best friend to Garay and a loving uncle to her children. He stayed by his sister’s side while her son went through surgery to get a pacemaker when he was a few days old.

“One of my good memories about Chris is him sitting, eating whoopie pies and doing crossword puzzles while my baby is having heart surgery,” Garay said. “That’s what helped me get through my baby going through heart surgery is my brother being his typical self, being there for me.”

But Chris also was the kind of person who didn’t want to burden others with his struggles, Garay said.

In February, a few months after her child’s surgery, Chris took his life at the age of 30 in Gallatin, Tenn.

“When that happened, everyone was completely shocked,” Garay said, but looking back, there were warning signs. “There were things that I think if more than one person had seen — if one person had seen them all — they would have questioned it,” she said.

Chris had been living in Nashville for four years prior to his death, working as a salesman for Idexx Laboratories. Garay said the distance made it hard to see that Chris was struggling.

“When he did come home or when we did Facetime or talk over the phone, I think he was genuinely happy,” she said. “Home was a happy place for him.”

Initially, Garay was crushed, and then she was angry.

“How can you leave me?” she said she asked. “We were supposed to grow old together, raise our kids together.”

Garay said she and her husband had been thinking of moving their family to Nashville to be closer to Chris, who had been engaged to be married at the time of his death.

“I didn’t want to live and have our families grow up separate,” she said.

But she quickly forgave him, saying she couldn’t hold on to that hurt.

“I had no idea what grieving was until he passed away,” she said. “The only losses I’d had were people who I knew were going to die.”

She began to organize the tournament in his memory. This year, she said 25 teams of four people were participating in the scramble, which costs $50 for members of Natanis and $75 for nonmembers. Individuals and businesses could also sponsor a hole at $100 each. A silent auction takes place during the tournament as well.

In addition to the tournament, Garay said it’s been important for her and her family to speak openly about Chris and how he died.

“It couldn’t be a secret,” she said. “Do we explain exactly how it happened? No … but we need to let the world know that Chris died by suicide.”

She said by being open about it, she hopes she can help remove the stigma from suicide and getting help for mental illness or for any other reason.

“My children, the oldest is almost 6 now and he still remembers Uncle Chris very, very well,” she said. “He asks questions and he’s asking more questions now. We’re going to be honest with my children because I feel like they need to know and to know that if you start to feel any feelings, it’s OK to talk about it to somebody,” she said. “And if you don’t want to talk to mom or dad, find someone else to talk to. We’re going to use it as a learning tool with our own children.”

CAMP KITA

For the Mosher siblings, discussing their father’s death is not something they did openly — not even with one another.

“We really didn’t discuss suicide or anything after my mom told us it happened,” Sydney Mosher said in a recent interview. “It was pretty much the last time we talked about it.”

Her father, Chris, was a carpenter, an artist and all-around, free spirit.

“He wore his heart on his sleeve … very in touch with his emotions,” she said. He also loved nature and spending time outside, which Mosher said was part of the inspiration to create a camp when the siblings decided to do something together to help others.

When he died in July 2002, Sydney was 13, Morgan was 16 and Isaiah was 18.

When Sydney and Morgan had to go back to school in North Berwick, Sydney recalled feeling as though she couldn’t tell anyone about her father’s death, or especially how he died.

It took 12 years for the three to talk about it. Sydney said that out of the blue one day Morgan texted her with the idea to start a camp, and it just felt like the right thing to do. But talking about it still wasn’t easy.

“I remember when we first started talking about doing this camp and a newspaper reporter was talking to us about it, and I think that was the first time we openly talked about it to each other,” she said. “All of a sudden this reporter was asking and I just remember having a very physical reaction, feeling like I was about to pass out and shaking.”

During Camp Kita’s first session, the three siblings served as mentors to the campers.

“We kind of had to act like we had our lives together a little bit, but we were experiencing this all together for the first time with them,” she said.

When the week was over, the three of them finally broke down.

“We just cried in the parking lot for hours before we left camp,” she said. “I think that was the first time we all really talked about it head on.”

That’s what makes Camp Kita so powerful: being surrounded by others who understand your loss. It’s a place where no one has to feel like an outsider.

Over the past five years, the ‘Kita’ — which Mosher said means ‘listen’ in the Abenaki native language and ‘our’ in Indonesian — has steadily grown. This year they had more than 50 campers ages 8 to 17. They generally come from the New England area, but they come from all over the country.

“We try to balance therapeutic peer support groups with regular recreational summer activities so it feels very much like a regular summer camp,” Mosher said. “For one period each day, they meet with a therapist in a peer group setting and talk about their loss specific to suicide because it’s kind of a different conversation and definitely has its unique needs.”

Five clinicians volunteer as staff members for the week: an admissions counselor who reviews the applications to make sure the child is ready to talk about their loss; two peer group therapists; and two grief response counselors.

The rest of the volunteer staff, including the siblings, serve as survivor mentors.

“They hang out with the kids all week, participate in all of the activities and just kind of get close with them as much as possible,” Mosher said.

Mentors also share some of their own hobbies or passions with the campers to expose them to new activities and also to show them how something you enjoy can get you through hard times.

Mosher said she’s seen the experience of the camp heal the kids, with several having returned each year.

“We had one camper who’d been there for four years and he tells us how much it’s changed his life and we can see it year after year,” she said. “After four years in, this particular individual, all of a sudden, he’s mentoring other kids and acting as the leader and helping people get through those first couple days.”

Mosher said she can see the changes in herself as well.

“It’s never easy, but it’s amazing how much I can carry on with normal life instead of being worried about what might trigger me and totally when I might lose it in public,” she said. “That used to be a fear, you know, what’s going to trigger me today? And where I might lose it and have a difficult time with it, it’s not like that for me anymore.”

Mosher said she also feels as though Camp Kita has created a network of people who have become a connected support system, including Garay.

“It’s hard, but I try to make this something positive to promote it and help the camp,” Garay said. “I lost Chris when I was 33. I can’t imagine losing a sibling or a parent when I was 8 years old. I got Chris for a long time.”

Mosher said Garay has become much more than just a donor.

“Amanda and I are like pretty good acquaintances now and we have kids that are the same age,” she said. “I feel like we’re both invested in each other’s causes and we both support each other.”

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