Betty Koscinski
Betty Koscinski

HERMITAGE, Pa. — Betty Koscinski of Notre Dame Parish in Hermitage, in the Diocese of Erie, spends much of every year shedding light on mental illness and suicide.

In the following first-person account -- first published in Faith, Erie's diocesan magazine -- she shares the memory of her son Joseph, who died by suicide three years ago at age 41. Mental illness had plagued him since college and finally claimed his life one spring afternoon in 2016:

We got "the call" about 2:30 in the afternoon on Sunday, April 3, 2016.

The police officer on the other end of the phone peppered me with questions: Do you have a son? What's his name? How old is he? What's his approximate height and weight?

Pacing frantically, my heart pumping wildly, I learned that my son Joe, 41, had jumped to his death from the viaduct in Sharon, Pennsylvania, not more than a mile from our home.

How could this be? One moment I was having brunch with my son and two hours later, he was gone.

But the 20-year journey that led to this crushing moment was filled with a mix of heartache and hope.

Joe is the oldest of my children: four girls and two boys. My husband, Karol, and I raised them at St. Joseph Parish in Sharon and at Notre Dame Parish in Hermitage. They all attended St. Joseph School.

Joey was happy-go-lucky and a bit mischievous. He kept his brother and sisters in an uproar with his silly antics. As he grew into a young man, he had tons of friends, the girls loved him, and he had an active social life. Teachers and classmates remembered Joe for his never-ending smile and his caring nature. If you were down, he would lift you up.

That was before the enemy called mental illness stole away his happiness, even the twinkle in his eye.

Joe's troubles first began when he was a sophomore at Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania. He nearly died after falling from a trestle and busting his mandible in 10 places.

In critical condition for several days, he had his jaw wired shut for eight weeks. Then, a painful, nasty infection developed. No doctor has been able to directly connect this experience to Joe's ensuing mental illness, but it marked the noticeable beginning of his trials.

He took a leave of absence from school and then sank into a deep depression. Concerned with his appearance and the scars from the fall, he turned to alcohol. In subsequent counseling, he was diagnosed not only with alcoholism, but with bipolar disorder.

Over the years, diagnoses went from bipolar to schizoaffective disorder, to full-blown paranoid schizophrenia. Joe was hearing and responding to voices that he could not silence.

At one point, following the 9/11 tragedy, he drove in a manic state to New York City to help first responders. EMTs found him wandering the streets and took him to a hospital.

Once, on a whim, he headed for California to visit his sister. When his car broke down, he continued on foot without regard for his own safety or any care of where he had left his vehicle.

It was heartbreaking for our family to see Joe this way. For periods of time, he would seemingly recover and try to return to school or get a job, but then he'd relapse.

Over the years, he was hospitalized more than 40 times.

The night before Joe died, we sensed that he was scared to be alone in his apartment. We asked him to stay with us, hoping it would give him some comfort.

Morning came and Karol and Joe went for a walk in the park. When they returned, my other son, John Paul, came over and we enjoyed a wonderful brunch together. I can still see where Joe was sitting, directly across from me. After eating, Joe watched baseball on TV with his dad. An hour later, I realized Joe had left for his apartment, or so I thought. That's when we got the call from police.

It's almost impossible to describe the pain, the emptiness, the shock of what happened to my Joe. How would I get up in the morning? Would I ever feel whole again? Would I ever know joy after losing one of my children?

But in the depths of my heart, I knew that God would carry me through somehow. In the weeks and months that followed, God worked many miracles.

One morning, I was curled up in a chair in the fetal position. It was 11 o'clock in the morning and I was still in my pajamas. I hadn't even washed my face. The doorbell rang. It was Judy Heutsche, a good friend and one of Joe's elementary school teachers. She told me that her prayer shawl group was knitting blankets for cancer patients, but that God had spoken to her heart. She believed that the shawl she was making was meant for me.

I was overwhelmed with this gift. Judy stayed with me for a while and we shared stories of the "Joey" she remembered in her fifth-grade class.

About a week later, my friends Ken and Gretchen Wagner visited, bringing a wood carving Ken had created of two cardinals. He told me that the cardinal is a sign from heaven that your loved one is nearby.

Not long afterward, cardinals started appearing regularly. There still are mornings when I am awakened by a cardinal singing outside my bedroom window. One day, while taking a walk with my husband, a red cardinal swooped down directly in front of us and literally did a little jig. That would be my Joe, of course, always happy and full of antics before mental illness gripped him.

It's so amazing how God continues to send living angels to me. They appear when I am at my worst, drowning in grief. I say drowning because that's what it feels like. A huge wave washes over your head as you struggle to breathe.

When you lose someone to suicide, there is no handbook that tells you how to muddle through the grief.

One of my initial coping skills was to stay busy. I'd ride my bike for miles out into the country, allowing myself to cry, even scream. I'd exercise and clean like there was no tomorrow. I wrote in my journal every day, spilling my pain onto the pages.

A huge turning point came when I returned to my dance group. All the dancers circled around me as our "chaplain," Rosemary Ryhal, prayed. She asked God to lift me up and heal my broken heart.

Honestly, I felt like I had been wrapped up in a blanket of love. I cried -- we all cried -- and then the teacher finally clapped her hands, saying, "Let's dance!" I did! That was the day I decided I was going to live again.

Each of us can do something when someone we know is experiencing such grief. Don't shy away from talking to a friend in pain. Those of us who have lost children appreciate it when others speak our child's name; it lets us know that they've not been forgotten.

I love it when someone says, "You know I was just thinking about Joe the other day," and then they share some treasured memory of him. Try to be that person who stops by long after the funeral. Sit with us. Hold our hand. Listen to us talk.

Hold us when we weep.

I am in my third year of these murky waters of grief. I will never get over losing my precious son, but I know he would want me to go on living. So, that's what I do. Each day, I try to find something to be thankful for: a walk in the park with my husband, good friends who've been with me every step of the way, and my children and grandchildren who love me so much.

The mental illness that took Joe was not just his; it was our battle, too. We fought it tooth and nail. Joe did not want to die; he was taken against his will, just as people with any incurable disease.

I pray that my son is finally at peace, running through brightly colored fields and feeling the joy that defined him as a child and as a young man. I hope that the shackles that bound his mind have -- at last -- been set free.