A Local Family's Heartbreaking Story Resonates With Many

The phone began ringing at about 1:30 a.m. Sheila Whitman had fallen asleep on the sofa, but she bolted awake immediately.

It was the call she'd secretly been dreading.

To this day, Sheila can't quite articulate how she knew that her beloved son, Tyler, was in some sort of terrible trouble. But, somehow … mother's intuition, perhaps? … she just knew.

Sheila took a deep breath there in the darkness of her living room and answered the call with trembling hands. And in those terrible few moments, her life changed forever.

Tyler was dead. He'd committed suicide in his dorm room at the University of Pittsburgh.

“When I heard those words, I just dropped the phone and started screaming,” Sheila recalled. “My husband and daughter ran down the stairs and it was chaos.”

She staggered to the bathroom and got sick. The next few hours are a blur.

“I couldn't think, speak or sit still,” Sheila said. “I held my daughter, who was only 13 at the time. She was screaming and crying.

“Why?!” she wailed.

Sheila had no answer.

Tyler

Tyler Whitman was just 18-years-old when he died. He was a talented young man who seemingly had his whole life in front of him.

A 2011 graduate of Wallenpaupack Area High School, Tyler was a well-rounded student-athlete, a member of the National Honor Society and the varsity tennis team.

His interests were many and varied: everything from mixed martial arts, snowboarding and skateboarding, to chess, music and computers.

Despite all of Tyler's accomplishments, Sheila knew that her son was struggling. But, nothing could have prepared her to lose him so suddenly and in such a terrible way.

“There are no words to describe losing a child to suicide,” Sheila said. “Prior to that day … March 2, 2012 … our knowledge of it was minimal. It consisted of scary, uncomfortable thoughts of things that happened to other people.”

As Sheila quickly discovered, that's a common misconception.

According to recent statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicides and suicide attempts are on the rise.

In 2016 (the most recent year for complete numbers), nearly 45,000 Americans committed suicide. In PA, the rate has increased a whopping 34.3 percent over the past two decades.

Right here in Wayne County, Coroner Edward Howell reported 17 cases of suicide in both 2016 and 2017 … that's double the number from 2015.

Walter

The phone began ringing at about eight p.m. It was my first night home from college for Christmas break and I'd fallen asleep upstairs on the pullout sofa.

I sat up quickly and tried my best to shake out the cobwebs before reaching for the phone. As it turned out, this was the call I'd secretly been dreading.

My friend Walter had struggled mightily in his first semester away from home. He was an unassuming kid: soft-spoken, deferential, polite … a good student and a very talented musician.

Sadly, he also suffered from a massive inferiority complex. He'd always been very tough on himself and nothing he ever did seemed good enough.

That eight p.m. phone call brought the devastating news: Walter had killed himself.

Much like Sheila, there's very little that I remember of those first few days after Walter's suicide. To say that I handled it poorly would be an understatement.

He'd become something like a little brother ... someone I looked out for. I got angry. I got drunk. I got weepy. I felt sorry for myself and wracked with guilt for not being able to help him.

Our entire class was summoned back to the seminary for the wake and funeral mass. I served as a pall bearer and reader, sleep walking through the entire thing like a zombie.

It took me many years, but I finally made peace with Walter's death. It was extremely hard, but eventually I got there.

He was my friend and his death broke my heart. That being said, I can't even begin to imagine what the Whitman Family must have gone through.

Sheila

Incredibly, Sheila is thoughtful and eloquent enough to articulate her journey down that dark path.

“You struggle to understand what can never truly be understood,” she said. “You learn to accept help from the most unexpected places. You learn to forgive people.

“Ultimately, you also learn to forgive yourself … and your son.”

According to Sheila, a common fear among grieving parents is that their child will be forgotten. And so, to ensure that this wouldn't happen, members of the Whitman Family rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

They founded the “Tyler Paul Whitman Memorial Scholarship” and established a 5K fundraiser to help support it.

The first race was held in early June of 2013 and it was an unqualified success.

The event, which is officially called the “Hawley Spring Run: A Race Against Suicide” has gotten a little bit bigger and better each year, attracting runners and walkers of all ages and abilities from across the region.

This marks the seventh year for the 5K. The 2019 race is slated for one p.m. on Sunday, June 9 at Bingham Park in downtown Hawley.

All are welcome.

“We do this in memory of Tyler,” Sheila said in conclusion. “He was a funny, kind, sensitive young man. He's sorely missed and will never be forgotten.”

Kathy

Kathy Wallace is president of the Northeast Suicide Prevention Initiative.

This is a non-profit organization run by volunteers dedicated to reducing suicides through awareness and education.

I spoke to her at length this week and she is a font of valuable information.

When asked what can be done if we suspect someone is thinking of suicide, she said: “Communication is the most important thing. “I know it's hard, but you have to ask.

"Parents especially can be afraid to ask their children this question. It's scary and they are afraid they won't know what to do if the answer is yes."

Kathy went on to explain that the reasons for suicide vary from person to person. They range from physical pain and financial hardship to emotional losses, like the death of a loved one, or the end of a relationship.

“People don't necessarily want to actually die,” Kathy said. “But they desperately want the pain to stop. They eventually get to a point where they don't see any other way out.”

She reiterated that finding a way to talk about these feelings is crucial.

Locally, there are a number of services available to those who may be struggling. For example, Wayne Memorial Hospital hosts a suicide awareness group that meets the fourth Thursday of each month.

Additionally, a support group for survivors left behind meets on the third Tuesday of each month at the Silk Mill in Hawley.

Finally, if you know someone who may need to talk, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255. You can also text “TALK” to 741741.

I know it's hard, but please let's talk about suicide! Someone out there right now, maybe even someone you love, is desperately wishing to be heard. Let's ask that tough question and be ready to listen if the answer is yes.