BILLINGS - Simplicity.
It’s what Megan Saunders says helps her comprehend and cope with suicide loss.
That simplicity just happens to come from a lump of clay and a potting wheel.
“It’s a little bit of kind of forced mindfulness,” Saunders said. “You know I can't come in here and start playing with a ball of clay and be thinking about, you know, bad things that happen in my week. I really just kind of have to be in the moment and focus on my clay and connect with that clay.”
Saunders first sat down to the potter’s wheel last spring, after the seclusion of 2020 started to evoke PTSD. A simplicity that helps this licensed pharmacist deal with day-to-day work and life, but more importantly, it's needed to cope with and escape vivid memories.
“I essentially ended up going to his apartment, ended up letting myself in,” Saunders explained, about that day in December 2017 when she found her father in his apartment after he had taken his own life.
“When I first saw him, I still had that thought of, oh, there's something that I can help with right now. And it took me getting across the room and actually touching him to realize that, that just wasn't the case.”
Saunders is sure she will never forget the images of her father, 58-year-old David Michael Saunders, who just one year before had moved from California to Montana to start over.
Megan was excited to have her dad living with her in Montana. A fresh, healthy start, she said: “We just had so had just so much hope that he was going to do really well after he moved out here.”
Megan’s dad jumped in to help her with dinner and keep the house, and he even found a good job.
Although bliss in the beginning, as months passed, Megan’s already little house seemed to get even smaller, while her frustration with some of her father’s choices grew larger.
Megan said her dad eventually moved into his own place, “A great apartment, he was really excited about it,” she recalled.
As her dad got settled in, Megan started getting used to her own space again, and then life got busy.
“We just weren't keeping in touch and then you know, you blink, and it's been a couple of weeks and you haven't talked on the phone or saw him in person.”
Megan described their last two in-person interactions as brief and a bit “curt.” Just two days before Christmas, she realized her dad hadn’t responded to her text messages in more than a week.
It’s then she went to his home, and after that, began to analyze and pick apart every interaction they had over the last year.
“I wrestled with that guilt. I still wrestle with it,” she said. “It’s been almost four years and, when I have a bad day, there's that little voice in the back of my head, you know saying you should have you could have.”
“I remember vividly that I physically felt like I had a hole in my chest,” Saunders said, describing what she called deep, deep sadness.
Since that day, she has done a lot of work to move away from that place.
Not only professional help, but she’s surrounded herself with others surviving similar pain.
“It's important to have people who've been where you've been. And, you know, are still struggling, but we are moving forward. Because I think that's all you can hope for a lot of the time is just, you know, what's my next step.”
Saunders is now a facilitator for the Survivors of Suicide Loss Support Group in Billings, so she can recognize and help others take their first steps.
Although she says she started out crawling for the first year and a half after her dad died, today she says she takes an occasional power walk. “But, you know, certainly not running, certainly not jogging, occasionally trip and fall down. But, you know, recognize that it's okay to trip and fall down sometimes, because that's going to happen for the rest of my life and I know that, but just being able to get back up.”
Each year, suicide creates a ripple effect that spreads through families, friends, and communities, totaling at least 285,000 suicide loss survivors.
Saunders has also taken part in suicide prevention and education training. The risk factors, signs and knowledge she feels everyone should learn. But at the same time, she wants people to understand, as a survivor, you also, can’t bear the burden.
“You can do everything exactly right, you can check all of the boxes, you can, you know take somebody out of a toxic situation and try to build this perfect, wonderful life for them, and address all of the things that you all the needs that you think that have that aren't met and that still might not be enough. And that doesn't mean that we failed. That doesn't mean that that person is beyond helping. It just means that something happened to them that we just aren't able to fix.”
Just one of many difficult concepts to comprehend surrounding suicide, which brings Megan back to simplicity, and shaping her clay and her path moving forward.
“If something goes wrong, you just smash the clay and you know you can wedge it a little bit and then start over again. I think it really has helped me realize that it's okay that not everything is going to turn out how I think it's going to, you know. And that's okay because I can try again tomorrow. There's always more clay.”
In Billings, a support group has been formed for suicide survivors: Survivors of Suicide Loss Billings
Q2 is teaming up with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for the 2021 Yellowstone Valley “Out of the Darkness Walk.” It’s Sunday Sept. 19, 2021, at Will James Middle School. To register (for free), learn more, or donate, go to afsp.org/Montana. Or in Wyoming afsp.org/Wyoming.Your donation, helps spread preventative education and assistance to those in crisis.
Megan’s time at the potting wheel is put to much good use. She creates tealights to help raise money for suicide prevention. Check out her efforts here.