Aftermath: A suicide survivors journey
Nothing about suicide is easy. As a survivor, Tammy Langhoff knows this too well. Her daughter, Katie, attempted suicide eight years ago.
“Her stepmom, Anna, found her in the basement,” Langhoff explained. “She screamed to Katie’s dad, my ex-husband, Jeff. He came downstairs and started CPR, and Anna called 911.”
For the next five-and-a-half months, it was touch and go. Katie alternated from weeks and months at Froedert Hospital to weeks and months at a brain injury rehabilitation facility.
“She regained consciousness,” Langhoff said. “She started walking and talking. We thought she was going to be okay. We thought she had dodged the bullet. But then she developed late onset dystonia, and she began to decline very rapidly.”
Eventually the family arranged for hospice care, and Katie was brought home. “I kept telling her, when I’d walk her around in the wheelchair at the brain injury rehab facility, ‘It’s okay, Katie; I’ve got this. You don’t have to keep going through this,’” said Langhoff. “We brought her home Saturday, and she passed away on Tuesday morning.”
Everyone in the family struggled during the aftermath. Her older sister, Nicole, who was just 21 and lived in Minnesota the year before Katie’s death, was not as close to her sister prior to her attempt.
“Nicole really had a lot of guilt at the time and has continued to struggle with her grief,” Langhoff said. “She wonders what she could have done differently; just like all of us.”
During the months when Katie was teetering between life and death, it was hard to know for sure how much she understood regarding her condition. Due to the anoxic brain injury, Katie had no memory of her suicide attempt.
“When Katie was in the ICU, I told my pastor that it felt like Katie and God were having a conversation,” Langhoff said. “Katie needed to decide if she was going to fight her way back or let go. Her life here had been so hard. It’s really painful living with mental illness.”
Katie’s history with mental illness dates back to when she was 12 years old and experienced two significant losses – the death of a beloved grandfather and the divorce of her parents. “She never expressed her grief,” said Langhoff. “She couldn’t talk about it. She kept everything inside. And we also have a significant genetic load. Anxiety, depression, suicide and personality disorder – it runs in both sides of our family.”
Like many families who are dealing with a loved one with mental illness, there was no shortage of attempts to treat Katie’s condition – from therapists, to psychiatrists, to medication and hospitalizations.
“She struggled with mental health issues for a long time,” Langhoff acknowledged. “It wore her down. ”
In Katie’s suicide note it was clear that she felt her family would be better off without her. “Often people who attempt suicide feel like they’re a burden,” explained Langhoff. “That came through very clearly in Katie’s letter. She wanted us to be okay. But if she only knew. Her death didn’t absolve us of anything. But that’s what people feel at the time – that they’re making life easier for everyone else.”
When she regained consciousness in the hospital, she expressed heartfelt love for her family and friends again and again. “She would hold me so tightly and say that she loved me,” said Langhoff. “It was so, so healing. I am so grateful for those moments. I would go through all of those months again, just for that.”
Langhoff said it’s this way for a lot of people when they’re living with mental illness. “It’s not that people who attempt suicide want to leave their friends and family,” Langhoff said. “It’s just that the pain is so hard. It’s what drives them to the decision. It’s not that they’re being selfish. They just can’t take it anymore. And I think that’s something people need to understand.”
The first year after Katie passed away Langhoff wasn’t sure she was going to make it. “But I hung on,” said Langhoff. “I got through it.”
But then the second year was even worse. “I had thought somehow if I just got through the first year, things would get easier,” Langhoff said. “I went through all those milestones – the first Thanksgiving, the first Christmas – without her. But in the second year, I was forced to face reality. She was never coming back.”
Katie died eight years ago, just a few months after her 19th birthday, and the pain of her death is still constant. “Not one day goes by where I feel like, ‘Well, this is easier,’” said Langhoff. “Gosh, no. Not one day.”
But Langhoff has worked hard to find a way to create a meaningful life from the pain. She started a foundation, The Katelyn Fennig Memorial Fund (www.katiesmemorial.com). “For each of the past eight years since Katie’s been gone, we’ve given out art scholarships in her memory to graduating seniors who plan to study art in college or at a technical school.”
Katie was artistically talented and academically gifted. “She was very bright, very savvy,” Langhoff said, “which ended up being a double-edged sword for her. She was smart enough to know something was wrong, and she felt like she should be doing better. She had very low self-esteem.”
In the months immediately following Katie’s death, Langhoff joined Compassionate Friends (www.compassionatefriends.org), a group for parents who have lost children. “It was incredibly helpful,” said Langhoff. “Other parents were farther along the journey of grieving than I was, and it helped me to see that others had lived through it. At the time you think you’re going to die.”
Today Langhoff facilitates a suicide survivors group. She also works with Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee and Prevent Suicide Fond du Lac and is on the board of the “YScreen” program in the Fond du Lac High Schools (www.csifdl.org/yscreen.html).
“We screen all freshmen for depression as well as suicidal ideation,” Langhoff said.
Langhoff is committed professionally to making a difference. She is the nurse practitioner in the behavioral health clinic that is part of The Treffert Center in Fond du Lac.
“After Katie passed away, I was really drawn to work in mental health, and I wanted to work somewhere that I felt I would really make a difference,” Langhoff said. “When I interviewed with the staff at The Treffert Center, it felt like magic. It was the perfect fit. I just knew that was where I wanted to be. I feel very lucky.”
Langhoff also feels fortunate that she has another child, Nicole, Katie’s older sister. “I don’t know that I would have made it without Nicole,” said Langhoff. “I’m really amazed at the parents who have lost an only child. My heart breaks for them.”
The first year after Katie’s death, Langhoff went skydiving on the anniversary of her daughter’s death. “I started doing things that Katie might do,” said Langhoff. “She had sort of a firecracker personality – and I have that in me as well. So every year for the first five years, I would get a group of friends together, and we would go skydiving on the anniversary of her death. I’ve done other things in her memory – zip lining, hang gliding. I’ve sort of lived my life for her. Other people will forget. But as a parent, you can never forget. You never forget, and you never stop grieving. So you have to find a way that helps you hold on. So you say in your heart and your mind, I’m going to carry you with me, and I’m going to live with you and for you. And that has really helped me.”
This year, Langhoff started a fundraiser, hoping to expand the work of Katie’s foundation to include resilience and suicide prevention programs in area schools. (See related fundraiser article.) “Kids these days are facing a lot bigger challenges than they were when I was in school,” said Langhoff. “Students need more resources, and schools don’t always have the funds to do more. I’m hoping to use the funds we raise to bring more evidenced-based resilience programming, peer mentoring and suicide prevention training into the schools.”
Langhoff’s life is a legacy to Katie. “I think that my work as a nurse practitioner in mental health and all the things I do in suicide prevention, these are my living legacy to Katie,” she said. “I wouldn’t be doing those things if she hadn’t died. And it’s important to me to help other parents and try to prevent another family from going through what we’ve been through. It’s all these things. I don’t know what great things Katie might be doing today if she was still alive. But maybe there are great things that can be done in her name.”