Suicide in our community; Manning a helpline is lifeline for one survivor

GRETEL DAUGHERTY/The Daily Sentinel—Ruth Gossen lost her son Larry to suicide. Gossen turned sorrow into joy by volunteering as a helpline counselor.

It was a crisp November night 37 years ago. I heard the shot and, though I didn’t know it yet, began to make my transition from sorrow into joy.

Motivated by my son Larry’s death, a local doctor and his wife did the necessary work to establish a helpline to hopefully prevent such tragedies from happening again. I volunteered as a helpline counselor and thus began one of the most productive, heartwarming periods of my life.

My first call came in the middle of the night when, dazed by sleep, I heard a tremulous teenage voice say, “I’m going to kill myself, and I’m going to kill my baby!” I knew the family and was able to convince the distraught girl that there were workable solutions to her problems. I did not get another call from her, but one year later, upon opening the evening paper, my eyes were riveted by the picture of a toddler happily devouring a huge snow cone. It was the same baby, now 18 months old, whose life I had saved one year before. Life, at that moment, was very good.

Another call demonstrated the importance of teamwork in dealing with mental health issues. The woman was obviously suffering from depression, but, not too far into the conversation, I realized I could not handle this one alone.

It was already 10:30 p.m., but I invented an excuse to call the woman back. I called the police department in the small town where she lived, apprised them of my fears and asked them to check on the woman. The woman met them at the door, still in nightclothes, and admitted that she had taken 37 sleeping pills since 10:30 a.m. The police took her to the hospital, where doctors pumped her stomach. It was already past 11 p.m. when the police reported back to me, but I called my minister, who then called the chaplain at a local nursing home who promised to visit her in the morning. At 9 a.m. the next day I called a local floral shop and had them deliver a bouquet of flowers to her room. When the chaplain arrived at 10:30 a.m., the woman was radiant.

In a 24-hour period, she had gone from sorrow to joy. There was still work to be done. I informed her of a depression group that met at the library, and she promised to attend. The episode illustrates teamwork of the best kind. But I’m glad that I was the one who took the initial call for help and that she had the courage to call.

The helpline was not just for potential suicides. Since I could not reveal my identity, I developed a plan for helping those in need of a hot meal or a bed for the night. I would leave money for a meal or a hotel room and then instruct the person in charge to respond to the words, “Ruth sent me.” Over time these words became the “open sesame” to a meal or bed.

It’s been 37 years and I still don’t know why, but I am comforted by the words from John 16:20: “Sorrow endures for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

I have been the recipient of that joy, sorrow turned to joy, that “joy in the morning.”

Inspired by a mother totally devoted to education, Ruth Gossen of the Grand Valley has made education in its variant forms her life’s work. She has taught at all levels, from first grade through college, with the major concentration being community college teaching. After retiring from college teaching, Gossen taught memoir writing to older citizens. She is presently writing a memoir of her remarkable mother. Gossen is the mother of Debra Dobbins, who has worked at The Daily Sentinel since 2007.


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