By now, most of my community knows that my brother completed a suicide in 2014, and I have bravely written a few times about my experiences. However, he was not my first significant loss. In fact, my brother Scott and I shared the pain from the loss I haven’t dared to delve deeply into for a very long time. I have referenced my loss on a few podcasts over the years, but it always feels hollow that he doesn’t get a name. That his impact on my life being so significant ends up merely being a sentence, reduced in the overall picture of my educator journey. This post as a loving tribute to Jerome Wayne Hamman is me bravely and tenaciously slaying my fear giant in remembering. In tracing the pain lines. In sharing that even our hardest experiences can be used if we allow them to be brought into light.
I choose to share this story on World Suicide Prevention Day 2019 to bring more light into dark spaces and ensure from my part that nothing is wasted.
I still dream about him.
In an almost so real it hurts fashion, I experience being in the presence of my first love, exquisitely unrequited as it was, most often in what is supposed to be his parents’ home. Many times, the enchanting lie of a storyline is that he was never gone, or he came back miraculously, or sometimes, the reality is altered so drastically that I am simply catapulted back into the good old days alongside the sunlight of that heart rush feeling of interminable, bittersweetly unreturned love.
He was my brother’s best friend and woven into the fabric of my family so deeply that many vacations shimmer with the memory of his real presence. To Alaska, the cabin, on simple adventures to the mall. Smiling around the corner of school hallways. He was five years older than I, and though I am certain he knew I was devastatingly in love with him, he did a bang up job of avoiding that topic. Most of the time.
The tenor of his voice remains still one of my favorite sounds all these decades later. I wanted so badly to impress him. Be near him. Help heal his broken heart that I could see though he hid it so well most days.
Honestly, if the letters inside the box I keep in a tote in my basement were splashed here, they would tell you that I wanted to marry that boy. Vulnerably, I admit that I even collected the top of soda cans in a wooden chest with his name on it because I figured one day, I would be able to redeem each and every one of those tops for a kiss.
But that chest remains full of unused pop tops. Except for the two I placed on his casket the day we buried him, when I learned of the deepest grief that could hollow a person out.
I wouldn’t be fair if I painted the image that this man belonged to me. He didn’t. In fact, I had given up the dream approximately my junior year in high school when he began dating a classmate. Life had taken so many twists and turns after he had graduated high school, and we had grown further apart. When they had a child my senior year, I was happy to attend the baptism, and my love for him was healthy. Distanced. My brain and heart had moved forward from the dream I had clung to for approximately the literal bulk of my young life. I cannot place a finger on how that happened, but it had. And I suppose I figured he would always be there in my life, but our paths weren’t going in any type of the same direction. I had heard that he was partying hard for a few years. Remember him talking to my dad on some tough occasions, but there was a barrier my self-centered, self-conscious teen mind had placed in protection to really see the destructive habits unfolding in a way that was going to be irreversible in his life.
When my sister got married in July 2000, and I was a bridesmaid, I was happy to see Jerry there. Joyful in being able to dance with him, and I wish I could recall with precision how I handled exactly our last conversation. I can tell you that my heart still skipped those beats, but I didn’t want to admit it.
Instead, what I remember most was my interior monologue..”I am going into my second year of college, and you can’t hurt me now. Your handsome smile and the unhealthy obsession I once had for you is gone. Boys ask me out now. Some think I am actually attractive. It’s weird. All those years of my self-esteem taking a hit because you didn’t pick me. Gone. But I’ll still dance with you. That can’t hurt me tonight.”
And I pray none of that seeped through to his understanding. I did tell him that I had been in love with him as a kid, and I laughed about it as if those years had not indelibly marked me. I was brave enough to say it out loud in a breezy tone that belied the truth in my soul. I know he looked surprised, but I have no recollection where the conversation went from there. It’s been mingled into my dreams so many times, the memory would be a false amalgamation of both my guiltiest fears and deepest wishes. Today, I still hope he could see how tender even then was to me.
I learned a few weeks later that Jerry had told my dad that very night he had contemplated ending his life. My dad, I am sure was loving and reassuring to his quasi-son. I am certain he affirmed to Jerry how loved he was. I later heard that Jerry’s mom reached out to dad to see if he would connect with Jerry. He was having a hard time.
Six weeks later, on August 23, 2000, I woke from an unsettling dream that involved Jerry and the sound of a gunshot rang through my mind in the middle of the night, jolting me awake. I vividly recall how hard it was to fall back to sleep and shake the pounding in my chest.
I learned later that afternoon that Jerry had completed a suicide that night.
Friends, I will never forget the pain from the loss of this light in my life. It hurts so badly to relive this story to honor and pay tribute to him in it.
He was 24 with so much life ahead to live through his son and the crowds of us that loved him. My nineteen year old brain could barely cope with that level of devastation, and I spent many weeks traveling from college back to my hometown in a very depressed state and in much need of comfort. My adolescent bedroom wall had still held evidence of his brotherly love for me. A banner printed from old printer paper which he had given me in February after not giving me a Christmas gift one year. A tiny bear had accompanied that banner, and “Jer Bear” went everywhere with me. Surely, he knew how much I loved him to keep that banner on my bedroom wall for six years? I had little solace, and I spent weekends going to his parents’ house to heal through shared pain. I switched my major from Broadcast Journalism to Creative Writing. An outlet that allowed me to process, reflect, heal through the craft of writing out each emotion. And they were so complicated.
After months of reading through old journals, seeing that he had kept all the postcards I had sent him from my summer extended stays in Alaska as a kid, recollections of how I used to share my short stories and poetry with him, recalling how he once told me he loved how much I loved kids and how good I was with them…I selected to switch my life path into a career in education. What a gift from one of the darkest times of my life! Even still today, I know that nothing is wasted, and though it feels like less comfort that I want some days, it is the blessed knowledge of how God does use the darkness even when we cannot see it at the time.
And for years, I went back as often as I could to visit his parents. Brought my children there as a light, calling them grandpa and grandma. I now know their pain even deeper since my own brother completed a suicide nearly five years ago. And I will use this reminder now to get connected once again as too much time has slipped by. I used to write to them about the impact Jerry’s life had on my decision to become an educator, which also impacted all the students with whom I worked. And now I will share with them how I am sharing about their wonderful son to raise awareness and prevention hope to the masses I have been called to this year. And maybe even a few more.
Nineteen years later, it has to be enough to know that even this hurt can be used.
Here are the signs that led to Jerry’s end that I was not able to see then but know all too well now. I hope they help at least one person.
- He had a significant traumatic loss to suicide as a child when his own sister completed her suicide.
- His depression from that trauma went untreated in a consistent, healthy manner.
- He used alcohol from a young age to cope with the pain, and his excessive use at the end of his life was a warning sign.
- He spoke of a plan to end his life to at least one person.
- He stated that his son would be better off without him.
- On the evening of his death, he was intoxicated and had a firearm with him. He was seen acting aggressively and erratically in public.
Jerry was a teddy bear in real life who loved deeply, cared about his friends, loved karate, horses, four wheeling, and family. He was my first love. My big brother. A goofball. And he carried hurt so deeply inside for the bulk of his life that went too unseen. Too dismissed. Too long without help.
The pain of reliving this wound is intense, but I will rise and speak to this topic any time I can because experiencing this pain is so much better than the survivor guilt. If I can save myself again and others in my community from that situation by sharing Jerry with you, it’s worth it.
My goal in this post is to keep his beautiful memory alive from those of us who loved him so much that 19 years without him means a whisper carried in the wind. To honor his memory with a loving tribute, and to not allow his death to be wasted. By sharing Jerry’s story, I pray you will be willing to enter into a real conversation with someone you love who is hurting. That you will seek help if you are hurting. That we will all be a little more aware. A little more willing to walk tenderly around one another’s hearts. A little more tenacious about protecting those we love from this end. We can stop suicide. We can do it together.
And I will continue to dream about Jerry. Between those dreams and the box full of memories, that’s all I have had for nearly two decades. And it isn’t enough, but it’s what I have remaining from a special light in this life that I will never forget.
Suicide Awareness and Prevention Resources: www.afsp.org
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) Veterans Press 1
Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741741 (free to text with a trained counselor)