Next Monday is a holiday, Labor Day, but Becky Feltmann and Sheila Mueller will be at Washington Public Library for the regular meeting of the new Suicide Loss Support Group.
“Grief doesn’t wait, just because it’s a holiday,” Feltmann, Washington, remarked.
She knows from personal experience. Her stepsister commited suicide three years ago.
Mueller, who grew up in Labadie, but now lives in Eureka, knows too. Her husband, whom she had been together with since she was 16, killed himself nine years ago.
The women are serving as co-facilitators of the new Suicide Loss Support Group as a way to help others on the journey of hope and healing after a devastating loss to suicide. They want to create a safe space for those traveling on this uniquely difficult path.
Both Feltmann and Mueller have completed the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s (AFSP) self-study group facilitator training and intend to provide the structure needed for a successful peer-led group, meaning there are no set discussions or activities. Rather the meetings are held in an open format to allow the group to support the individuals most effectively.
‘She Was Acting Hopeful Enough . . . ’
Feltmann, a 1999 graduate, of Washington High School, admits she felt a lot of guilt after her stepsister, Lindsey, died. As an RN who has worked in the emergency department and dealt firsthand with people who are struggling with their mental health, she felt she should have recognized that her stepsister was in imminent danger.
The situation began on a random Tuesday evening around 8 p.m., when Feltmann heard from her stepsister’s husband concerned about some weird text messages he had received from her.
The police then found her sitting in her car on the side of a highway in St. Louis. She had some pills and some alcohol, so she was taken to the hospital for evaluation. But that took a long time to happen, maybe eight or 10 hours, said Feltmann, and “by the time they did it, I know she came up with a very good story.”
Her stepsister was released from the hospital, but within hours she was brought back in with injuries from a car accident, which the police later realized was likely a suicide attempt.
Injuries she sustained from the car accident kept her in the hospital longer this time, but her mental health wasn’t considered for a few more days. She was finally transferred to an inpatient psychiatic unit, where she was kept for five days before being released.
Feltmann took her home and stayed with her at her house. She seemed to be doing better, at least enough that Feltmann left her alone so she could go to work for a few hours before she was going to come back to take her to her first outpatient treatment appointment.
Looking back, Feltmann knows her stepsister was likely just putting on a good show.
“She was doing a very good job of acting hopeful enough,” said Feltmann. “She truly seemed like she was in a better place and the things we were doing were supporting her and helping her along.”
When Feltmann left for work early that morning, she didn’t check in on her stepsister because she didn’t want to wake her.
“One of the big problems with most people who aren’t balanced mental health-wise is they don’t sleep, so I wasn’t going to check on her in case she was sleeping,” Feltmann recalled.
Later in the morning, the two were in touch through text messaging, “but in hindsight now I can see that she was baiting me for information.
“She was trying to get information on my time line, when I was going to get to her, and send me on a couple of errands to delay me at the last minute,” said Feltmann. “Bottom line, she sent me on a wild goose chase, then I couldn’t get a hold of her, and when I got to her house, I found her dead.”
A few weeks later, Feltmann and her husband, Matt, learned they were pregnant. Feltmann had spent the 20 years prior to that thinking she couldn’t even have children, so the news was a shock. It also complicated Feltmann’s recovery from the trauma of her stepsister’s death, affecting her own mental health.
Feltmann’s daughter was born in what she described as a traumatic delivery, and afterward motherhood didn’t come naturally to her.
Think of Mental Health as a Bucket
In talking about mental health and how it can ebb and flow for people, Feltmann uses the analogy of a bucket.
“I look at mental health as a bucket,” she said. “We all have one, and it gets filled up with things — some drops are small, some are giant. And there are things you can do to sort of empty out your bucket and make more room in it.”
For her stepsister, her bucket was full, and then she experienced an overwhelming drop in her bucket — her husband was leaving her.
For Feltmann, she used to think that her stepsister’s suicide was the overwhelming drop in her bucket, but that was the delivery of her daughter by emergency C-section.
“That was one more thing that I had lost complete control over, had no say in, and then now I bring home this baby,” she said. “My whole first year with her was very rough. I struggled to bond with her.”
People around her suspected she had postpartum depression, and Feltmann said she even wondered it herself, but now she believes what she was really experiencing was post-traumatic stress, and not just from her stepsister’s suicide, but from a lifetime of experiences.
“I’ve always had stuff that I never dealt with effectively, so it was kind of a lifetime of things that all finally surfaced in one place,” said Feltmann. “Luckily I had a lot of support . . . from the time I recognized that I was really struggling, that was about five weeks, (my father) was here pretty much every single day, helping me take care of her, getting me rest that I needed, doing whatever I needed. For almost 10 straight months, he was here I think every single day.”
She knows she was lucky that he was in a position to help, because he’s retired.
Support Group Led to New Career
For Feltmann, the loss of her stepsister wasn’t just personal. It affected her professional self-worth as a nurse too.She began doing some soul searching to find a new career path, and that led her to the realization that a support group for suicide loss would be beneficial to her.
An internet search turned up only three results — in St. Charles, South St. Louis County and Olivette. She went to the meeting in St. Charles and right away knew it was just what she had needed.
“So many things made sense,” Feltmann remarked.
“You have this constant internal struggle after a loss like that, of questioning everything. Nothing ever looks the same again . . . I used to be very social,” she noted. “This happened almost three years ago. I have done a lot of work, and I feel really healed, but it has changed who I am as a person.
“It’s hard for people who have suffered a loss to feel welcome and accepted,” said Feltmann. “Suicide grief is very unique, because you have self-judgment and guilt and all these other things that you’ll always question.”
After being in the group in St. Charles for a little while and continuing to do her own work for healing, Feltmann knew she wanted to bring a suicide loss support group to Franklin County.
It also led her to a new career in bereavement counseling, focusing on traumatic grief — as a result of suicide, homicide or any sudden, unexpected loss.
Last spring, Feltmann attended a training program for Compassionate Bereavement Care in Sedona, Ariz., which is run by Dr. Joanne Cacciatore, who organized the MISS Foundation for parents who lose children, and became a certified Compassionate Bereavement Care provider.
Feltmann opened her own grief support business, When Mourning Comes, with an office at 214 Elm St. in Downtown Washington in June. She offers grief sessions, support sessions and speaking engagements. For more information, people can go to her website, www.whenmourningcomes.com.
Free Support Group Meets First Monday
The Suicide Loss Support Group will meet the first Monday of every month from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the meeting room at Washington Public Library. No registration is necessary.
For more information on the group, people can call Feltmann at 636-283-0177 or email her at WhenMourningComes2019@gmail.com.
Soon Feltmann and Mueller hope to be able to offer a second meeting each month in Eureka, enabling them to help even more people who are grieving.
Mueller said that’s mainly what is motivating her right now.
“I don’t want people to have to go through the same pain,” she said. “And I don’t want (Tony) to be forgotten.
“I vowed when he passed away that I would help other people through this, because it’s horrific.”
Establishing Suicide Loss Support Group meetings in Washington and Eureka will fill a need, said Mueller. After her husband commited suicide, she attended a grief sharing support group, but it wasn’t specific to suicide, and all of the other people attending were seniors who had lost their spouse to an illness.
The trauma of losing someone to suicide is no where near the same, the women said.
Mueller, who works as a nurse practitioner and had previously worked in emergency medicine, said now she doesn’t hesitate to ask someone she feels is struggling with their mental health how they are doing. And many open up to her on the spot.
“Usually that’s all they need,” said Feltmann. “They just need someone to see them and hear them.
“They think they are telling and showing people what they need, but it’s not in a way that most people will recognize, so when someone finally does see them or feel their pain, even just in a group setting, it’s just so liberating,” said Feltmann.
The women understand that just because a support group was so helpful in their recovery from the trauma doesn’t mean that it will help everyone, but it’s at least worth one visit to see.
The meetings are free and confidential.
Looking ahead, Feltmann said she hopes to begin doing some community education events. Watch The Missourian for more information on that.