Heartbreak of suicide often comes without warning

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Kristin and Dale Sandson with a portrait of their late son, William, outside their home on Thursday, Sept. 13, in Kalispell. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Dale Sandson still remembers the exact time he received a phone call from the Sheriff’s Office about his son William.

It was 1:16 p.m. Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Dale wondered if William, a 23-year-old who had served in the U.S. Air Force, had applied for a job there and hadn’t told him — could he reschedule for an interview? No, the officer said, “I need to talk to you right now.”

Fifteen minutes later, Dale learned that he had lost his son to suicide.

The news came as a complete shock.

“I had all these scenarios in my head,” of how William could be gone, Dale said, “but when he hit me with [suicide]...you go blank.

“I couldn’t even begin to explain the feeling inside.”

It’s “disbelief,” added his wife and William’s mother, Kristin. “I never saw that coming.”

They both paused.

“This happens a lot — your mind goes blank,” Dale said. Many parts of William’s life — his service, his positive energy, his many good-natured pranks — are easy to tell. But not the end.

The Sandsons are choosing to talk about their loss, however, in the hopes that their heartbreak will help another’s pain. This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, which will culminate on Sunday with a series of community “Out of the Darkness” walks nationwide. The Flathead’s walk, organized by the Montana chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, will take place at 2 p.m. at the Gateway Community Center in Kalispell.

This year’s walk will focus on “raising the awareness and building the community so that people know we need to support each other,” chairperson Alison Schmaltz said.

“We need to be able to talk about it and ... bring it out of the darkness,” Kristin finished.

“It’s not a dirty word,” Dale added.

“It’s not,” affirmed Schmaltz. “It’s a sad one, it’s a heartbreaker, it is all those things ... our goal in all of this is to do something to help other people see that’s not the way to handle this, this moment in time when things seem overwhelming, to try to open eyes and open doors and open hearts to support each other, not let people isolate.”

For the Sandsons, opening up the dialogue around suicide has helped to lift the darkness around a tragedy they never saw coming.

William, their only son, grew up in Fontana, California, and was, according to Dale, a “typical child, rebellious teenager at times.”

“A good kid, smart,” Kristin chimed in.

A witty and natural jokester — the kind who would dress up as a worker at Panera to surprise his sister while she was ordering food — William found purpose through the structure of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in high school. After graduation, he entered the Air Force to focus on military intelligence. He was stationed in Germany and served there as a geospatial intelligence officer.

“He had a good heart for service,” said Kristin, whether that was for his country or helping his parents move from California to their new home in Kalispell.

William assisted in their move to the Flathead after he was discharged from the Air Force in September 2014. In typical fashion, he soon found many outlets for his caring energy — he took a job as a loss-prevention manager at Lowe’s, volunteered for the Evergreen Fire Department and became a certified national emergency medical technician.

After six months at his new home, he was itching to serve his country again. He joined the Army National Guard, went through another round of basic training and then was dispatched to Romania for field training exercises.

He returned to Kalispell in 2016, and “really didn’t discuss [Romania] much,” said Dale, just that he had worked long hours and was tired. But if there was something seriously amiss, he didn’t mention or show it.

“Up until the very end, he never gave any appearance of wanting to commit suicide or having problems,” Dale said — not to his parents, roommates, friends or his girlfriend.

“No notes, no indication, no hints to anybody,” he added.

According to Schmaltz, that’s not uncommon. Completed suicides are highly individual acts that often leave loved ones with far more heartbreaking questions than answers.

William “left out the most important part, which is why? Which we’ll never know,” Dale said. “I put my mind at ease by saying, God believes we’re not strong enough to know why yet. But we don’t want other parents to go through this.”

Kristin said she wants people to know that there are not always signs.

Communication, “getting it out there and being able to talk about it,” is key, she stressed. Without it, she never had a clue that William was struggling. “By all outward appearances, things looked great.”

“He kept it all in,” Dale said.

Added Kristin, “So we’re trying to bring a positive out of this tragedy. That’s why we walk.”

There are plenty of people to walk for. Nationwide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 44,965 people died by suicide last year — about 13.42 people for every 100,000. But Montana’s rate was twice that — a little more than 26 suicides per 100,000 people — making it the state with the highest suicide rate in the nation. That distinction “makes our goal of doing this [walk] and having this be a success that much more important,” Schmaltz noted.

Dale said the statistics are shocking to him.

“All of a sudden it hits home and ... we’ve met so many people who have been affected by suicide. It’s something everybody knows something about, but nobody wants to talk about,” he said.

It’s been hard for them to talk about it, too. When do you bring it up with friends? How do you keep going on? But the Sandsons said becoming involved with the community, particularly with the Out of the Darkness walk, has helped them carry on William’s caring spirit. When Kristin works booths to spread awareness, she’ll meet people in the valley who share with her their own stories of lives marked by suicide. Those encounters, she said “opens up the dialogue and every time you can listen to somebody and speak, it’s helpful both ways. That has helped a lot, for me.

“It helps you know that you’re not alone.”

Breaking out of the stigma and isolation is one primary purpose of Sunday’s walk, Schmaltz pointed out. Registration begins at 1 p.m. at the north end of the Gateway Community Center, and there will be talks, mingling and raffles until the walk begins at 2:15 p.m. There are indoor and outdoor routes; walkers of all abilities are welcome and a counselor will be on-site.

Though their world ended, in a way, on that August day two years ago, the Sandsons said they are driven to keep going.

“I’m not done yet,” Dale emphasized. “Every day, I want him back. Every day. I look at that picture [of William in his uniform] and think that there’s so much we can do. I don’t look back on regrets or things I said or did or anything like that ... I just look at the pictures and think, I’m not done yet. So now I just have to redirect that. We both do.”

With the walk, they’re carrying on William’s “legacy of caring,” Kristin said. “He was always doing something for others. That’s his legacy and that’s what we’re hoping to continue.”

Reporter Adrian Horton can be reached at 758-4439 or at ahorton@dailyinterlake.com.

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