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Woman hopes story will help others
After losing her father and her husband to suicide
Monday, September 17, 2012
By PAUL COLLINS - Bulletin Staff Writer
Donna Via’s father and husband each died by suicide more than 20 years apart. She now is actively involved in the Suicide Survivors Collaborative, an informal group that has been meeting for several months to discuss this area’s high suicide rates and what can be done.
Via, of Martinsville, will be one of the leaders of two support groups for people left behind by suicide, called survivors of suicide, that will start in October.
After describing the circumstances leading up to her husband Jerry Via’s death in 2010, Donna Via said: “I want something good to come out of something that happened so horrible. I want it to help somebody.”
Her father, Jimmy Russ of Martinsville, killed himself in 1986, she said.
“With my father, he was very much happy, a joking guy. He had a bad day. It was very much of a surprise. He had not been in poor health,” she said of her father’s shooting death.
Via, now 45, was 18 when her father died. She had married Jerry Via about nine months before.
“I was a daddy’s girl. I was really close to him,” she said, adding that Jerry was becoming close to her father as well.
On July 22, 2010, Jerry shot himself in the head and died the following day after being taken off life support, Donna said.
“My husband was a drug addict,” she said.
Via said everyone seems to have a low opinion of drug addicts, but her husband “was a very good man. He really loved his son and me and had so much enthusiasm for life. ... A bunch of things led to this.”
Over several years, several impactful events happened, she said. When Bassett-Walker closed, Jerry lost his job as a dye machine operator; he had worked there 16 years. He later earned a welding certificate at Patrick Henry Community College through the Trade Act, but shortly before completing the program, he broke his wrist in a motorcycle accident and had trouble doing the precision welding he had been trained to do. He also became addicted to a painkiller he was prescribed because of his wrist injury, Via said.
Also, she said, after the death of his mother, with whom he was very close, Jerry had mood swings and was physically abusive. They had financial problems caused by Jerry’s addiction to prescription medicine and also his use of crack cocaine, she said. In a downsizing in 2009, Jerry lost his job at CPFilms, where he worked three or four years as a metalizing machine operator. The Vias lost their home. They had separations and got back together when Donna thought Jerry was doing better, Via said.
Other events or factors included Jerry’s difficulty finding re-employment; his relapse after drug rehabilitation; a Narcotics Anonymous group that “didn’t work for him”; bad withdrawal symptoms on a drug he was prescribed to help him break his addiction to a painkiller; and his inability to afford rehabilitation because his unemployment benefits ran out, Via said.
Four days before Jerry shot himself, he went to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital with bad withdrawal, was seen by a counselor, and Jerry said he was not suicidal, Via said. He was polite, said he could not take the withdrawal and felt like his skin was crawling, and was prescribed something to help, she added.
She said that about 1 p.m. July 22, 2010, Jerry phoned her at work in the emergency department at Memorial Hospital in Martinsville, where she is a secretary. “I couldn’t understand him at first he was crying so hard. He said, ‘I love you. I love Dylan (their son, 18 at the time). I’m so sorry. I just can’t take it anymore. I just can’t take the thought of being on pills for the rest of my life.’ At that point, he felt he couldn’t live without them (pills) and he couldn’t live with them.”
He began telling her some instructions, such as making sure Dylan got his tools, and Jerry gave her some numbers that she found out later were passwords to bank accounts, she said.
“I was very busy at work. I was distracted,” Via said.
She said he had threatened suicide in the past to try to get her to reunite with him. This sounded like those other times, except he was crying louder, she said.
Via said she tried to tell him that “things will get better; you have to get through this.”
“He said, ‘I’m sorry. I can’t,’” Via said. She then heard what sounded like a muffled gunshot. Hospital co-workers called 911 after they tried to talk to Jerry on the phone and he didn’t respond, Via said.
Jerry was flown to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. He was taken off life support the next day after a neurosurgeon “said he would never come out and would progress to become brain dead,” Via said.
“When we pulled the plug, he died within 10 minutes. I stayed there and held his hand,” she said.
Via wrote in an email to the Bulletin: “After Jerry’s death, an autopsy was done, and it was found that he was indeed drug-free. He had tried telling me the last few months that he was trying so hard to stay off the drugs. He had a good amount of money in his wallet and bank account when he died from the sale of his motorcycle, so he could have gone the route he did before and purchased (the painkiller he had been addicted to) or crack on the street, but he really did want to remain drug-free.
“For a long time after his death, I felt so much guilt, thinking I could have said something differently on the phone to stop him, that I didn’t see the signs that he was serious this time. I also felt a lot of anger, feeling as if the system had failed him, that there wasn’t enough help for recovering drug addicts.
“I felt anger at him as well for leaving me and Dylan. I have lived most of my adult life without a father, and now my son will have to do the same. A lot of people have lost loved ones to suicide, but how many have witnessed the suicide, have heard their final thoughts, the pain in their voice? I will never forget the sound of his sobbing through the phone, the sense of helplessness and isolation he was feeling, but most of all I will never forget the sound of the gun that took all hope and promise of another chance out of our lives.
“For 25 years, I loved Jerry Via, through every struggle, argument and separation. I will love him for the rest of my life and will always question why, but I will move on because I do know that things are not as bad as they seem, and through hard work, love of family and friends, and plenty of laughter, I can overcome anything. It’s my hope that his memory, his story will in some way help another family or another person dealing with the same struggles.”
In a phone interview, Via said people left behind by suicide have “so much guilt: What could you have done or said differently?” But she advises them: “There will be better days. You have to work through things. ... You really need to talk it out and not keep it in.”
Talking with family, friends, co-workers and pastors helped her cope, Donna said.
“We miss him every day. We talk about him all the time,” Donna said of Jerry. She said she spends a lot of time with Dylan, “remembering the good times and focusing on that.”