Inside the Arndt family home in Manitou Springs, four Christmas stockings adorn the mantel. But only three people live there: Lois Arndt and her daughters, Cassidy and Molly.
This will be their first Christmas since John Arndt, the girls' father and Lois' husband of 19 years, took his life in July.
He was a teacher and principal in school districts including Manitou Springs. For three years, the family lived in Cambodia, where John worked as principal of an elementary school. He had returned to Colorado while dealing with his depression, which persisted despite medications, therapy and stays in treatment centers.
"He always used to say, 'I wish I could just cry.' But he couldn't — it was just so locked in," recalls Lois Arndt, 53.
Lois has a master's in school counseling, and says she "tried very hard with my husband to be the counselor, and not just the spouse.
"Hopefully, it helps me," she says of her education. "It helps my kids be able to be open with me."
Lois has to remember to be Mom first and nurture Cassidy, 11, and Molly, 10, in ways no one else can.
"My younger daughter says, 'Our world ended on July 1.' And that's part of it, just trying to pick up the pieces."
Cassidy and Molly personify the plight that affects young survivors of suicide: They need a welcoming place to talk about their loss, creative ways to work on their issues, and time with others on the same journey through grief.
"It's been hell," their mother says. "It's not something you'd wish on anybody."
The Arndt family has received help from the Suicide Prevention Partnership of the Pikes Peak Region and its executive director, Janet Karnes, who hopes to use Give! funding to launch the Children Left Behind program.
Karnes wants to offer opportunities to help children and teens work through their grief and anger. She envisions groups for creative and performing arts, led by volunteer artists, writers and musicians, and supervised by professional counselors. She's already lined up a yoga teacher to help young clients untie the knots of their suppressed feelings.
The groups, which also will participate in talk therapy, will be divided by age: 5 to 8 years old, 9 to 13, and 14 and older. They'll meet in the partnership's new office at 704 N. Tejon St., a light-filled space with plenty of room for people in need.
"Kids do feel that 'I have to be the strong one in the family. I don't want Mom to see me sad.' So they take on these adult burdens," Karnes says. "And we say, 'Just because a family member completed [suicide], does not define who they were. They were people who were in great pain.'"
Children may think they played a role in a parent's suicide, that they weren't lovable or smart enough. Plus, most will lack the tools and maturity to work through the grieving process.
Karnes, a 39-year-old longtime social worker, relies on one paid staffer and about 75 active volunteers to do outreach education and answer the hotline.
El Paso County's suicide rates are higher than the state's as a whole; it's believed that 172 people took their own lives here in 2009. That does not include suicides on military installations.
Colorado was No. 6 in suicides per capita on the national Centers for Disease Control list in 2007, the most recent year that data was available. According to the state Office of Suicide Prevention, last year 940 people completed suicide, the highest single-year total in Colorado history. Factors include the economy, inadequate mental health services, bullying and possibly even the altitude.
Karnes dispels the myth that suicides increase during the holidays, but acknowledges that it is an especially difficult time for survivors of suicide, especially the young.
"Everyone wants to give a kid a toy and feel fulfilled," she says, "but we're just trying to keep these kids alive."
The American Association of Suicidology estimates that six to eight people are severely impacted by each suicide. Some of those may eventually take their own lives.
Which is why something like the Children Left Behind program is so important.
As Lois says, "For me, it would help the kids to have other kids who have experienced a similar kind of thing. I want them to be with other kids that they can talk to."
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