Written by Kim Mulford/The Cherry Hill N.J. Courier-Post
At 15 years old, Nicholas Green was known as a good kid.
A Boy Scout who loved to help people, he was an honors student and a good athlete. As one of six kids in a close-knit family, he was a sweet and sensitive brother, said his mother, Patty Green of Lumberton, N.J. He was especially good to his only sister and twin, Samantha.
"He would give the last bite of his cookie to her," said Green. "He was always thinking about someone else."
But Nicky was also good at keeping his darkest feelings locked away, protecting those he loved from the thoughts he harbored about himself.
On June 14, the day after his final exams, Nicky went upstairs to his bedroom for the night. He never came back down, becoming one of the 36,000 Americans who commit suicide annually.
His death is inexplicable to those who knew him, from his teachers and coaches to his friends and family. He exhibited no signs that anything was wrong. And for Green, a certified bereavement counselor with lots of experience helping kids, that makes it even worse.
"I think people in the community are shocked by this," said Green, emotion choking her voice. "We did everything as a family. It's just a piece of your family missing."
Many questions haunt the survivors of suicide victims, according to Sandy Kabel, a child and family therapist from Samost Jewish Family and Children's Services in Cherry Hill, N.J.
The grieving process following suicide is complicated by the social stigma attached to the act, according to the American Association of Suicidology, which marks National Suicide Prevention Week now through Saturday.
Survivors often struggle with the reasons why the suicide took place, according to the association. Anger, anxiety, guilt and depression are common reactions.
"The survival guilt can be unbearable," said Kabel. "You're questioning what you should have done to stop it."
It's a question survivors shouldn't dwell on, she said, because suicides are usually planned in advance by someone intent on ending his or her suffering. And survivors may believe others blame them for the suicide, complicating the grief process even more.
The 'heaven' question
Religious beliefs about suicide and the afterlife play a part in the grieving process, too.
"No matter what," said Kabel, "you go through a spiritual crisis."
The first time Pastor J. Bruce Sofia officiated at a funeral decades ago, it was for a 14-year-old girl who promised her mother they would never argue again. They didn't. The girl went upstairs and took her own life.
Among the questions plaguing her survivors was one the young pastor couldn't answer at the time. Will a person who commits suicide go to heaven?
"The moment somebody is touched by suicide, I get that question," said Sofia, now founder and senior pastor of Gloucester County Community Church in Washington Township.
To answer it, he wrote a book, "Hope Beyond Suicide," to offer reassurance for those left behind. Sofia tackles the question from a Christian perspective, asking readers to re-focus on "the mode of life, rather than the method of death."
"People who take their life believe they're doing everybody else a favor," said Sofia. "In actuality, it leaves everyone else with the problem."
Kabel suggests survivors examine their beliefs about suicide and name them.
"If you believe that person is doomed to hell forever, you do want to shift that perspective and find another interpretation," Kabel said. "It's a matter of perspective. It's a private matter between the person and God, and you don't have to make any conclusions about that at all."
For some survivors, it's helpful to do something concrete.
Toni Terpolilli, teaches cosmetology at the Gloucester County Institute of Technology, lost her 20-year-old nephew to suicide six years ago. "It was such a shock, because we had no idea," said Terpolilli, whose students' efforts to comfort her led to the school's first annual "Out of the Darkness" community walk four years ago.
"For me, doing things like the walk and fundraising, that's a healing process for me," Terpolilli said. "It kind of helped me heal a lot, knowing that maybe you could help one person. It can make you feel a little better."
To help survivors cope, Terpolilli suggested keeping it simple. "I always tell people, really listen when people are talking," Terpolilli said. "Really hear what they're saying. â€¦ It's so hard to talk about."