VERMILLION — For Andrea Cooper and her husband Mike, New Year's Eve 1995 can only be described as "absolute horror."
The Colorado residents had just returned from a party when they discovered their only child, Kristin, dead. The 20-year-old had committed suicide.
As part of National Suicide Prevention Week, Andrea Cooper shared her daughter's story at noon Thursday at the Al Neuharth Media Center, and at 7 p.m. at the Muenster University Center Ballroom at the University of South Dakota.
USD's observance of National Suicide Prevention Week will culminate with the fourth annual Nikki's Fund 5K Run/Walk at Prentis Park on Saturday, Sept. 11.
Cooper said she had one basic message for those who are thinking about committing suicide.
"Please go talk to a counselor. … I really think that to recover from a trauma of any kind, you need to talk it out," she said during the noon presentation.
At the time of her death, Kristin was a sophomore at a Kansas college and visiting her parents over winter break.
"She appeared to be really, really happy," Cooper said.
Kristin said she planned to leave for a party at about 10 p.m., and her parents left for a party of their own at 7:30.
"I just told her good-bye," Cooper said. "It was just a normal good-bye. Sadly, we didn't have that custom that some families have of always saying, 'I love you.' If you don't do that, I would really recommend you adopt that tradition, because you don't know when the last time is you're going to see somebody."
At 8 p.m., Cooper called Kristin and spoke to her one final time.
"I said, 'Kristin, when you go out, take my cell phone,'" Cooper said. "She said, 'Oh, mom, I'll be fine.' And those are the last words I ever heard her say."
When the Coopers returned home at 2 a.m., Kristin's car was still parked outside their house. Andrea found her lying on the floor in the family room, with music playing.
"She looked very comfortable, like she was sound asleep," Cooper said.
Then she noticed her daughter wasn't breathing.
"Then I walked all the way over to her to feel for the pulse in her neck, and she had no pulse, and (I saw) that she had a gun in her hand," Cooper said.
On a previous visit home, Cooper said her daughter was upset over having broken up with a boyfriend. While this was true, police discovered something else when they inspected Kristin's diary.
That August, Kristin was raped at a party, and she was also battling depression.
Cooper said that one-third of women who are sexually assaulted contemplate suicide.
"Had Kristin been more stable psychologically, she probably would have survived the rape and the boyfriend break-up," she said.
After their daughter's death, the Coopers underwent intense counseling.
"You can really torture yourself," Andrea said. "As a parent, you think if your child chooses to end their life, that you did something wrong. That's really hard to get over."
One thing Mike Cooper struggled with was the fact that his daughter committed suicide with a handgun he purchased.
"He had it so well hidden," Andrea said. "It was in a locked box in the top of our closet. Kristin was shorter than (5-foot-6), so she would have had to spend a lot of time climbing on something, looking around.
"The key was in the box with 25 other keys. The keys were not marked. He didn't even have the real key for it. He just had a key that you could jimmy. So she had spent a lot of time thinking about this."
In Kristin's diary, investigators discovered a three-page suicide note written in October.
"I think she had been planning to do it then, but she was only home for a short weekend because of a snowstorm, so she didn't have the chance," Cooper said.
She also gave some advice on how to help someone if they admit to having been sexually assaulted or suicidal.
"Don't question. Just listen," she said. "The mistake that most people make is they start asking too many questions. … The best thing to do is just say, 'You tell me what you want to tell me, what you feel like telling me.'"
However, Cooper did say that if someone admits to being suicidal, action must be taken.
Kristin herself even told one of her sorority sisters before Christmas of her plan to kill herself.
"That sister told no one," Cooper said. "She's still so upset I cannot ask her why, because she's still so tortured by that. But I think she was afraid she would get Kristin mad. …
"Don't worry about making them mad. I tell students, 'Would you rather have a mad friend or a dead friend?'"
For more information, visit www.kristinsstory.com.