Life celebrated at 5th annual Nikki’s Fund 5K and forum

The evening of Wednesday, Sept. 7, was poignant for Janine Harris.

Not only did it fall during the fifth annual year of the Nikki�s Fund 5K � an event Harris established in memory of her daughter, who committed suicide in 2005 � it would have been her daughter�s birthday.

�My daughter would have been 27 today,� Harris said during a forum that evening. �I still cry. I still have my days, I still have my moments. But I also feel empowered by her. I feel her all the time, and I think of her every day.�

Nikki�s Fund 5K Run/Walk for Suicide Awareness takes place as part of National Suicide Prevention week on the University of South Dakota campus, and raises awareness and money for USD students in crisis situations.

The run/walk itself took place Saturday, Sept. 10 at Prentis Park.

As part of the yearly program, author Eric Marcus hosted �Surviving Suicide: Living Life in the Aftermath of a Loved One�s Suicide,� which featured a forum discussion with local and area residents who lost close family members to suicide.

The program took place in Old Main on the USD campus.

Among other books, Marcus is the author of �Why Suicide? Questions & Answers About Suicide, Suicide Prevention and Coping with the Suicide of Someone You Know.�

Marcus� father committed suicide when Marcus was 12 years old.

�For those of you who have ever contemplated suicide or attempted suicide, I hope you leave here this evening with a better sense of how it would affect the people who love you,� he told the audience.

�In his suicide note, my father wrote we would all be better off without him. I like to think that if he had known what an impact his suicide would have on his family that he would have thought twice before ending his life.�

At the time, the reaction of most people to a suicide in their family would be to pretend that it did not happen, Marcus said. His family was no different. In fact, the way he found out about his father was in overhearing his mother tell someone during a phone conversation that his father was in the hospital because he had taken an overdose of pills.

Marcus� parents were separated at the time.

�I missed one day of school for the funeral, and never said a word to my friends about what happened,� he said. �About five years later, one of my friends asked about my dad. He said I hadn�t talked about him in a long time and he wondered how he was doing. I remember being shocked by that question, because I had forgotten how few people I had told.�

The very subject of suicide used to be �a conversation-stopper,� Marcus said. But once he began to write his book in the 1980s, he began to be more open about it.

�It was sad, but it wasn�t shameful, so why keep it a secret?� he said. �We keep secrets because of the things we�re ashamed of, usually, so I saw no reason to keep it a secret.�

Nick Kotzea, forum participant and associate director of the USD Foundation, agreed. Over a six-month period in 2009, he lost both his younger brother and his grandmother to suicide.

�(Talking) is a way for me to really work through my own sort of healing process,� he said. �Both the tragedies that took place in my life with suicide are still relatively fresh, and I feel as though this is a concrete step I can take toward helping others.�

USD alum Damon Leader Charge lost his younger brother, two cousins and his brother-in-law in just 13 months. He said he was able to find strength through prayer and tradition.

�Living a good life, straightening our acts up � all of a sudden we were able to deal with it in a healthy way. We can be strong in a healthy way,� he said.

Leader Charge � who is a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and was raised on the Rosebud Indian Reservation � said he found further strength through helping others who have been touched by suicide.

He and others panelists said the support of their family and friends helped them through the ordeal.

�My relatives came from all directions,� Leader Charge said.

Diane Williams used to work in the guidance counselor�s office at Vermillion High School. After her son committed suicide in 2005, she took part in a sweat lodge service.

�I made a promise to have a sweat for him every month for the next year, which meant that we had to have someone start the fire, we needed to have someone to lead the sweat.

� Every month that year, we went to the sweat lodge and we prayed,� she said.

In the beginning, Williams said she felt like she was doing it for her son. As they went on, she said, �I realized those sweats were for me. They were what kept me going.�

Harris dealt with her grief in part by establishing Nikki�s Fund, now in its fifth year.

�I really had great support from the university to get this in the direction we wanted to go,� she said.

Marcus said that when a loved on commits suicide, one of the first things the family members do is to try and find an answer to the question, �Why?�

�People are always looking for rational answers,� he said. �It doesn�t make sense because it doesn�t make sense, but we as rational human beings try to make sense of something that�s an irrational act � at least, to us.�

That is where talking helps, he said.

�The only way to end the shame and stigma around suicide is to do a better job of providing help to those who are left behind in the aftermath, and to do a better job of preventing suicide in the first place is to speak openly and honestly about our experiences,� he said.

For more information about Nikki�s Fund, call (605) 677-5424.

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