This is the second in a series on suicide, who it affects, how it affects them and where people can turn to for help.
Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009, was nearly 10 years ago. For Cheryl Pond, however, it’s like it was yesterday.
On that day, her life was changed forever. The same can be said for her husband, Thurston, and many in her immediate family. It was that otherwise typical summer day that her son, Jeff, then 23, committed suicide.
It was a suicide she said she never saw coming.
That morning, Jeff, who was dealing with shingles and did not feel well, told his mother he was going to hang out with friends. He was living with his parents at the time.
Cheryl suggested he stay home and rest since he was sick. He insisted on leaving, gave his mom and dad a hug and paused at the door before leaving for what would be the final time.
“You guys know how much I love you, right?” Jeff asked his mother. It wasn’t out of the ordinary. The Ponds are an affectionate family and professed their love for each other frequently.
Cheryl told him she did know. With that, Jeff left the Pond home in southwest Custer. His mother would never see or hear from him again. Sometime during the next 24 hours, Jeff drove to an old quarry off Sidney Park Road, parked his car and shot himself.
Growing up, Jeff Pond “loved to do everything,” his mother says. He loved sports, especially football and basketball. He was an avid outdoorsman and had a large group of friends.
“He loved life,” Cheryl said.
In a word, Jeff was outgoing. Cheryl remembers on the first day of kindergarten how, while most children were clinging to their moms, crying for them not to leave, Jeff couldn’t wait to start school.
“He was like, ‘See ya,’” Cheryl said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘You’re supposed to want me to stay!’”
When he was 5, he built a playground out of toothpicks. He was mechanically inclined, fascinated with how things worked. You couldn’t leave him alone with bicycles and tools. His inquisitive mind couldn’t leave the bikes assembled.
“We spent a lot of money on bikes because he would tear them apart,” Cheryl said with a laugh.
Jeff loved art and the Pond home still has some of his artwork hanging on the walls. He graduated from Custer High School in 2005 and enrolled in Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo. After a year he decided it wasn’t for him and returned to Custer.
Like many 20-somethings, Jeff was figuring out what he wanted to do with his life. He worked at Jorgensen Log Homes for a while and later moved to Sioux Falls, where he worked in a restaurant. A friend encouraged him to move to Austin, Texas, where he lived, and Jeff decided to go.
After a short time in Austin, Pond moved back to Custer with the intention of enrolling in school and becoming a draftsman. His family later found out he was considering joining the U.S. Army. In the interim, he joined his father as an employee at Crazy Horse Memorial. He seemed to be on the right track.
Then came Monday morning.
The next morning when Cheryl got out of bed, Jeff wasn’t home. That wasn’t necessarily out of the ordinary, as sometimes he would stay with friends. Thurston arrived home from work and asked Cheryl if Jeff was sleeping. She said she thought Jeff had gone to work. Thurston said he thought he had stayed home sick. Neither knew where there son was.
Cheryl called Jeff’s friends. One friend whom Jeff had been hanging out with the previous evening said Jeff had left his house, telling him he had to work the next day. He hadn’t heard from him since.
It didn’t take long before the search was on. The Ponds alerted authorities that their son was missing, but Jeff wasn’t immediately considered missing person because he was 23 and hadn’t been missing for long.
Family and friends hung up signs and formed search parties. The family held out hope that, being a bit of a social butterfly, Jeff had headed to Sturgis for the Motorcycle Rally and hadn’t told anyone.
In the back of her mind, however, Cheryl knew something was wrong. Jeff was a momma’s boy. Everyone knew it. The fact that he did not tell his mother where he was going or where he was raised red flags.
The voice inside Cheryl told her something was terribly wrong. She tried to suppress that voice and maintain hope that something bad had not happened. By then, the Custer County Sheriff’s Department had joined the search. The Ponds were preparing to go to TV news stations to enlist more help to find Jeff.
Then a couple of his best friends remembered the quarry Jeff had mentioned saying he liked to visit they and headed down Sidney Park Road.
No, No, No
Four days later, on Aug. 6, Custer County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrived at Black Hills Federal Credit Union, where Cheryl was working. She recalls it was exactly 1 p.m., as a coworker had just returned from lunch. Cheryl had a stepson and his wife with her, talking about where to go next in the search for Jeff.
The deputies told Cheryl she didn’t have to search anymore. His friends had found him at the quarry. He had committed suicide.
Cheryl fell to the floor.
“I kept saying ‘No, no, no,’” she said.
Cheryl immediately left work and headed to Crazy Horse to tell Thurston Jeff was gone.
A Very Bad Dream
The next few hours, days, weeks, and to some extent, months, were a blur for Cheryl. She doesn’t remember eating much. She was up all hours of the night, unable to sleep. She didn’t want to have a funeral for Jeff.
“I remember thinking if we didn’t do the funeral, it wasn’t real,” she said. “It’s like a very bad dream.”
The family did have a funeral Aug. 11. Cheryl hardly remembers it. Her sister took many photos at the funeral and Cheryl refused to look at them for a long time. Some family members have never looked at them. It was nearly a month before Cheryl went back to work. Even then, she worked part-time. The rest of the time was spent mourning her son.
“Your body is just kind of walking and you’re in a deep, deep fog,” she said.
Many people who have had family or a friend who committed suicide are left with the question of why they did what they did. Why?
Jeff was a normal 20-something struggling with normal 20-something problems. Sometimes, he and his friends drank too much, which led to his getting a DUI. He occasionally smoked marijuana. There was nothing egregious, however, and Jeff showed no outward signs that anything was wrong.
Cheryl and Thurston both hoped Jeff’s autopsy or toxicology report would show he was drunk or high when he committed suicide. That, they felt, might explain the behavior. The test results showed he was neither drunk nor high when he made the decision to end his life. It had been a conscious decision.
The weekend before his suicide, Jeff was with his grandparents, who took him to Urgent Care for his shingles, a disease rarely found in someone so young. Jeff loved hanging out with his grandpa Jim. They were peas in a pod. The grandparents reported nothing seemed amiss with Jeff that weekend, either.
“You’re always thinking, ‘What did I miss?’ Maybe I shouldn’t have let him out of the house that day. But he was 23 years old. He can go hang out with his friends,” Cheryl said. “What did we miss? What could we have done differently?”
The Ponds found out later than Jeff had been struggling, but aren’t sure why. He had made passing comments to some friends about suicide. They didn’t know the reason for the comments, they told her. Others who had been in contact with Jeff in his final days, including his court-appointed counselor, were stunned by the news.
Cheryl is resigned to the fact she will never know what drove her son to suicide. What’s more, she says, it doesn’t really matter. It won’t change the fact he’s gone.
“If you could go back and change it, yeah, it would be nice. But would it change it (permanently)? Do I want to go through that pain again?” she said.
Cheryl wonders whether Jeff believed he let his parents down by drifting in and out of jobs and being arrested for DUI. They were upset about the DUI—as any parent would be—but just told him to learn from his mistakes. Jeff, she said, was anything but a disappointment.
“No matter what, they are still your kids,” she said.
The New Normal
It’s been over eight years since Jeff committed suicide, but sometimes Cheryl forgets he’s gone. She’ll be out shopping and will think to herself, “Oh, wouldn’t Jeff like this?” One night, she was calling people to come over for dinner and attempted to call Jeff.
She went into a deep depression after Jeff’s death and spent several years mostly unhappy. She cringes when people say to “get over it.” Certain days, such as holidays or his birthday, are extremely hard.
“Each time there is a birth or a wedding, you’re happy, but yet you’re sad because he’s not getting that,” she said.
Jeff’s death tested her faith, as well. She still went to church, she said, but she was only there physically. She can’t say she was angry at God, but she was disappointed He could let something so terrible happen.
She had been to funerals of others who had committed suicide and never understood what could make someone feel so hopeless that they would take their own life.
“I think that’s maybe why you don’t see it or don’t want to see it,” she said. “Maybe you kind of have blinders up. For some reason, God didn’t have a hand in that day. Something evil was just there.”
She calls her life now “her new normal.” Just recently, after seven years had passed, she began to feel a slight shift in the way she felt.
“I didn’t feel guilty about being happy,” she said.
Cheryl thinks about her son every day. Sometimes she is fine when she thinks about him. Other times, it’s overwhelming.
Often , her thoughts go to what her son would be like today. He would be 31 and she imagines him married with children. Jeff, Cheryl says, loved children. Although he loved Custer, she pictures him living in California near his cousin with whom he was very close. He’d be with family. He’d be doing what he loves, she says, likely something artistic.
If she could see him now, she said she would give him a big hug, followed by a slap and ask him what the hell he was doing. She takes solace in the fact his grandmother probably already did that very thing.
“I’m sure his grandmother gave him an earful,” Cheryl said.
She believes wholeheartedly that her son is in Heaven. She does not believe, as some do, that those who commit suicide do not get into Heaven.
“I don’t think God is that cruel,” she said. “He’s a forgiving God.”
She also bristles at the common phrase that suicide is a selfish act.
“They don’t know they’re being selfish. They don’t realize what they are doing is permanent,” she said. “It might take their hurt away, but give other people hurt; they don’t realize that. They’re not thinking correctly.”
Cheryl and Thurston have two daughters and another son. After Jeff’s death, she grew fiercely protective of her other children, always demanding to know exactly where they were and who they were with. She still finds herself doing this from time to time, even though all three are either approaching 30 or are well into their 30s.
It’s another part of her new normal, a normal that includes occasionally talking to parents who have to deal with losing a child to suicide. She never tries to counsel them, but rather, offers an ear to listen to them. There are times in the middle of the night they are going to want to talk, cry or scream, and she’s willing to be on the other end of the phone or on the other side of a table. She’s been there.
“Sometimes all you need is someone to listen to you,” she said.
In the aftermath of Jeff’s death, someone approached Cheryl and offered their phone number. They told her she wasn’t ready to use it yet, but when she was, she would know. It was a welcome bit of light in her darkest hour.
No matter how bad it seems, Cheryl said, there is always that light. Anyone considering suicide should remember that, she said. There are always people who love you and can help you out of that darkness.
Cheryl will never get that chance with her son. So she carries on with her new normal, one in which she carries Jeff in her heart, misses him dearly, occasionally curses him for what he did and smiles about all her fond memories of him.
A part of her died with her son. The rest of her is thankful for the time she had with him while wondering what could have been.
“You get on with your new normal,” she said. “At least I was blessed to have him for 23 years.”