With a petite frame and tiny build, Deb J Smith is used to living in a world where she is perceived as delicate. What is not visible at first glance, though, is the huge size of Deb’s heart, and the unexpected steely strength that keeps her going each day.
“Work saved my life,” she says,” because I had to get out of bed; otherwise, I just wouldn’t have.”
It was the steady day-to-day responsibilities of her job at Inland Northwest Blood Center, (INBC) where she works as a recruiter, which helped keep Deb standing and steady over the past two years, as she has worked her way through a web of grief, sorrow and confusion, following the loss of her son, Spenser, who died by suicide in June of 2016.
“Distracting things are helpful,” she says, “and it was great to have to go to work. It was the hardest thing ever, to get up and go in to the office, but everyday that I showed up to work was a day that I got up and I did something.”
While her job was a lifesaver and something that she needed to get through the last two years, Deb is looking ahead, to when she will say good bye to her job and transition her focus to being an advocate in our community for suicide awareness and prevention.
“I am sad to be leaving because I love my job,” she says, “but it is hard to be where I need to be right now.” Where she feels like she needs to be is working as an advocate. That entails more than just letting people know that suicide is far too common of an occurrence; rather, it means sharing, educating, and talking with those in our community about how to prevent it.
“I feel like education is the key to suicide prevention,” she says. “Especially educating parents. No parent has any idea that their child would ever take their life, or that they even think about dying. I would have never known that with any of my kids.”
Deb believes one of the key changes that needs to happen is that parents need to be willing to talk to their children about their mental health.
“We don’t ask our kids about mental health,” she says. “We don’t say, ‘How is your mental health?’ because our kids don’t always know what that is. Physically, they know they don’t feel well, because mental health can actually cause physical problems, but we don’t talk about it enough. I never asked my kids about their mental health, and I feel like it is just because I really didn’t know that was something that should be addressed, and I never would have imagined it happening.”
Education is a key for parents, and for society as a whole. So, too, says Deb, is paying attention to every aspect of your child’s life.
“Be aware about depression and anxiety, because anxiety is also debilitating for kids,” she says. “A lot of us just think, ‘Oh they’ll grow out of it, it is part of growing up, everybody has bad days,’ but there are certain signs you can be aware of as a parent. There are signs that I might have missed. For Spenser, he could never sleep. I never thought it was stress or anxiety keeping him up. Mental illness itself, it knocks the brain, it made it so he couldn’t go to sleep. I always thought it was that he wanted to be up playing video games, but I think really he just couldn’t fall asleep.
“We don’t talk about suicide and suicide loss enough. It makes people uncomfortable. The stigma comes from the fact that we don’t talk about it. It goes back to parents need to know it is okay to talk to their kids about mental illness.”
Nowadays, Deb doesn’t hesitate to talk about her loss, and says if people want to ask her questions, she is open to it. “I am coming up on the two year anniversary,” she says. “People think you are better, and you’re not. Grieving in front of people makes us uncomfortable, but I think that needs to change because we are not always happy like we show ourselves on Facebook, and it is okay to let people know you are hurting. Two years out now, I try not to apologize for crying in front of people. Because I am not sorry; it is a part of me.”
It is not just tears though, but passion which motivates Deb to work to raise awareness in our community. Every September, she participates in the Out of the Darkness walk, which is a fundraiser for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“We have a lot of good stuff in Spokane,” she says. “The education piece that I would encourage everyone to do, and it is fairly new, is QPR training. It is like CPR training, but for suicide, so it means Question, Pursue and Refer. It teaches our community - teachers, parents, friends, family - to recognize the signs of suicide, and be able to help. Ask questions like, ‘How are you? Are you feeling suicidal? There is a whole process they teach.”
Deb says she is about a year out from being ready to talk to groups, sharing her story and helping them learn. “I’ll look forward to doing that—talking to schools, groups and parent teach organizations—because I feel like I can be a voice; I am already, so that makes me feel better, to know that I am a voice.”
“Most of the people who are loss survivors, we’re just in denial still,” says Deb. “None of us knew that would happen. You just don’t see it coming, which is why they say suicide is a silent killer.”
Thanks to Deb and the courage she has to share and to love others, that silence is being broken, and through that, others will have help.
There are so many great non profits, and so many great causes (disabilities, cancer, homelessness, substance abuse, etc.), so how do you decide which events or organizations you will support?
I’ve found it interesting to support different non-profits throughout my life. They are usually chosen because I’m passionate about the organization, from supporting women, students and education, child advocate, blood donor; suicide awareness.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment other than your family?
My long record of community service. I do a different community service of some kind every year. I feel like I’ve always been involved with community service because it’s important to me to give back.
What is the most important contribution you’ve made to Spokane over the last 10 years?
My most important hasn’t happened yet, but going forward, I intend on making a difference for suicide awareness to help save lives through education.
What qualities do you look for in a friend?
Goodness, to me, self, and others.
Aside from your family, what is your most treasured possession?
Memories and pictures
With all the activities you juggle, how do you handle the stress that might come with it? What keeps you grounded and focused?
I’m figuring out how to manage stress by taking my life one day at a time with baby steps for my goals, one thing at a time
Do you have a cherished family tradition?
We are in the rebuilding process
What are your favorite places to travel, and leisure activities in which to participate?
I love Hawaii, culture, weather, beach and hiking!
What is your favorite for each of the following?
Movie: Adventure movies like Jurassic Park and Pirates of the Caribbean
TV Show: Game of Thrones
Who do you really admire?
Cheryl Sheppard serves her community by helping people understand grief. Her compassion and understanding has saved many lives over the years as a chaplain for Hospice and a grief counselor. I admire her strength and wisdom. I feel like she was given to me to help me heal.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now? Future goals?
I want to be brave enough to speak about suicide for a Ted Talk.
What is one thing you have to do every day?
Making someone smile - it feeds my heart.
What is, hands down, your favorite food or meal?
Surf and turf
Any hidden talents, or fun trivia facts about you?
When I jump into the lake, I plug my nose, and it’s nicknamed The Debbie Dive!
Describe your perfect day.
Sunrise or sunset on a beautiful beach lake or on the ocean, listening to the water and watching the horizon.
What are some local organizations whose causes you support, either by attending an event for them, or you are just a fan of their cause?
Survivor Project, by Grace June Imagery’s suicide awareness through art. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Out of the Darkness Walk. Fail Safe for Life, QPR training (like CPR for suicide)
What is the best advice you have been given?
Maybe not taking everyone’s advice at all, because big decisions must be made on your own and to much advice can confuse you.
For what are you most grateful?
Besides family, I am most thankful for my vision that people are good and I can make a difference by showing kindness to others
What is your dream vacation?
Nepal, to hike The Great Himalayas Trail.
Glad we are friends.
James R Miller (Moosejaw)