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Jerry Davich: Suicide topic prompts many personal stories

Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 10, 2013 6:16AM



As a child, Todd Gleason loved watching trains chug past his Lansing home along Torrence Avenue, where he would wave to the engineers.

One morning in May 1986, the 10-year-old Gleason watched an older man walk onto the tracks and stand purposely in front of an oncoming freight train.

“The things I saw will haunt me the rest of my life,” said Gleason, who now lives in Crown Point. “I’m 38 years old and I can still tell you every single detail that happened that morning as if it happened yesterday.”

“There were so many victims that morning along with that man who committed suicide,” Gleason said. “I wonder now, as an adult, if he ever thought about the witnesses whose lives were going to be affected, such as his family, the train crew, the people sitting in their cars at the train crossing, or even a little boy who simply enjoyed his passion of trains.”

These days, Gleason works for a railroad and he felt compelled to contact me after reading my Sunday column on the Michigan woman who took her life last month by standing in front of a speeding South Shore train in The Pines.

That column prompted many readers to reach out, including a coroner who has literally picked up body parts after such a scene, a police officer who had to inform a mother that her son took his life on a railroad track, and other firsthand witnesses to suicides-by-train.

“That incident will forever be in the back of my mind,” Gleason said.

“I really appreciate that you brought this to light. Maybe people who are contemplating suicide will see your article and get help before it’s too late. And not only save themselves but spare their families, friends and innocent people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

The Michigan woman, Sharon Spitler, had every intention of taking her life when she left her motel room in the early morning of Sept. 25. The 56-year-old stood on the South Shore railroad tracks and turned her back to the oncoming train.

She died instantly, which is presumably what she wanted. But did she consider how her final action in life would impact the train engineer and conductor who had to watch the incident?

“Maybe she found her escape, but the damage she caused to her family and to anybody who witnessed it is indescribable,” replied Gleason, who still is rattled by what he saw as a 10-year-old. “I often cringe when I’m at a train crossing and watch people drive around gates, or pedestrians and bicyclists try to beat a train. I’m afraid somebody else will get hit by a train right in front of me.”

Other witnesses who contacted me echoed similar fears and haunted recollections, describing what they saw as “unforgettable carnage,” as the train engineer said.

Another reader said his great-grandmother was killed by a train traveling along tracks in Gary. When police investigated the incident, they discovered that the woman’s husband regularly beat her.

“They ruled it a suicide,” the reader said.

Other train-versus-pedestrian incidents prompted readers to share their personal stories.

“My personal experience was when the young girl from Cedar Lake walked into a CSX train in 2012. I was the first guy at the crossing gates after the train stopped,” said George V. of Cedar Lake.

He’s talking about the tragic death — not a suicide — of a 15-year-old Hanover Central High School student who was struck and killed by a Norfolk Southern train. She walked along railroad tracks while wearing headphones, against her parents’ repeated urging.

“The train conductor got off, looking around. He came straight to me,” said George V. “He politely told me this would take some time. He had an anguished look on his face. He wanted to share with me but knew to keep his mouth shut.”

“I will always remember that guy. I hope he dealt with it in his own way. But he is probably haunted by what transpired. I have two relatives who work for the railroad. They talk about their experiences. It is traumatic for all of them,” he said.

“You have to feel for somebody who has to take their own life, but there is a lot of collateral damage.”

Collateral damage indeed.

Thanks to everyone who contacted me with their personal stories, firsthand reflections or painful remembrances. As usual when I write about suicide, I hear from so many readers, yet so many of them wish to remain in the shadows of this stigmatized issue.

We need more public dialogue and less public denial. We need to bring this still shameful issue out of the closet and into the light of day. And we need more talk of suicide prevention and less talk of, in this case, suicide by train.

If you’re in need of help or know someone who is, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or visit the Indiana Suicide Prevention Coalition website at www.indianasuicide
preventioncoalition.org
.

On a brighter note...

Thirty years ago today, my life was forever changed by meeting him. Since then, we pretty much grew up together even though we’re 21 years apart in age.

On Oct. 9, 1983, my son, Josh, was born and I was reborn as a first-time father who had no clue what he was doing or even what fatherhood really meant. I thought it was about dirty diapers, parental pretending and overwhelming responsibilities.

I later learned that fatherhood also comes with an unparalleled sense of pride, a lifetime of beloved memories, and what will surely be my most cherished legacy in life.

My son has become everything I had ever wanted to be and more. Maybe someday, if I’m lucky, I’ll grow up to be more like him.

Happy birthday, Josh.

Connect with Jerry via email, at jdavich@post-trib.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.



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