*** NOTE TO THE READER: THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS VERY RAW, GRAPHIC, AND PAINFUL DETAILS SURROUNDING MY DAUGHTER ELIZABETH’S DEATH ***
Tuesday, May 12th, 2015 – late afternoon.
That was the day I found my little girl, Elizabeth, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound…
The oppressive darkness Elizabeth had been wrestling with for nearly four years had come to reap its final toll and steal my baby.
That day would bring with it pain and anguish that I didn’t think was even possible to experience. It was a day which felt like I was reliving the horror of finding my dad moments after he had shot himself, albeit over 30 years prior. It was the day my most precious loved one, and valued treasure would take with her, a piece of my heart forever.
The heightened drama and turmoil that Elizabeth was walking through had reached their destructive climax. During her last couple of weeks alive, it was even more imperative for either Erica or me to be home before Elizabeth got off the school bus. We didn’t feel comfortable leaving her alone at the house.
There were too many things there that she could use to hurt herself. In the past Elizabeth had tried to harm and even kill herself: hiding shaving razors so she could cut herself, taking a leather belt and trying to hang herself in her own closet, taking a string of Christmas tree lights and then trying to hang herself from a ceiling fan, and running into the kitchen to stab herself with the biggest knife she could grab – and these were just the attempts, Erica and I knew about.
God only knows how many other times Elizabeth tried to end her own life. The battle with an unseen dark oppressor, shrouded in suicidal and self-destructive behavior, was the primary catalyst for why she had been hospitalized on three separate occasions.
So, in addition to the precaution of either my wife or I arriving at the house before Elizabeth came home, we also made sure that our firearms were locked away and secured in a gun safe. Only Erica and I knew the combination to the safe and the location to the only set of override keys. We agreed that those keys would never be stored in the house or on our person. Instead, Erica and I hid them in an enclosed and discrete compartment, inside my truck, which I always kept locked.
I can remember that terrible day like it was yesterday. As soon as I pulled into the driveway, I locked my truck, walked into the house, then walked into my closet and changed out of my uniform and put on some old jeans and a t-shirt. I turned off the closet light, shut the door, headed into the garage and drove my green riding mower out onto the yard so I could mow our lawn.
After about half an hour of mowing, I was coming up along the side of the house, to cut the last few rows of grass on that particular side, before moving along to mow the back and then the front yard. I was driving the mower up from the back portion of the side yard and towards the front, which faced a small road that ran through our neighborhood.
Elizabeth’s school bus was lumbering along and pulled up to the front of our house. I slowed my riding mower down, lowered the throttle to idle, and waited for Elizabeth to walk off the bus.
The rumbling of the school bus diesel engine and the clacking noise caused by the bus doors opening and closing could be heard over the sound of my idling mower.
Elizabeth stepped off, walked across the front of the bus and started heading up the driveway. As the school bus slowly pulled away, Elizabeth looked towards me, and we both made eye contact. Her head was hung low, and she seemed exhausted. I eagerly smiled and waved enthusiastically at her. Considering what she had been wrestling with emotionally during the previous few days, I wanted to cheer her up. Elizabeth waved back and softly smiled as she headed into the house.
As soon as she walked inside, I looked down at my watch and figured I had about another half hour, or so, of mowing before I’d be done with cutting the yard. After I was done mowing the lawn, I planned to pick up Elizabeth’s little sister, Isabella, from school and then take both the girls out for a burger and fries at the local drive-through. Of course, all of that was dependent on what time I got done with my yard work.
I continued cutting the last stretch of yard on one side of the house and then proceeded to cut the back and then the front yard. Finally, after several passes and turns navigating both trees and flower bed borders, I was done mowing the lawn. I had just enough time to shower, change my clothes, and then take Elizabeth with me to pick up her little sister from after-school daycare. I would have to save the detailed edge trimming for the next day.
I pulled my riding mower back into the garage, pushed the gear-shift lever into park and turned off the ignition. I walked up the stairs leading from the garage and into the kitchen; that’s when I called out for Elizabeth.
“Hey Elizabeth, it’s almost time to go kiddo…we’ve got to go pick up your little sister from school.”, I said out loud.
No response… ‘but maybe she didn’t hear me,’ I thought to myself, so I tried again.
“Elizabeth…we’ve gotta roll sweetie!”.
Still, I heard nothing.
I walked down the hall and into the girl’s rooms and then checked their bathroom – they were both empty.
‘Maybe she’s upstairs in the loft, playing video games,’ I thought to myself.
So, I went and checked, but she wasn’t upstairs either.
I went back downstairs and called out for Elizabeth again…no response. I walked into the dining room and stepped onto the back patio. ‘Elizabeth…time to go.”, I called out.
Still, I heard nothing.
‘Hmmm…maybe she was outside in the front yard,’ I thought. So, I walked back through the kitchen, opened the door leading into the garage and looked around…she wasn’t in the garage either. I walked through the garage and past the tractor, still warm and smelling like freshly cut grass.
My eyes squinted as they adjusted to the afternoon sun. Walking up the driveway, I shaded my eyes with my hand and looked to see if Elizabeth had walked up the road, but I saw no sign of her.
I turned around and walked back towards the front of the house and then to the side…but still, no sign of Elizabeth.
At this point, I began to become concerned. A whole list of scenarios ran through my mind.
Did something happen at school that made her upset?
Did she run off?
Was she merely visiting her friend at the house up the street and forgot to tell me?
Maybe she was just playing a joke and was hiding.
Where was she?!?
Not able to find Elizabeth outside, I decided to walk back towards the front of the house and go back inside.
Walking up the front steps, something in my gut told me to check the master bedroom. As soon as I stepped through the front door, I looked into our master bedroom which was only a few feet away…perhaps she was in there.
As soon as I crossed the threshold from the hallway into the master bedroom something caught my eye. I saw that our walk-in closet door was wide open, and the light was on.
I thought to myself, ‘That’s weird, I shut the door and turned off the light before I went to mow the lawn.’
As those thoughts were running through my mind, I looked down and saw Elizabeth lying, face down, on the closet floor. Her feet, legs, torso, arms, and shoulders were inside the closet while the top of her head was in the closet doorway between the closet and bedroom. Briefly, from a distance, I could see the rest of the closet looked like it had been ransacked and was in shambles, but I was more focused on Elizabeth and wondering, why she was just lying there.
I paused for a second or two, and stood there confused…why was she on the floor? My first instinct was to call out her name again…so I did. “Elizabeth, what are you doing? We’ve got to go.”
I knew something was wrong. The first thoughts that ran through my mind were: Did she try to hang herself again? Did she attempt to overdose on all the medication she had been prescribed?
If either was the case, I knew Elizabeth was going to need immediate emergency medical attention. I would need to call 911 and begin conducting CPR until help arrived.
I walked toward the closet, knelt down and gently shook her shoulder. “Elizabeth, what are you doing? Are you alright?”. Again, there was no response.
Fear began to swell over me like a tsunami. My mind quickly raced a million miles an hour, and my heart rate jumped until I could hear it like a drumbeat in my ears and my whole body felt as if it was one massive pulse. I could feel the adrenalin spiking – everything was starting to feel like it was moving in slow motion.
While I was still down on one knee in front of Elizabeth, I noticed a Bible was lying open right next to her head…on its pages was, what looked like, dark red splotches of ink or paint.
I knew something terrible had happened.
Getting down on both knees, I slid my arms, up to my elbows, underneath Elizabeth’s armpits, so I could lift her up, roll her over, and then lean her back.
As soon as I had enough leverage, I started to pick her up – but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw next. I was met with overwhelming horror.
“OH MY GOD!!! ELIZABETH…NOOOO!!!”, I wailed in agony.
What I saw was so terrible, so horrible, so morbid and so graphic that it hurt my mind and eyes; it sent searing pain into my soul.
On the floor was the handgun safe. It was open, and Erica’s 9mm pistol was laying on the floor. My thoughts ran wild: ‘Oh my God…how did she get into the safe? Did she pry it open? Did she somehow figure out the access code?’
Adrenalin fueled my instincts; I leaned Elizabeth back, jumped up, reached into my pocket, grabbed my cell phone and called 911. Desperately, I fought panic and fear. My head was spinning, and I could barely breathe, but I did my best to stay focused.
The only things that kept me able to function, in spite of the horror, were the grace of God and my years of military training. I knew I had to remain calm enough to call for help, check for vital signs and then try and save my daughter.
With the phone in my left hand, I knelt back over and brushed Elizabeth’s hair to the side so I could check for a pulse on her neck.
My heart was pounding so badly that I couldn’t tell if it was Elizabeth’s pulse or mine. Seeing how severe the damage was, I knew that there was little chance of survival, but my heart hoped regardless. I was willing to do anything so my little girl could live again.
The phone must have rung maybe only two or three times, but it felt like forever… “911, please state your emergency”.
I pleaded with the dispatcher and told her to get someone there right away…my little girl had just shot herself.
Meanwhile, the dispatcher calmly asked me if I knew how to check for a pulse and signs of breathing…I told her I did.
Leaning over and bending back down on one knee, I put my hand back on Elizbeth’s neck to check for a pulse…nothing. I put my finger under her nose and then my ear next to her mouth, to see if she was breathing…still nothing. I even put my hand on Elizabeth’s chest to see if I could detect any signs of a heartbeat or breathing.
I was trembling and shaken up so badly by the adrenalin that I could barely stand. As I leaned over and placed my hand on my Elizabeth’s chest, I lost my balance and accidentally shifted my body weight. The pressure of my hand pushed down on her chest, and I could hear the final breath of air that my little girl had drawn in, being pushed out.
I couldn’t be strong anymore. The reality and magnitude of the devastation and hopelessness started to hit me like an avalanche from hell. Tears poured from my eyes, my breath came in small gasps, and my emotions became unglued.
“My baby…my baby…my baby…please, God, …not my baby!”.
On the other end, the 911 dispatcher, who could feel my heartbreak and agony, did her best to keep me calm.
I told the dispatcher I didn’t want to be alone. I asked for one of the deputies by name. Someone who knew my family and had become a friend to us. In his off time, he’s a youth pastor at a local church, so he had the opportunity to speak and try to help mentor Elizabeth a few months prior. He knew about the issues we were wrestling with as a family.
The dispatcher reassured me someone was on their way, and that she would also relay the message to our deputy friend as well.
Moments later (which seemed like an eternity) one of the sergeants from the sheriff’s department came to the front door. As soon as I saw her, my strength left…she pulled me close and held me as I wailed and wept; my whole body was shaking, and I could hardly stand.
“Oh Jesus, oh Jesus, oh Jesus…oh Jesus…we need you…we need you!”, she prayed as she hugged me. Even in my darkest hour, Heaven had somehow placed with me, a fellow Believer, who could feel my pain and anguish…someone who could pray and cry with me.
Shortly after the responding deputy sergeant’s arrival, the rest of the first response team was on the scene in front of my house. Soon after they arrived, the other deputy friend of my family (the one who I asked for by name) also pulled up.
He was off duty when he got the call but, miraculously, he had just driven by our neighborhood when he got the message from the 911 dispatcher.
I saw the team of paramedics walk up the steps and they asked the sergeant where Elizabeth was lying. They had their first aid kits and an artificial electric defibrillator (AED). As soon as I saw it, I knew what it was…we have them aboard our Navy ships, and I’ve been trained on to use one.
For one split second, hope flashed across my mind. ‘Maybe she’ll be alright…maybe they can fix her…maybe my baby will be o.k.’, I thought to myself.
When the paramedics walked back out the front door a few minutes later, I saw the look on their faces…Elizabeth was gone. Nothing they could do could save my precious daughter.
Waves of sorrow and pain rolled over me again. I kept repeating to myself “My baby…my baby…my baby…oh God, my little baby”, as the tears flowed, I continued to tremble from the heartbreak.
Meanwhile, a couple of my neighbors could see what was unfolding, and they knew something terrible had happened. We were a close-knit little community comprised of a handful of families which looked out for one another. We were all friends and, in many ways, like an extended family. When they saw the emergency, they sprang into action to help.
Two of the neighbors came over. One is a firefighter friend of mine, and the other neighbor is a friend of my wife. Both were very close to us and intimately knew the challenges my family had been navigating during the previous few years.
My neighbors assessed the situation and tried, as best they could, to see how they could help. My other friend (the off-duty deputy) helped me into the garage and asked my wife’s friend to go inside the house, get a wet washcloth, a clean pair of pants and a fresh shirt for me to wear. Meanwhile, I just stood there staring off into space in shock. I remember that I kept repeating, “My baby, my baby, my baby…”.
I couldn’t believe what had happened. I had just seen Elizabeth alive only a short while prior. I told my deputy friend how she got off the bus and waved at me. My mind was buzzing and reeling; the size and magnitude of what I had just seen were surreal and felt like a living nightmare. While I was standing in my garage, in a state of shock and despair, my friend helped me change out of my clothes, which were covered in Elizabeth’s blood and he helped me wipe my daughter’s blood from my arms and hands.
As soon as I was changed, he opened the garage door again. My driveway and front yard were swarming with the team of first responders, a crisis response counselor and the pastor of a small country church, which we had been attending during that time.
Erica wasn’t home from work yet, and I desperately needed her to be near me. I wanted to call her, but everyone said not to. They knew that telling Erica what happened could have led to further catastrophe.
I remember trying to make sense of what I had just seen. It felt like everything was a blur and a haze…like the worst nightmare imaginable, but I couldn’t shake myself awake…because I was awake. It was waking reality which had taken a graphic, raw, and horrific turn for the worst.
So many questions ran through my mind at once…Was it all just a horrible dream? How could this have happened? How was she able to open the safe? How come we didn’t see this coming? Is she really gone?
Nothing made sense, and the world seemed to be spinning out of control. My instincts, honed by almost two decades in the military, kept telling me to stay calm and take charge, but the agony caused by the horror of my daughter’s suicide was breaking me.
There was nothing to take charge of; my daughter was dead…she shot herself in my closet, and I found her. The damage was sickening, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do to put my little girl back together again.
While I sat there in my garage, my heart and mind could barely comprehend the size, scope, and magnitude of what I had just seen and walked through. My home and my family had just been assaulted by an evil and dark malevolence which had a dual track purpose: kill and devastate. The war, which had been waging on the unseen battlefield of Elizabeth’s mind, had come to a sudden and violent end; and there I was standing amongst the smoldering ruins and the precious fallen.
Erica was still at work, and Isabella was still in school…they still didn’t know about the horrible thing that happened. How was I going to tell them the worst thing they would ever hear? How was I going to explain that Elizabeth wouldn’t be coming home anymore?
Nothing could have prepared my wife and me for something so horrible, terrible and heartbreaking as the death of our own child.
We were living a parent’s worst nightmare, and the road we were about to travel was going to be long, hard and painful…
I can remember these moments as if they occurred yesterday and recall every detail when I close my eyes. They solicit an emotional response: my heart beat increases, anxiety builds within my gut, my palms feel cold and clammy, and my armpits begin to perspire. As the images flash back across my mind’s eye, I shudder and tremble. They are vivid, horrific and sickening memories of a living nightmare which I had to endure.
First my dad, then my little brother, then all the other people in my family and now my little girl. I felt like I was being chased down by an evil sadistic predator, which had been following inches behind me through the years, in order to repeat its same hideous and vile plan of self-hatred and self-murder; and this time it decided to pollute and exploit my little girl’s mind and cause her to kill herself.
Over the course of nearly four years, my wife and I leveraged every resource, at our fingertips, to help Elizabeth win her war on her unseen mindscape against an invisible foe.
Any counter-offensive we tried to wage had proven ineffective because the adversary didn’t just reside on the biochemical and psychological planes alone. There was a third tier to the enemy’s position and strategy which had gone undetected and untreated.
By themselves, and absent of that vital third component, all the best-trained minds in the behavioral health field and all the best medicine and therapy couldn’t save our daughter and make her well again.
None of the world’s ‘answers’ provided a solution; they only gave a temporary reprieve in what had become a cat-and-mouse game. A game where the very life of my beautiful daughter had been at stake and was now gone.