JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. --
As we embrace the new year, Staff Sgt. Christina A. Krajcsovics remembers a fateful call that changed her and her family’s lives forever.
Four years ago on Sept. 29, 2014, Krajcsovics, a command post controller of the 108th Wing, was working a long night shift when she received a somber call from her brother-in-law. It was about her niece, Nina.
Nina took her own life.
“I just spoke to her,” said Krajcsovics. “We spoke about hobbies. She was an artist.”
The 26-year-old was alone in her home when she did it and she did not leave a note behind, said Krajcsovics. She was her parents’ only child.
“It was devastating,” said Krajcsovics. “You always feel there is something you could have done.”
Many family members, friends and co-workers have felt the same way.
Deaths by suicide increased 25.4 percent from 1999-2016, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Jill Barrett, Director of Psychological Health at the 108th Wing, there are a multitude of risk factors that could lead to someone taking their own life.
This is why Krajcsovics, Barrett, and 108th Wing Chaplain Francis A. Rella, seek to deconstruct the stigma of suicide and its effects on the loved ones left behind.
Tasked with providing resources and consultations to support the wing’s suicide prevention initiative, Barrett emphasizes the importance of changing the messaging associated with suicide.
“The language they are asking us to use now is ‘death by suicide’,” said Barrett. Phrases such as ‘committed suicide’ carries with it a connotation that states, this was a choice, when in fact it is the result of the brain not functioning properly.
As Krajcsovics revisited her family’s tragedy, she said that sometimes risks are blaring, but in her niece’s case, people can hide the signs.
Risk factors include a mental health condition, physical pain, a traumatic brain injury, prolonged unmanageable stress, a stressful event, family history, or childhood abuse and trauma, said Barrett. People may mask their pain and avoid reaching out for help due to fear that if they express thoughts of mental distress, it could affect their career, relationships or image.
Knowing this, Barrett is adamant about creating and promoting an atmosphere of safety and comfort, and the design of her office resembles a loving refuge.
“My intent was to make the environment comfortable—,” said Barrett, “and safe.”
“As a community and as a military, we strive for might,” said Barrett. “Our Airman’s Creed says, ‘we will not fail’ and these are important values to hold as an organization.”
We must find ways to accept in each other that we are going to endure hard times in our lives, Barrett said. We must send a message that it’s possible to support each other with compassion and without judgement.
“If we can do that, we can give people an opportunity to heal and grow stronger,” said Barrett. “When we shame each other for our mistakes then we are doing a disservice to all of our collective mental health.” Such changes in the way we interact with one another helps progress our culture as a military and as a community, but must also extend to those loved ones effected by suicide.
“A lot of people are affected,” said Rella.
As a chaplain, Rella said, he has been tasked with the duty of relaying the loss of a loved one on several occasions—sometimes, in the middle of the night, and it has not been easy.
Those that are traumatically bruised when someone dies by suicide, range from the chaplain, the commander and those who find the lifeless person, to the medical team, the unit and then the family, said Rella.
Krajcsovics said that when she heard the news of her niece, she was initially in a state of shock.
“There’s almost a void of emotion, you don’t cry,” said Krajcsovics.
After hearing the news, she couldn’t just leave. She had to inform her supervisor and wait for a coworker to replace her. Yet, the hardest part of it all, was telling her children that they had lost their cousin.
Then the guilt set in, said Krajcsovics.
When someone dies of uncontrolled circumstances, one can better understand there was nothing they could have done, said Krajcsovics. But with suicide there is guilt.
Loved ones, however, should not feel guilt, said Rella.
“Suicide is a desperate last resort act,” said Rella. “They are not thinking about the big picture. They say, ‘This is the only way that I can possibly get out of this situation right now.’”
Rella said that in the dark place that those who are contemplating suicide are in, they often missed opportunities to utilize help available to them.
While it is natural to go through the stages of grief when dealing with any death, often times people want to place blame, said Rella.
“There is no blame,” said Rella. “This was one person’s act. ‘Well, could I have done this, could I have done—.’ Yes, you can ask yourself this a million times. But if you didn’t catch it, you didn’t catch it. The blame should never be on another party. That is misplaced guilt.”
In keeping with his role of counsel and hope, the chaplain stresses the abundance of resources available to both military members, as well as those in the community, suffering in silence.
Chaplains offer 100 percent confidentiality and provide referrals to Airmen and their dependents that can help lead them in the right direction of recovery and stability, said Rella.
In this function, the chaplain and Barrett, along with wing personal financial counselor, Dylan Ross, some community based groups, purposely overlap to create a network of resources, including counseling, for members.
“I got counseling,” said Krajcsovics. “I got my daughter counseling, as well. She was the closest to her.”
Barrett said, loved ones must be aware that because suicide is a unique and complicated kind of death, it is important for them to seek out help from those who share in the same grief.
Chaplains can help, said Rella. An Airman’s needs can range from religious guidance to marriage counseling to combat stress in both a religious and non-religious capacity.
With veteran suicide rates being higher than civilians, the chaplains and Barrett are well aware of suicide as a crisis.
For this reason, the chaplain corps has upgraded their training and Barrett has helped the wing to implement more tools to address suicide.
“Thanks to Chaplain Yaakov Bindell, we have received recent training in combat stress, domestic abuse, and gambling counseling,” said Rella.
This year, quarterly commander talking points were implemented, said Barrett, where leadership directly addressed such topics as suicide and allowed Airmen to share their thoughts. There is also Wingman Day, where Airmen take a break from work and exercise team building.
Nevertheless, it all starts on a personal level, said Rella.
“If you recognize it, address it,” said Rella. “Ask, ‘are you thinking about suicide?’ It’s okay, you won’t plant the seed in their head. Then, stay with them until they get the help they need.”
“Really listen and empathize—feeling with someone, as opposed to feeling for someone,” said Barrett. “As you’re reading through this, check your own thoughts and feelings. Take care of it as soon as possible and deal with it as specifically as possible.”
As for Krajcsovics, she said that though it has been harder during these past holidays, made noticeable through family gatherings, she has learned to hold on to the good memories.
“Her favorite color was purple,” said Krajcsovics. “Don’t forget the person, but don’t be sad all the time.”
Healing from a death like this, can take a lifetime, said Rella.
Krajcsovics said, her sister and brother-in-law keep their daughter’s memory alive through Facebook pictures and posts, but rely on their faith and church family to keep them moving forward.
“If I could send Nina a message, I would tell her, ‘Call me. Come visit. Things aren’t as bad as you think. I love you.’”
If you or someone you know is suffering from suicidal thoughts, please call the Suicide Prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.