A tireless advocate for suicide awareness and prevention, Ms. Schenke first worked as a systems analyst and personal fitness trainer before the death of her son, Tim, caused her to embark on a new journey in 2008. Ms. Schenke endeavors to motivate struggling teens and young adults to both celebrate and embrace life while assisting others through the grieving process after the loss of a child or loved one. An entrepreneur at heart, she loves to organize and promote uplifting activities, and implemented You’re Designed to Shine, a program to inspire young women to identify their dreams, have faith, and develop the tools to achieve their goals, in the summer of 2012. She was also instrumental in the fundraising and marketing of the first annual Jersey Shore American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Out of the Darkness Walk in 2011; this event was awarded the Most Outstanding First Year Walk by the AFSP at the national level. Ms. Schenke has been featured in a wide variety of media platforms, including New Jersey’s leading newspaper, the Star-Ledger, MSNBC.com, and the American Association of Suicidology newsletter; she continues to reach new audiences with the publication of her book, Without Tim: A Son’s Fall to Suicide, A Mother’s Rise from Grief (CreateSpace, $14.99), which is now available in print and digital editions.
Released to coincide with September’s Suicide Prevention Month, Without Tim is a memoir that recalls the first in a series of ten teen suicides at the Jersey Shore, beginning one of the largest “suicide clusters” the nation has ever seen. The book has received high praise for its candor. Nicole Romaine Settembrino, 2NDFLOOR Youth Helpline, noted, “Without Tim gives us honest, everyday insight into the heartbreaking and often perplexing world of teenage depression and suicide while inspiring the reader with a very personal yet relatable look at a mother’s tireless fight to make sense of it all.” Further, Ginny Sparrow, American Association of Suicidology, commended, “Not since Iris Bolton’s My Son, My Son has a book about the suicide of a child seemed sincerely authentic.”
From the publisher:
“Then don’t” were the last words Lisa Schenke spoke to her eighteen-year-old son, Tim, as he walked out the door, saying he would not return. Tim died by suicide less than an hour later when he stood in front of a moving train. Follow Lisa through the years just after Tim’s death as she grieves and rebuilds her relationships with her family, other struggling youth, the community, God, and—most difficult of all—herself. The small but significant signs Lisa receives from Tim motivate her to help herself and others. Lisa also explores Tim’s past—his numerous accomplishments and his sincerity, as well as his depression and drug use. Lisa’s journey is made all the more challenging by an unprecedented number of teenage suicides in her small seaside community that follow Tim’s. With these deaths, Lisa becomes an accidental counselor to others who stand in the ripples of suicide. Without Tim was written with the mission to help other families, to provide encouragement and inspiration to parents and all individuals who are grieving as a result of suicide, as well as to support teens and young adults who are struggling with their own sense of self-worth.
Now, Lisa Schenke shares her personal and poignant story...
When and how did you begin writing Without Tim?
Before I decided to write a book, I began journaling things I wanted to remember about the early part of my recovery, such as: signs from Tim, special things people did for me, interactions I had with family, Tim’s friends, and other young adults I was just meeting. I then started journaling things I really wanted to remember about Tim while he was alive, such as: the way Tim always wanted the inside when he and I lied on the couch together, the numerous similarities in our personalities, and some more difficult topics including possible clues or insights into his sadness.
What made you decide to write this book about such a devastating and very personal subject?
Just around the time of the two-year anniversary of Tim’s death, the spring of 2010, I realized that I had a story to tell, a story that might help others. My initial goal had been to try to help those who were grieving, especially from a suicide. However, the further along I got with organizing my thoughts and the content for the book, the more I realized I had a bigger goal: to help teens and young adults who are struggling with the many issues facing them today. I hope the book speaks to those who are grieving, parents in general, young people who are struggling, and young people who seek to understand how and why so many of their friends are suffering. I was also motivated to write because people were always asking me things like, “how do you survive?,” and “how do you get up in the morning?”
Was it difficult to revisit these terrible events?
Yes and no. Some days were heart-wrenching; trying to figure out the right way to express something so important to me. I also worried about putting my husband, children and immediate family members “through this again.” But more often than not, the writing helped clarify and solidify the details that I never want to forget.
Did writing this story help you in any way?
Yes, very much. I feel that through the book I have given a voice to what many other parents are unable to share. While trying to convince other parents that they are doing the best they can, I was able to sort of convince myself that I had done my best too. I also feel that the book is a tribute to Tim and to my family of whom I am very proud. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but if my book is able to help others, that’s something I will feel good about.
What made you choose the format of alternating back and forth with vignettes from before Tim’s death to after?
As I wrote about my recovery, I struggled for a while about how much detail my memoir should include about Tim. I knew that I did not want it to become a biography, I just wanted to share areas of Tim’s life that would allow the reader to get to know him. I have always admired Mitch Albom as an author. Albom’s For One More Day is one of my favorite books and I was inspired by its technique of alternating between the present and the past.
What was the journey to becoming a published author like for you?
It was very complex process unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. By the spring of 2011 I had just completed my first draft but wasn’t sure of next steps. Coincidentally, a friend encouraged me to attend the June “Pitchapalooza” book pitch contest run by a team of two called “The Book Doctors” at my local independent bookstore, Booktowne in Manasquan, NJ. Each author was given one minute to pitch his/her book. I won! The prize for winning was that I would be put in touch with an agent or publishing company appropriate for my book. The Book Doctors’ Arielle Eckstut was honest in letting me know that my book was not ready. She mentored me through the process of editing and rewriting my manuscript and creating a marketing proposal to include with my pitch. I reached out to all kinds of people to solicit support, praise for the book, commitments to spread the word after the book was published--all of which we included in the proposal. Arielle and I discussed the pros and cons of self-publishing. I am somewhat of a control freak, and I really LOVED my cover design. After being denied by a few publishers, and realizing how much control I would relinquish if my book was picked up, I chose to self-publish. Arielle helped a lot by connecting me to quality people for each area including copyediting, proofreading, book formatting, etc. I am extremely satisfied with the final product and feel I did not cut any corners in producing a high quality book.
Did you get help from an editor? If so, how did that work?
Yes! My mentor, Arielle, was my content editor and she helped me tremendously. She clearly explained when/where the material did not flow, helped with length of chapters, pointed out all areas where chapters did not have a clear endpoint, etc. I worked with other editors too, each of whom gave me the option of accepting/rejecting their suggested changes. Whenever I had questions, they were open to discussing them. However, Without Tim was always MY book. I never felt as though any of the editors were taking over the writing process.
What advice do you have for writers who want to tell their personal story, both in terms of writing and the publishing process?
I would suggest doing the writing yourself as no one can tell your story but you! Seek the help of professionals in areas where you have no expertise. You can find quality help without spending a fortune. I published through Amazon Createspace. The book, The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, was a big help. It contained many examples and great indexing that allowed me to immediately find anything I was trying to look up.
What advice would you give to teens and young adults who are doubting their own self-worth and/or possibly feeling suicidal?
I would first try to help them realize that they are NEVER alone. There are so many people willing to help, even though it may not seem that way. There are friends who are approachable, adults other than the individual’s own parents who are available, as well as qualified therapists and trained professionals on suicide prevention hotlines. I would also encourage the individual to try to be patient. A rash, impulsive decision cannot be reversed. The bad feelings will pass. I’m not saying that they won’t return, because they certainly may, but most feelings come and go in cycles.
What advice would you give to those who have suffered the loss of a loved one to suicide?
I think the path depends largely on the individual’s personality. My personality is to “dive in” to whatever project I am faced with, good or bad. I pushed myself to get back to my normal activities such as work, attending my kids’ sports, grocery shopping, etc. I wanted SO badly to role model that behavior for my other two sons that I was somehow able to do so. My grief counselor constantly reminded me to allow myself to feel happiness and joy, even though I often didn’t want to. The more open I let myself be, the easier it became to find my way out of the difficult times again when they returned. Force yourself to try to rely on all the great people in your life who very much want to help you. Find things that you love to do and get back to them as quickly as possible. For me this was fresh air, sunshine, and bike riding. After his death, I often asked Tim to send me positive signs. These do come, sometimes unexpectedly and not as frequently as I might wish. But when they do, they are very motivating.
What advice would you give to parents who fear their children may be slipping away or have suicidal thoughts?
Seek help. It’s better to err on the side of caution. Even though most troubled teenagers will not end up going through with suicide, they most likely need support and professional help. And if your child doesn’t like or connect with the first counselor you meet, keep trying until you find the right match. Sometimes this takes time. It can be frustrating to have to start your whole story again with someone new but it’s worth the effort if you can find someone your child trusts. Try to help your child understand that it’s ok to have fears and insecurities and that there is a way to get to a better place. Try to remain calm and patient; something I wish I would have been better at.
What do you think gave rise to the contagion of suicides at the Jersey Shore?
This is a tough question to answer. I did willingly participate with numerous groups who study suicide contagions and some shared their feedback, formally or informally. One of the group findings suggested that even though Tim was the first suicide, his death was somewhat related to other young deaths that had occurred. Tim lost a friend to a heroin overdose just seven months before he died. Then, just three months before Tim died, he lost another friend as a result of a combination of a medical condition and the use of alcohol and drugs. It has been suggested that these losses impacted Tim deeply and perhaps made the concept of death more attractive to him. Each of the boys who died by suicide after Tim had very different circumstances. However, they were all bright, vivacious, and extremely sensitive individuals. Sadly, jumping in front of trains has always been a common choice for suicide, but I imagine Tim’s choice provided other locals with a sure-fire method.
What has brought you comfort throughout your grieving process?
I think the number one thing would be finding out just how many people truly loved Tim. It is always such a blessing when someone tells me a particular story about Tim, something special they shared with Tim, or something he did--either positive or negative! I am so fortunate to have connected with a wonderful grief counselor. I also came to realize that I have so many wonderful friends and I learned how to rely on them, slowly! And, of course, journaling and then writing the book has helped tremendously to clarify and solidify so many details that I never want to forget. Being an open person, in general, has brought me into so many worthwhile, heartfelt conversations with others.
Do you consider yourself "healed" from the tragic loss of your son?
Not exactly, just as I don’t believe anyone ever fully recovers from addiction. I feel good most of the time. I still have periods where I go through the “whys” and “what ifs” but I am able to stop myself from getting too deep. Five years later, I am finally seeing my grief counselor on an as-needed basis. I went from once a week, to once every two weeks, to once every three weeks. If I feel myself sinking, I still text, call, or make an appointment.
In what ways do you choose to honor your son Tim's memory?
In so many ways! I still have memories around the house, although not as many as I used to. I now have three tattoos, two that specifically honor Tim and one that is a tribute to my family: my husband, three children and myself. I am always posting to the Without Tim Facebook page. I post things about Tim and my family, inspirational stuff, suicide prevention stuff, a large variety! I update my web site, www.withouttim.com, periodically and I use Twitter a little. I love Facebook and really appreciate the support and feedback I receive from others, as well as helping others. I am willing to talk to anyone at almost any time: parents who are grieving, parents who are struggling with their teens, teens and young adults who are questioning their value. I feel I am honoring Tim by helping others.
What brings joy to your life?
My largest joy comes from seeing my other two sons healthy and happy. My wish is for them to live emotionally stable lives, with lots of joy. Of course there will always be difficult times, but I hope and pray they will always find ways to cope. And they know my husband and I will always be there for them. I dearly love my husband, my close friends, and my dogs. I strongly require fresh air and sunshine! Other than people, fresh air and sunshine, I love being active, especially bicycle riding. I love traveling, be it long trips or day trips, and I sometimes love the planning as much as the actual trip itself. My home is decorated with a cottage/nautical theme. I love living on the coast and being able to reach the ocean whenever I want to. I love music and maybe I am one of the few people left who prefers the radio to CDs or Ipod. I like the randomness of the radio, and my husband would complain that I change the station too much!
With thanks to Laura Rossi, Principal/Director of Publicity for Laura Rossi Public Relations, and Tandem Literary for generously providing this poignant and timely Q&A, and to Lisa Schenke, whose honesty and initiative is a true source of inspiration.
Note: September 10th is National Suicide Prevention Day. Please help to spread the word.