When Lori Common sits with families and friends shattered by the suicide of a loved one, she understands what they’re going through.
Common, the coordinator of the Denton County LOSS Team, lost her son Mason to suicide in 2017.
When the medical examiner rules a death a suicide, local authorities dispatch the Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors Team. A mental health professional accompanies a trained volunteer — someone who lost a loved one to suicide one year ago or longer — to the scene, where they offer information, resources and an ear to people who are usually reeling after the event.
“We meet with the family, and we give them a packet of information and resources,” Common said.
A plain envelope contains a startling range of information — literature on dealing with grief for adults and for children, information on how to plan a funeral and a contact for forensic cleanup. The team also has items meant to offer comfort — water, blankets, mints, teddy bears for children. The team also leaves a journal, pen and flying prayer paper with the survivors.
For Common, who has worked for Denton County MHMR, the LOSS Team is a kind of ministry — one that gave her a slow, gentle hand over a chasm of grief she stills struggles to describe.
“I was a crying mess,” she recalled.
Mason was in his mid-20s. He was married and was over the moon about his young son, Daniel. Scrolling through pictures on her smartphone, Common studied photos of Mason doing what he loved most — fishing and being outdoors. In all the photos, Mason’s smile is broad and genuine. Like a lot of young men, Mason had his tough times, though.
“Mason had anxiety. He was a worrier,” Common said. “We were a little worried when his wife was pregnant, because he wasn’t the most patient person in the world. But then Daniel was born. He had all the patience in the world for that little boy. But he struggled with anxiety. It was really hard for Mason. But he never tried to kill himself. He had gotten a good job. He loved Daniel so much. He was a great father. He played with Daniel. Bathed him, changed diapers. I never thought he was suicidal.”
In fact, Common said, she and her husband — Mason’s stepfather — worried more about Mason’s younger brother, who has depression. And though Mason loved to prank his brother and sister, he was also fiercely protective of them.
In spring 2017, Common said, she sensed that Mason was “off.” They were spending some time together, and Mason had a request for his mother.
“He told me, ‘Mom, just make sure you always take care of yourself,’” Common said. “I asked him, ‘Are you suicidal?’ And he went, ‘I would never do that around my child.’ It’s so hard to think back. I just heard ‘I would never do that.’”
On March 12, 2017, Mason took his own life at his sister’s home in Aubrey. His son was not there.
Common and her family were plunged into grief. Suicide carries a stigma, even as more people are opening up about anxiety, depression and other mental illnesses that can make those afflicted by them more vulnerable to suicide.
“Suicide grief is different,” Common said. “There are so many questions you’ll never have the answers to. And you feel guilty, too. Like you should have known they were thinking of taking their own life. You never get over it. You learn how to live with it, or else you get stuck in one spot.”
Since November 2015, there have been close to 300 suicides in Denton County. The LOSS Team has done 107 on-scene visits, 105 delay-response visits (some people take their lives when they are alone, and the LOSS Team visits surviving loved ones as soon as possible). And since 2015, the team has mailed 188 packets to surviving loved ones — some surviving family members live in other cities and states.
“Before the LOSS Team started working in Denton County, the average amount of time it took to connect survivors with these kinds of resources was four years,” Common said.
Since the LOSS Team started its work in the county in 2016, the average amount of time it takes to connect survivors with resources has shortened to 39 days. LOSS Team members have a follow-up schedule, too. They call or contact survivors a week after the suicide, then again one, three, six and nine months after the suicide. The team completes its follow up at the one-year mark. Common said it is normal for survivors to let the calls go to voicemail.
“I went to a support group meeting once where a lady said ‘I don’t always feel like talking, but I’m glad they call,’” she said.
Common had already taken the coordinator’s job with the LOSS Team before her son’s death.
“When it happened, I knew they were going to send the LOSS Team,” she said. “I told them, ‘I don’t want you to come.’ They didn’t listen to me, and I’m glad they didn’t.”
Common said Denton County medical examiner’s office and local police are wonderful to work with — and that she shares duties with about 30 other LOSS Team members who do the work of being available for survivors around the clock.
She practices plenty of self-care to be ready to help, and she helps keep her son’s memory alive for her grandson.
“He was really little when Mason died. He doesn’t remember his father, but he knows his father is in heaven and that he’s watching over him,” she said.
Common said she decided to stay with the LOSS Team after Mason’s death.
“It’s hard, especially when its a young man who died the way my son did,” she said. “I just know the LOSS Team helped me. If I can do this work and help someone who lost someone they love, the way I look at it is that Mason didn’t die in vain. I do this for my son’s memory. I feel like if I help them one minute, it’s worth it.”
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and the Denton County nonprofit is hosting a LOSS Team Music Fest and Art Auction from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday at Dan’s Silverleaf, 103 Industrial St. The festival and auction benefits the nonprofit so that it can continue to supply grieving families and friends with resources to cope with loss from suicide.