In the early 1990s, when Tim and Mary Boerger’s children were little, the couple recalls their two youngsters snugly strapped into their car seats in the back of the family’s vehicle. Their son, Kellen, the older of the two siblings, would often reach over and take off his sister Mikayla’s mitten so she could hold onto his finger.
“Kellen was three years older [than Mikayla] and he adored her. They were friends from the start. As they got older, we were happy to see that the strength of that friendship grew,” Tim said.
Fast forward to Dec. 14, 2006. Kellen was away at college and Mikayla was a typical 16-year-old — she was an ice skater and played volleyball, hung out with friends, loved Chinese food and cotton candy — all the usual teenage things. Never once did anyone suspect Mikayla would take her own life on that cold December day, and not a day goes by that her family and friends don’t wonder why.
“While we thought we had the perfect family, something else was happening. We do not know what it was. She never shared that she was feeling sad, hurting or frustrated in any way. It must’ve been a terrible hurt. … We were blindsided that at 16 her life was over. [Her suicide] has changed our lives forever,” Tim said.
Eleven days later on Christmas Day, the only gift under their tree was a picture of Mikayla — a gift the couple is grateful to have had for those 16 years.
Mary said she has always seen children as presents from God. Over their years of grieving, Mary met a woman who wasn’t able to have children and later met a woman who was watching her daughter die from a debilitating medical condition.
“I realized that I was the fortunate one,” Mary said.
“I know it is faith that has gotten me through,” she said. “It’s not my will, it is ‘Thy will be done.’ I’m not in charge. It took a hard lesson for me to learn that.”
The couple, who are members of St. Andrew Parish in Elk River, also sought support from local grief groups, eventually finding comfort in a group geared specifically toward the families and survivors of suicide sponsored by SAVE, or Suicide Awareness Voices of Education.
In time, the Boergers partnered with SAVE to share their story publicly with others who might benefit from hearing it, including the confirmation students at St. Andrew’s, who they speak with each year.
“Now we have to live life like Mikayla would want us to,” Tim said. “It’s therapeutic to talk about it, to say her name. We are never going to make her death ‘worth it’ but we are going to try to make something good come out of it.”
The Boergers spoke to about 50 people Jan. 8 in the gym at St. Anthony Church in St. Cloud. Joining them was Roxann Storms, a social worker for almost 30 years who addresses topics of depression, suicide and grief. Storms also serves as pastoral associate for the parishes of St. Anthony, St. John Cantius and Holy Spirit in St. Cloud.
Storms addressed aspects of depression and suicide, detailing warning signs and the different forms depression takes — some caused by an event in one’s life, others caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. All types are treatable, she said.
Linda Buckentine, a member of St. Anthony’s, saw the event advertised in the bulletin and decided to attend.
“Depression and suicide are something I think everyone should have a little bit of education on,” she said. “I heard things I hadn’t heard before. One of the most powerful messages [Roxann] shared was to let people know that, ‘I see you and I care.’ That’s what I’m going to try to do. In the world today, sometimes people just need to hear that someone sees them and someone cares.”
The talk was part of a monthly series organized by Ginny Duschner, director of faith formation for the parish cluster. She chooses topics she knows people are struggling with, she said.
“Two more local young people died of suicide this week,” she said. “It saddens me to realize that there are young people out there right now who feel alone and helpless and ready to give in to the pain when there are so many people around them who care about them and would do anything to save them, myself included.
“As a teen I struggled with depression myself, and it makes you very vulnerable to stress and to bottoming out at things that other people would think were ‘not that big of a deal.’ But when you are in the chokehold of depression, any stress is too much stress and unkind comments or failures of any kind can overwhelm you with sadness.”
Duschner hopes that the audience —both youth and adults — took to heart the information Storms and the Boergers shared.
“[I hope they] would learn to take notice when someone they know seems to be overwhelmed by life, that they would try to reach out to them and walk with them — even though they themselves may feel inadequate in the face of that kind of sadness,” she said.
“I also hope people see the hurt that suicide causes those left behind and recognize that no matter how bad it feels today, with modern medical advances, there is real hope that their sadness could go away with help and treatment. But the pain a parent feels when they lose a child to suicide is a pain that never goes away.”
The Boergers have a twofold goal — for people to seek help if they have feelings of depression or thoughts of suicide and for others to know it’s OK to talk about it.
“We talked to Mikayla about drinking, we talked about pregnancy, we told her to always wear her seatbelt. We never talked about depression or suicide. And here it is, the No. 2 killer of teens,” Mary said.
“No matter what your struggle is, ask for help,” she added. “No problem is too big. Reach out if you feel overwhelmed, lost or have nowhere to turn. Let someone help you. We start from the premise that you are a gift from God. That is a precious gift. Each one of you is a gift.”