Kerry’s Lessons on Suicide

February 16, 2021, Article in Summit Daily, Summit County Colorado

by Suzanne Acker

Nancy Kerry sees beauty in things big and small — from the boundless love she feels for her newly adopted Great Pyrenees, Bella, to the delicate patterns in the snow carved by the wind’s endless breath.

“Just look at how beautiful this all is,” Nancy said, lifting her arms from the earth to the sky, on a hike up Miners Creek Road in Frisco, where she has been the town manager for two years.

A writer, musician, crafter and “creative type,” Nancy has trained her eye to see beauty that’s hidden to many. She also has trained her heart to feel hope, a feeling that is often elusive for those who have lost a child to suicide.

In 2013, Nancy sat at the San Diego hospital bedside of her beloved 34-year-old son, Dustin, who was surrounded by his wife, sister and many best friends and family members. His self-inflicted gunshot wound would take him from all of them that day, but not before six men were gifted life from Dustin’s donated organs.

“That was the hope I needed to bring goodness to the darkest moment of my life,” Nancy said.

That moment remains just below the surface, just behind the eyes of a woman whose gentle smile lines trace a lifetime of laughter and tears, grace and giving, and hard-fought wisdom.

“Hope is a tangible thing,” she said. “It was always something I could count on to lead me into the next day. Hope gives us the same path to connect to each other on, helps us open up and talk, which is something I believe we have to do for each other. If I can help any parent who is questioning whether their kid is struggling with suicide, talk to me. Talk to them. Reach out with hope.

“Dustin came to a place so sad he lost all hope and took his life. I often ask myself how can we, as a society, do more to protect those who struggle with self-doubt, so they don’t slip down a path to a point of no return?”

The early challenges

Nancy was barely 19 when she brought Dustin into the world. She fled the abusive household in which she was raised on the first day she could: her 18th birthday. She had been raised without a mother, who had abandoned the family when Nancy and her brother were too young to remember her name.

At 18, Nancy was fleeing an entire life of trauma. While her husband did not become the steady ship she’d hoped for, her children did. She was determined to give them the love of a mother she never felt as a child and a better life than what she’d had.

There was a lot of struggle but also a lot of joy as she watched her towheaded tyke race to manhood.

“Dustin was a gorgeous guy,” Nancy said. “Blue eyes as deep as the ocean he loved so much. His body tanned golden brown from a life spent in the ocean, mostly along the San Diego coast surfing every wave he could find. His kindness was remarkable. He was known for being the most generous, giving and caring soul you would ever know.”

As a teen, Dustin’s generosity took him from feeding people in homeless camps under local bridges to becoming active in a church youth group ministry to starting his own nonprofit with the mission of bringing more kindness and love to the world.

On a backpacking trip with friends through Asia in his late 20s, the group stumbled across a large number of orphanages in Thailand. The parents of these children had lived in Burma (now Myanmar), which was suffering the world’s longest civil war. The parents, hoping for a better life for their kids, smuggled them into Thailand in the hope they would find a better life.

“The children affected Dustin deeply, and he wanted to tell the parents’ story of sacrifice and hope,” Nancy said.

He and his friends later returned to Thailand with video equipment to record the story.

Nancy is deeply proud of the film. It’s an impressive production by amateurs and features an often-playful, ever-thoughtful Dustin, “forever dreaming of how he could change the world with kindness.”

After Dustin returned home, his leadership skills advanced him in every job he held, the last of which was in donor management at the San Diego Foundation, a “dream job for a person who lived purposely to help others,” Nancy said.

At the end of his life, it seemed to others that Dustin “had it all.”

“He was in a new job at the foundation, he had just moved into a lovely home in Point Loma, San Diego, near the ocean he loved so much, and he and his wife had welcomed their first and only child together, Ireland, just seven weeks earlier,” Nancy said.

Dustin was settling into life, or so it seemed.

Looking back, looking forward

Nancy said she’s often asked, “Did you see this coming?”

“Before he died, I would have told you, ‘Yes, I’m worried about Dustin.’ Afterward, I can tell you without question, ‘No, I did not think the bright, silly, funny, gregarious, bigger-than-life, compassionate, humble soul was actually considering the absolute end of his life.’”

She said he was sad about the usual things at times: broken relationships, careers and jobs, life’s expectations and disappointments.

“We talked often about how life’s ebbs and flows are like the rhythms of the ocean,” Nancy said. “We must hold on in the rough seas and let out the sail when the time is right. Sadly, I think Dustin lost the rhythm of the sea.

“People who struggle with suicidal thoughts don’t really understand the finality of the decision, the depth of pain for others, which is the very opposite of what they think it will accomplish. It is not a solution to anything but rather a door to deep loss for so many.”

Now, eight years later, Nancy is passionate about sharing what she’s learned with others who are trying to navigate mental health challenges with a loved one:

  • If someone tells you they are considering suicide, believe them. And then get help.
  • Don’t be intimidated by fear. Talk to your loved one without judgment, and handle the scary words they might say without flinching.
  • The happiest person you know might be suffering. Check in with your friends, especially now.
  • Love deeply. Don’t let the fear of loss be the reason you withhold love from yourself and others.
  • Be there for others. Life is more than the moment we are in. There are 10,000 moments ahead and behind us. Let’s help one another through the tough ones.
  • No matter what happens in life, happy days are always around the corner.
  • Keep hope alive.

“I say to people, hold onto hope,” Nancy said. “It is a real thing. Take action to breathe hope into others, breathe hope into yourself. Believe in it. Hope is life.”

Editor’s note: This story is written by Suzanne Acker, a special projects writer for Building Hope Summit County, with excerpts from “Everlasting Hope,” an essay by Nancy Kerry. Read the essay and watch Dustin’s documentary at Building Hope : Nancy Kerry :: Building Hope (