iunderstand: How Vonnie Woodrick is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Suicide and Mental Illness

by Elyse Wild | Photography by Two Eagles Marcus

“Time doesn’t heal; love heals.”

As Vonnie Woodrick shares this truth, her gaze is steady and sincere, and one knows, without a doubt, that experience has led her to this profound conclusion.

Fifteen years ago, Woodrick’s husband, Rob, died by suicide after a lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression. Now, the mother of three works to provide support and comfort to those affected by suicide and transform our knowledge of its primary causes with her organization, iunderstand.

The Road of Grief

After her husband passed away, Woodrick was met with the challenge of raising three children as a single parent, leading them as they traversed the long, serpentine road of grief—one that never truly ends. Woodrick describes that with the family’s milestones comes mourning the absence of the father and husband they wish was there to share in their joy.

“I feel like our entire life is bittersweet,” Woodrick reflected. “Because it doesn’t matter where we go or what we do, it’s bittersweet because he isn’t with us. But, I feel like because of the relationships we have established, and the community we have gained through iunderstand has allowed us to be so open.”

Additionally, she faced abrupt isolation as a result of the social connotations of the circumstances of her husband’s death.

“We were pushed away from business friends, social friends, and family when we needed them the most,” Woodrick described. “(Suicide) is scary and fearful for a lot of people to talk about.”

Isolation can be one of grief’s greatest burdens, and its antithesis — connection — is a facilitator of healing. Through iunderstand, Woodrick is creating connections, conversations and awareness so desperately needed by our community as the suicide rate continues to climb. As reported by the Grand Rapids Press in March of this year, death by suicide in Kent County surpassed a 20-year high in 2017.

iunderstand was born four years ago from Woodrick’s continued restlessness at the lack of understanding for mental illness, suicide and those who are left in its wake. She describes lying in bed night after night while the words, “They just don’t understand,” repeated in her mind. As her 50th birthday approached, the idea to form an organization around facilitating understanding to help others heal began to blossom.

“I went to my kids because this was going to be an open book,” she said. “ I was turning 50. I said for my 50th birthday, ‘I want to make t-shirts that say ‘I Understand. Love Heals.’”

Launching iunderstand quickly became a family affair— Woodrick and her children created a Facebook page (which is now approaching 9,000 followers), made a logo and ordered t-shirts.

Since then, the organization has flourished, and its impact continues to broaden. During the month of September, Meijer carried iunderstand t-shirts; Celebration Cinema played an iunderstand public service announcement before movie screenings, and Biggby ran a campaign for the organization in 82 locations around the state. At Fountain Street Church, iunderstand hosts monthly support groups (the next one taking place on Nov.21 at 6:30 p.m.); and they provide a full-time clinical nurse support specialist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital to educate family, staff and patients on good mental health practices and provide after-care packages; and, the organization was recently named a community partner for this year’s Amway Riverbank Run.

“It validates the need for this and warms my heart,” Woodrick expressed. “It proves that this conversation is needed.”

The Power of Language

While iunderstand provides support and comfort, it is also working to utilize the power of language to create a more dynamic understanding of depression and death by suicide — something, Woodrick says, can save thousands of lives — starting with the definition of suicide. The dictionary describes it as: the intentional taking of one’s own life; Woodrick is petitioning to change it to: a terminal side effect of mental illness.

In her own life, she has experienced the transformative power of these definitions.

“When we look and we focus on this as an illness, there are so many possibilities,” she said. “Rob had an illness, and what we know about illness is that all illnesses are treatable, preventable and can be terminal. So my husband died of a terminal illness. I remember the moment my friend put it in those terms — it brought me so much relief and healing.”

As Woodrick discusses what has in part become her life’s mission, one cannot help but notice the grace with which she has emerged from the most absolute darkness to which a person can be subjected: her voice is kind, her eyes are thoughtful and she offers herself and her story completely.

“I am doing this for everyone who has lost because it is a painful road,” she expressed. “If I can make their day a little brighter, it also heals me.”

At the outset of iunderstand, Woodrick created a video in which she shares her story. Shortly after the video was posted, she received an email from a woman telling her that Woodrick not only saved her life, but saved her family the devastation of
losing her.

“It’s those comments that I get, the people who say, ‘Thank you for doing this. Thank you for understanding,’ that keeps me going. Whatever we are doing, it’s working, even if it is one person at a time.”

To learn more, visit iunderstandloveheals.com.

Losing My Dad

by Maddie Woodrick

We invited Vonnie Woodrick’s youngest daughter, Maddie, to share her perspective on the effects of suicide and the healing power of understanding. This essay was originally published on iunderstandloveheals.com

There is one thing I have always struggled with:  the initial reaction of people when I tell them that not only has my father passed away, but the circumstances that led to his death. I have always dreaded being introduced to new people or my friends’ parents, because one of the first questions they ask is, “What does your dad do?” I always respond with the same answer, “He passed away when I was young.” Then they ask the inevitable follow-up question, “How?” I have always considered the word “suicide” to be immensely harsh. It’s just a flat-out ugly word; definitely not a word that a young girl should be so comfortable with while others cower in fear of it.

I have never been embarrassed by how my dad passed away, but I have continued to be frustrated with the negative connotation of his death. I have always been exacerbated with the gape in people’s mouths when they say, “Oooh I’m so sorry…” Anyone who has experienced losing someone to suicide can relate to this because it’s quite obvious that the other person has become seriously uncomfortable and has probably even regretted prodding you on such a “horrific” or “traumatizing” experience. I don’t blame them; it’s uncomfortable for both of us. But, it doesn’t have to be.

I want people to know that although my dad’s death has affected me, it does not define me. I am not saying I am thankful in any way that my dad died; I would do anything for one last fishing trip or one last afternoon spent watching SpongeBob SquarePants with him, but I wouldn’t be who I am without it. I’ve had to mature at a very young age, which has been a blessing and a curse. I have a hard time being around my peers that constantly use the terminology “I want to kill myself” or “kill yourself” over menial matters that include homework or other minor stressors. Sometimes I wish my experience on this subject spanned only that far, but I’m glad I am not ignorant in using such phrases so flippantly. I am thankful for how socially aware I have become, regardless of the extent my father has contributed to that.

I know I have missed out on a lot of opportunities that only growing up with a father can present, but  it has not deterred from any aspect of my experience growing up. I am a firm believer that the conventional idea of a family is not the only way to have a family. I am constantly in awe of my mom. Her ability to raise my siblings and me the best way she could is, in my opinion, equal to or better than what two parents are capable of in some circumstances. I don’t care that I’ve never experienced a daddy-daughter dance.  I do care that I have been fortunate enough to be raised by an utterly selfless woman who is constantly putting the needs of not only her children but countless others before herself.

When iunderstand was founded, I was a bit frightened at first. I was scared of what my peers at school would think of me and what they would think about my dad with everything being out in the open. Being an introvert, to me, this was a nightmare. But, I’ll never forget the day when all of my friends and many others wore iunderstand shirts on National Suicide Prevention Day in September. I was overwhelmed with happiness and felt surrounded by support and love. This helped to put everything into perspective for me, knowing there are people who truly do understand and empathize. I urge you to learn more about iunderstand’s “Wear, Care, Share” campaign and help to raise awareness in your school, workplace or community. The more we talk, the more we encourage others to share their stories and help those  who are living a daily battle with mental illness.

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