Utah family shares ripple effects of a life lost to suicide
On the evening of June 1, Daniel Ryan Kooyman said goodbye to his girlfriend and went for a walk in the wilds outside their home in rural Cut Bank, Mont.
Earlier that day he had given her a flower, mentioning how much he loved her, said Daniel's mom, Suzette Kooyman, of Riverton. "He was quiet, so she asked him, 'Baby, what's wrong?' But he wouldn't say."
A week later Suzette struggles to explain what caused her son to lose hope that night, to enter the shed outside his home, close the door and hang himself. He was 29 years old.
"We may never know. Only Danny knows why," she said at a memorial service Saturday in Sandy.
But the family is speaking openly of his suicide, hoping to break the silence cloaking a major public health problem in Utah.
Perhaps seeing the anger and sadness of those left behind will cause someone else's son, father or brother to think twice before taking his life, said Suzette. "Danny was a pioneer. I want his death to have some meaning even if it saves just one person."
Utah's suicide rate has outpaced the nation's for the last decade. It's a problem shared by other rural, Western states, which have come to be known as the "suicide belt."
An average of 402 Utahns die from suicide, and 4,152 attempt suicide each year, according to the Utah Department of Health.
The risk is greatest among men between ages 25 and 64 who account for more than half 53 percent of the state's suicide deaths.
There is much speculation as to why. Access to guns in states with loose gun laws, or that Western "tough it out" culture of self-reliance, may have something to do with it. Studies have shown people at high altitudes to be at greater risk.
Whatever the cause, "sweeping it under the rug and pretending it doesn't exist" doesn't help anybody, said Edward Aguilar, who spoke at Daniel's funeral.
Aguilar, of Flagstaff, Ariz., has lost 10 people to suicide friends, co-workers and a family member. He met Suzette months ago at a business conference where the two discovered a shared passion for social activism.
Aguilar, a motivational speaker, told Suzette of a journal he's compiling of stories and photographs of people touched by suicide. Inspired, she set to work arranging to have him speak at Utah high schools.
He was thrilled this week to get her invitation to come to Utah until he learned it was to speak at her son's funeral.
"I came because it's not about me. This is about you, every person here and every person who loved Daniel but who couldn't make it here today," he told those assembled inside the Larkin Gardens chapel.
Don't focus on what happened or why, or ask who is to blame, Aguilar said. "And don't do what Daniel did and sweep away and ignore your feelings. If you need to cry, then cry your eyes out. If you're angry then be angry, but forgive, let it go. Most importantly, look into the mirror and forgive yourself."
Daniel, who grew up in Utah, had bouts of depression and anxiety as a kid, but his life was looking up, says his family.
He struggled with school, preferring a GED to the slow pace of high school. A jack of all trades, he worked in construction but hadn't yet settled on a career path.
But he had just finished community college, landed a new job and was eyeing a new house, said his sister-in-law Lisa Kooyman.
He left behind two children, an 8-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl, who had been living with Suzette.
"If he knew the ripple effects, he would have realized it wasn't worth it. He loved those kids too much," Lisa said.
Michelle Still, his younger sister, said "no one saw this coming." Daniel was the kid she looked up to and followed on frog hunts, competing to see who could land the biggest one.
In times of sadness, he retreated to the outdoors.
"He was an explorer of everything. He had to go further than everyone else," said his father, Henry Steve Kooyman.
Suzette never missed a chance to join her son on an adventure.
"He would go through phases where he was extremely lonely and that's when, in between relationships or whatever, he and I would get even closer. We'd end up going hiking. Sometimes he'd push me and sometimes he'd pull me," she said, laughing. "That's one of the reasons we got our scuba certification, because I always wanted him to have someone he could hang out with and be adventurous. We actually had the goal of venturing to the Bahamas."
Recalling their first open-water dive at Utah's geothermally heated Bonneville Sea Base, she said she wishes Daniel had reached out to her last week like he had so many times before.
"We went to feed the fish. Daniel and I are both holding on so hard to this lettuce and this big old angel fish is just ripping at it, ripping it apart," she recalled in tears. "The reason I bring that up, is because it's just like life. You can have things just ripping you apart and you've got to hold on. At the same time, you have to appreciate the beauty that's behind it, and that's what we were doing."
Every 15 minutes, someone dies by suicide in the United States. And for every person who dies, there are many more who think about it.
There is no known cause. But several factors increase a person's risk:
• Previous suicide attempt
• History of depression or other mental illness
• Alcohol or drug abuse
• Family history of suicide or violence
• Physical illness
• Feeling alone
• Suicidal thoughts
• Excessive or increased substance abuse
• Loss of hope
• Sleepless, agitation and anxiety
• Dramatic mood changes
How to help
Help is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week. If you live in Utah, call the Statewide crisis line at 801-587-3000 or call the National Suicide Prevention life line at 1-800-273-TALK.
• Take any threat of suicide seriously.
• Do not leave the person alone.
• Listen to and don't judge anyone you think may be in trouble.
• Take action. Remove guns or pills to prevent a suicide attempt.
Source • Utah Department of Health