Editor’s note • This story discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.
Lehi • In June, Dani Bates uploaded a 22-second video to Facebook of her 3-year-old daughter, Winnie, lying in bed, crying.
“Daddy, daddy, daddy, come back!” Winnie wailed. Between sobs, the girl asked, “Daddy not coming back? I miss daddy. I want daddy to hold me.”
“I know baby, I’m sorry,” Bates said softly off camera. The video has more than 11 million views, 23,000 comments and 158,000 shares.
Sitting in her Lehi apartment in July, Bates said she had hesitated before posting the clip. But then she realized she believed that “if there was one thing that would have stopped Denny, it was that video.”
The blog was initially intended for friends and family, but after the video of Winnie went viral, Bates saw she could reach others who are struggling. People have sent messages thanking her for sharing her story and saying that her honesty is “saving people.”
“I have been where your husband was...,” one person wrote to Bates. “After watching that video of your little girl ... I know the thoughts will come back but that video will honestly be a reason I don’t try again ... thank you for creating a lifeboat for me and using your story to advocate against suicide.”
Some professionals once discouraged talking about suicide for fear it would lead to more people killing themselves — which is untrue, said Donna Schuurman, senior director of advocacy and training at The Dougy Center in Oregon, which works with grieving children and families.
That perception has shifted, Schuurman said. And to truly understand how to prevent suicide, people need to listen to the experiences of those like Bates, she said. “It’s critical, and I love what she’s doing. I really do," Schuurman said about Bates’ blog.
Losing a loved one to suicide should be talked about as openly as losing someone to cancer or another health issue, agrees Taryn Hiatt, area director for Utah and Nevada for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
HOW TO HELP
If people say they are considering suicide:
• Take them seriously.
• Stay with them.
• Help them remove lethal means.
• Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
• Text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7.
• Escort them to mental health services or an emergency room.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
Bates finds the stigma around suicide frustrating. “I wish people would talk about it like it wasn’t a swear word,” she said. “... It’s so embarrassing for people. It shouldn’t be, but it is.”
As hard as it is sometimes, Bates wants people to see how she and her daughters are coping in real time. If she can help make people feel more comfortable talking about mental health and suicide, she hopes, she can help someone else.
The grief of a 3-year-old
On Aug. 23, the five-month anniversary of Denny’s death, Bates turned 30 years old.
There’s a lot she didn’t expect to have experienced by that milestone. She wrote an obituary for her husband and was open about why he died. She picked out his gravestone. Winnie decorated her father’s casket with stickers. And Bates started taking Winnie to therapy.
“This is real life for us," Bates said. " … I have to do whatever I can to help her heal so that this doesn’t affect her so deeply for the rest of her life."
Winnie is usually sweet, happy, talkative, “sunshine, puppies and rainbows.” Since Denny died, she’s been afraid to be separated from her mom. She cries and throws tantrums. In May, Bates recorded another video of Winnie screaming from her car seat that she wanted to “go to heaven.”
“I want my daddy!” Winnie wailed.
With these videos and her blog, Bates knows she’s not just putting herself out there. She’s also exposing her children and Denny. She has to decide what she’s comfortable with posting while still protecting her children. What’s easy to share now, when her daughters are younger, may not be later on, she said.
Bates tells Winnie the effect she’s having on people, and she’ll explain more as she gets older. A child may know her father is gone, but it’s hard to grasp the permanence of that at a young age, Schuurman said.
“She knows she won’t see him again until she’s a really, really old grandma," Bates said, “but she still thinks she can save her leftover candy for him, and she does.”
It’s important for children to grow up learning about a lost parent, to know the parent loved them and that a death by suicide is not their fault, Schuurman said.
Bates writes about how Denny was the “best daddy ever" and Winnie’s “superhero.” There’s a camera in the girls’ bedroom that Denny could call to talk to Winnie when he was at work.
“Now she just talks to him, shows him what she’s doing and carries the camera around the house,” Bates said. “I love when she does this.”
Winnie’s meltdowns happen less as the weeks go on. Bates has started to see her daughter’s “happy spirit shine again.” In early July, Bates made a video asking Winnie what her therapist told her.
“You can be mad and sad and happy,” Winnie said.
“Are you happy, mad or sad?” Bates asked.
“I’m sad because I miss my dad,” Winnie responded.
Bates said, “Guess what? Your daddy loves you so much, huh?”
“So, so, so, so, so, so much!” Winnie said.
‘I miss him’
How Bates is doing is dependent a lot on how her girls are coping, but she knows she has to focus on herself, too.
“I miss him. I miss everything about him. I miss all of the good things and all of the things that made me crazy. I miss his smell and his hugs and his gross beard kisses,” Bates wrote in August.
She and Denny met on an online dating website and married in 2014. He could be the life of the party, but he called her whenever he was in an Uber ride because he hated making small talk. She teased Denny for being only an inch taller than her.
After Denny died, everything became a reminder of him. He had helped pick out her “majestic minivan.” She had to cancel the expensive sports channels that only he watched. Bates wondered how many of Denny’s belongings she should keep for the girls.
There are good days and bad. But Bates said, "If there’s anything that Denny taught me … it’s that you have to laugh to get through life sometimes.
“And sometimes it seems way too soon or way too awkward or way too weird. But you still have to make jokes about it, you know? It’s how we can survive the hard things in life."
Bates hopes that philosophy comes across in her blog. In a post thanking people for watching her girls and stocking her fridge with meals and her signature Diet Coke, she wrote, “Please just don’t poison us; we have enough drama in our lives.”
Denny’s death was preventable, Bates emphasizes, a point advocates also stress. He had struggled with mental and physical health issues in his past, but in the days leading up to his death, she did not notice warning signs of depression or suicide risk, she said.
Denny “thought that he was taking away a problem or a burden," Bates said. With her blog, though, she wants people to know, “You are not a burden. You are not a hassle. You are needed.”
Those who are in crisis often think it’s “the only option they felt they had,” said Hiatt, of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. It’s important to encourage people to reach out to someone about their pain, she added.
MORE WAYS TO SEEK HELP
• American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, www.afsp.org
• National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah Chapter, www.namiut.org
• The Dougy Center, www.dougy.org
• Utah Suicide Prevention Coalition, www.utahsuicideprevention.org
“I can’t help but think that if there wasn’t such a stigma and so much embarrassment around depression and suicide, maybe he would have told me. Maybe he would have been able to say, ‘Dani, all of these things are coming up all of a sudden and I’m scared I’m going to hurt myself,' or ‘I’m so overwhelmed by all of this and need help,'" Bates said.
“...I will never actually know whether there would have been a difference. But I know that sharing my story so far has helped others, and I will continue to do so as long as people keep asking me to."
In August, Bates spoke before an event in Sandy about suicide prevention and awareness. She also started a podcast, called “Make It Awkward,” with Denny’s best friend. And this weekend, she planned to participate in the Out of the Darkness Salt Lake City Walk to raise awareness and support survivors of suicide loss.
Bates wants people to ask questions, to say Denny’s name and to talk about suicide and mental health. You don’t realize how many people around you might be struggling, she said. “We have to just hit it head-on and deal with it."