Local family shares about walking through suicide

By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News

In 2011, Michael O’Rourke took his own life after a deep depression. His wife, Michele, and their two boys still live in the Steiner Ranch home they shared.

A loving father and husband

Michele knew something was wrong when she arrived back to her Steiner home after running errands and the garage wouldn’t open.quote for suicide

She parked in the driveway instead, assuming her husband had latched the garage door in order to work on one of his many projects.

Upon entering the house, though, she saw a sign propped on the stairs: “NO KIDS IN GARAGE”.

Still not seeing her husband, she looked in his office and noticed what seemed to be the folder in which they kept their will lying on his desk.

Now she started to really worry, shock beginning to set in as she walked to the interior garage door and saw taped to it a second sign, this one in darker lettering, underlined twice. “NO KIDS”

Michele hesitated then opened the door. There was her husband Michael, her great love, hanging from a rope.

No detail left to chance

Michael O’Rourke was detail-oriented. Whatever projects he undertook, he attacked each with thorough research, carefully planning and precise execution.

For example, “He loved Halloween,” says Michele. “He would completely transform our house to the most incredible haunted house. He would always pull these pranks on the kids who came to our house to scare the bejeebers out of them. It was always, what’s Michael going to do this year? He took delight in that.”

The rest of the year, “he was a gourmet cook. He was a very high level programmer for Adobe… He would build things. He would make crazy toys for the boys. He built an outside kitchen… Whatever he could think about doing, he would research it and he would do it. And he would do it to perfection.”

“His mind was just so amazing. There just wasn’t anything he couldn’t do.”

He brought the same thoroughness to his suicide, leaving nothing to chance. After he died Michele looked at Michael’s search history and found he had researched the most effective ways to die.

Part of this attention to detail could in part be attributed to bipolar type II disorder, with which Michael was diagnosed as a young man.

Unlike type I, Type II bipolar disorder has subtler up-and-down cycles.

Michele was with Michael for 17 years and says, “I never knew him to swing at all… what he would do when his medication wasn’t right was he would become a little irrational about something.”

She saw this only twice in the course of their relationship, when Michael became fixated on an irrational concern, such as the time just before they married when he became convinced she was losing her hair. A call to Michael’s doctor and an adjustment to his medications resolved the episode and their lives continued steadily forward.

It was only in January of 2011, a few months before he took his life, that Michael experienced a deep depression unlike anything Michele had seen before in her husband.

Compassion from an unexpected source

In fact, Michele had seen a similar depression before: her own, after the birth of their twins, which landed her in an outpatient psychiatric program for severe depression.

This episode, during which Michele was suicidal and deeply despondent, became an unexpected blessing when her husband later ended his life.

“Unless you’ve been there, I don’t think you understand why people kill themselves. And looking back on that… that was a gift from God so that I could live through Michael’s suicide.”

That’s not to say Michael’s suicide wasn’t profoundly painful.

“It was still so traumatic — it still is — but even when it happened, I didn’t have the anger. My counselor kept saying, (anger) is a normal stage. You have to go through it. And I felt like, no, I won’t. Because I understand.”

That terrible day

The day Michael died is both a blur of activity and a series of clear memories.

Finding Michael. Calling 911. Cutting him down. Performing CPR. Waiting with law enforcement while medics worked on his body in the garage. Wondering if he had really died.

“And so finally the guy came in from the garage and I said, ‘Is he gone?’ and he said, yeah, he’s gone. Then I just started sobbing.”

Still Michele had to tell their boys, who were at school, that their dad was gone. She arranged to have family friends pick them up and to explain that she was at the hospital with their dad. In the meantime she spoke with a therapist and with a grief counselor provided by law enforcement. Should she tell her sons the truth about how their dad had died?

Michele decided yes, she should tell her children the truth. She instinctively felt it was the right thing for her family.

When finally at the end of the day she was able to go to them, she took them outside and explained their dad’s death honestly.

Returning home the next day, the boys rushed to the garage to seize on the evidence of their father’s final act, as if by touching the leftover pieces of rope and seeing the drill left in the attic they could better understand what had happened. Though unsettling, this reassured Michele that, she had done the right thing by being honest.

A message of openness

As in last week’s Four Points News article —which shared the story of Carrie Pritchard and her sister Megan Jackson, who are both Steiner Ranch residents and who lost their brother and sister-in-law to suicide within a week a couple of years ago — when Michael killed himself, “It wasn’t a complete shock,” to Michele or his family. There had been a past attempt. He had talked about hanging himself.

And again as with Carrie, Michele is emphatic that, “You can’t prevent it. Which is kind of scary advice if you’re fighting it. But you can’t prevent it,” if someone wants to kill themselves. “You can’t watch someone 24/7.”

Still, she knows it’s a fight worth fighting even when you can’t control the outcome. “There are lots of things out there to try. And sometimes the person out there who is suffering from depression is going to give up hope. Keep trying different things. Keep knocking on doors. And know that there are lots of treatments. And that it’s a disease, depression is a disease.”

More than anything, “(Suicide) is not selfish.”

She echoes Carrie’s sentiment that suicide should not be cause for shame. “I think it’s a good thing to be open. That’s the only way the stigma is going to go away. And I think if the stigma goes away, we might have more professionals. We might have more research.”

“We are all in this together”

Michael no longer has options, but Michele does not want the memory of his life to be defined by how he chose to end it.

“I think as time goes further and further along, it’s easier for the good memories to crop up. I think initially, it does overshadow — it overshadows everything. But I know now we think of more funny things, of more joyful thoughts.”

And there’s the little things: a few minutes of Michael in home videos (because he was typically behind the camera), his voice on the answering machine.

“We have those little bits, and so some of those things are just treasures.” And the boys do look like their dad and share some of his mannerisms.

“It’s incredible how much I miss him,” she said. “At first I felt, I don’t want to touch anything in this house because I will break it. And I will never know how to fix it. It was like living in a museum.”

But slowly, the woman who took comfort in the fact that her husband was nine years younger than her, who thought, “I could not go on living without him,” has learned that she can.

Michele remarried recently. Her husband, David, brings to the relationship two children of his own and enormous love and compassion for his bride.

It’s a different marriage than the first time around. Michele is 56 years old with teen children. She and her new husband have both seen the best and worst that marriage can offer.

How do they incorporate Michael into their new life and family? “We talk about him a lot,” says Michele.

Last year, David hung a cross in the garage, and told Michele, “‘When I’m in the garage I look at that cross and I think about Michael and how I feel like he and I are on a team. And I’m charged with raising these boys like he would want to.’”

For Michele, “it helps me feel that we are all in this together… It gives me comfort that he really gets it.”

Still, she doesn’t view her life as having a fairy tale ending. “When people move forward, it’s not as if the pain is gone. ‘Isn’t that wonderful. It all worked out.’ You carry the pain, I think forever. And it still hurts a lot.”

“I was madly in love with Michael and continue to be.”

She goes on, though, her voice breaking for the first time. “Sometimes moving forward is a choice, because you still have to live in this world. My vision for the end, for heaven, is that, you can be deeply in love with more than one person, that’s it’s very different from how love is here on earth. And I will love Michael until the very end. And I hope we will be together. And I know David will be with me… I hope all of us… will be really peaceful and happy.”

This is the second piece in a three-part series about suicide. Next week, Part III will focus on suicide education — statistics, prevention and resources.