On the afternoon of June 15, 1998, Rebecca Shaw climbed the stairs to her cottage on Clematis Street, put a gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger. In an instant, the beautiful 36-year-old artist who seemed to have everything to live for became one of the 30,000 people who kill themselves every year in this country, leaving a trail of unspeakable anguish in their wake.
In her book, Losing Rebecca, Shaw's sister, Vanessa Shaw-Finelli, chronicles her search to understand and recover from her sister's suicide. She now knows, for example, that the Centers for Disease Control rank suicide as the 11th-highest cause of death in America, higher than the rate of death for HIV, higher than homicide. She's learned that loss of a spouse, the breakup of a marriage, failing health-anything can trigger a fatal response in one predisposed to thoughts of suicide.
Beautiful and vibrant, Rebecca spent years struggling with drug and alcohol abuse, and was eventually diagnosed as bi-polar. Yet even those closest to her did not understand the depth of her pain; and that's because, Vanessa discovered, Rebecca was a master of disguise.
"Suicide is such a public show of very private pain," says Vanessa. "A person seriously intending to take their own life cannot give warning. Their loved ones would do everything in their power to stop them, wouldn't they? Then they would continue living in their pain."
But Vanessa acknowledges there were signs, like the gradual increase in lack of care with Rebecca's appearance, depleted energy levels. Like many people who commit suicide, Rebecca began to give away possessions, but Finelli admits, "We all give things to each other all the time, so this wasn't unusual." After Rebecca's suicide, her family found numerous journals she had written over the years. "Happy times never seemed to be recorded. Just lonely, black times," Vanessa says.
Coping with Rebecca's loss has been an ongoing process. Directing the disposition of her estate gave Vanessa a sense of purpose, as did organizing a beach gathering where family and friends shared pictures and stories.
"Each day, slowly, energy filters back, and now the terrible loss of my sister is becoming a part of my life, instead of my whole life," says Vanessa. Years of therapy have helped her understand the nature of Rebecca's mental illness, and her book is increasing an understanding of suicide for others.
You can order Vanessa Shaw-Finelli's book at her Web site, www.suicidehope.com. And if someone you know is looking for a lifeline to help pull them away from suicide, here are two local places that can help.
o The Crisis Stabilization Unit at Coastal Behavioral (364-9355) takes emergency calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Coastal's new Family Emergency Treatment Center in Sarasota (952-1147 or 708-5710) takes walk-ins and calls Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
o You can call and talk to a professional at any time at Bayside Center of Behavioral Health (917-7760), Sarasota Memorial's department of psychiatry and substance abuse.