Battling suicide's stigma
Published: Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 6:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 30, 2011 at 3:34 p.m.
Above all else, Shirlee Zane remembers her husband for giving others the emotional comfort that eluded him in life.
Peter Kingston was a strapping six-footer and native of England who made fast friends of strangers and offered constant aid to loved ones in need.
“He was the caregiver, more than anything,” said Zane, 51, a Sonoma County supervisor.
Yet Kingston had since his childhood suffered chronic anxiety and periods of depression, Zane and a close friend said. He took his own life Jan. 18 at the age of 56.
A successful entrepreneur and most recently the finance director at Ursuline High School, Kingston was well-known in local business, nonprofit and education circles. With his first wife Kristina Mailliard, who died of cancer in 2001, he raised two children in the couple's home on McDonald Avenue, one of Santa Rosa's most enviable neighborhoods. He and Zane married in 2004.
Days after his death, hundreds of mourners gathered for a funeral in Jackson Theater at Sonoma Country Day School. It was there that Zane offered a stirring eulogy that has become her new message.
“We need to learn to talk about suicide," she told the crowd. "We cannot be ashamed of the pain in our lives."
Less than four months later, the first-term supervisor and former Council on Aging leader is speaking out about the perils of mental illness, the stigma of suicide and a personal loss she calls “gut-wrenching.”
“For people like myself who have never gone to that stage of ‘I don't know how to survive any more,' it's hard for us to understand,” she said. “He didn't feel that there was any other way out.”
In her first interview since Kingston's death, Zane said her feelings toward her husband remain raw, alternating between “anger and compassion, loneliness and fear.”
“You can hold all that together at one time,” she said.
She is trying to channel some part of that private grief into a public mission on suicide prevention and mental health awareness.
It's a reprise, in a way, of her one-time role as a Christian minister and missionary. Except this time her sermon is bolstered by her elected office and springs from a cruel personal tragedy.
Zane is a trained family counselor and grief specialist, having once run Sonoma County's now-shuttered Hospital Chaplaincy Services. But even that professional background, she said, left her outmatched by her husband's illness and grasping to explain his suicide.
“I want people to realize that this is a disease,” Zane said. “It's not really a choice. My loving, kind, compassionate husband would not have chosen to hurt me or our family or loved ones. He was not in his right mind.”
In the interview, Zane also addressed for the first time continued speculation that Kingston, as finance director, was somehow behind the financial troubles of Ursuline, the 130-year-old all-girls Catholic high school in Santa Rosa that is set to close in June.
In the immediate aftermath of Kingston's death, an Ursuline official defended Kingston's work at the school. Since then, however, school officials have refused to publicly address subsequent rumors that Kingston was responsible in some part for the school's demise. Ursuline officials did not return phone calls and emails requesting comment for this story.
Since the closure announcement in November, they've cited rising tuition assistance and declining enrollment — factors they said were behind a $1.2 million debt — as reasons for the closure.
Kingston was not responsible for those financial problems, Zane said. To the contrary, he had been raising alarms about the school's insolvency as long as two and a half years ago, she said.
“He was frustrated because he was very concerned that the school was not sustainable,” she said.
He had recommended sharp budget cuts to address the problems but those suggestions weren't acted on, she said.
Also, Zane said, school officials, including Ursuline principal Julie Carver, should have been more forthright defending Kingston and battling the rumors that arose after his death.
“He had nothing to hide,” she said. “He gave good advice. He tried to make a difference but his warnings were not heeded seriously enough.”
Zane sat on a white couch in the sun-splashed living room of the McDonald Avenue home Kingston shared with her and her son David, 22.
Around the house, framed photographs of Kingston stood on the tables and mantels.
Zane said she is in regular contact with his son Jamie, 26 — a father to twin three-year-old boys — and his daughter Gwenny, 22, a student at UC Berkeley.
“My heart breaks for each one of them in a very different way in terms of what Peter meant to them,” she said of the three adult children and two grandchildren.
The walls display her landscape paintings of England's Lake District, Yosemite Valley and the Marin coast, places the couple explored together.
She hasn't painted since Kingston died. Friends have helped with the grocery shopping and cooking. Weekdays she's busy with work, but nights and weekends are hard.
She has sought professional help, including from a behavioral therapist and a counselor who specializes in suicide. There have been meetings with her Episcopal priest as she grapples with doubts about her faith, she said.
“I think when you're grieving and you're going through loss, you should get as much help as possible,” she said. “If people offer it, basically I take it.”
She has found some comfort in a journal she has nearly filled in the past several months. In it, she mostly writes to Kingston, trying to work out questions and feelings she has about their life together and his death.
A passage that she volunteered to read distills many of those thoughts.
“I'm trying to hold the two truths of suicide in each one of my hands. In one, I keep the truth that your pain was unbearable and you saw no rational way out. It was the disease and the demons of fear and anxiety and depression that took your life. You left yourself and not us.”
She continued in a rising voice “In the other hand, simultaneously, I hold the truth of my anger, that you abandoned me in your pain, and our children together. And it feels like the ultimate betrayal. And I'm helpless because I could not save you. Nor can I tell you how angry I am.”
She closed the journal and let out a groan. “Huhhh, God,” she said.
In the months leading up to Kingston's death, he was increasingly anxious about the situation at Ursuline. In early fall, he confided in a close friend, Santa Rosa painter Brooks Anderson, that the school was facing closure.
After officials announced that move in early November, Kingston's mental and physical health seemed to deteriorate, Anderson said.
“He was still his loving, wonderful self. But he was fighting something,” Anderson said. “It was such an inner struggle. You could see him tightening up.”
Kingston was trying to ward off depression at that time. He led a men's group at his church and was starting to see a therapist again, Zane said. He was taking an anti-depressant, venlafaxine — he'd had the prescription for 14 years, Zane said — and had visited a doctor three times in about six weeks.
In early December, he asked Anderson to remove a possible danger: the three hunting guns in the pool house.
“He could see he was in such pain that he didn't want to hurt anybody, or himself,” Anderson said.
He'd made the same request of another friend 14 years earlier during a close brush with suicide, Zane said.
“So I felt we were safe, in that sense,” she said.
On Jan. 17 Anderson called Kingston to plan a walk, another of their so-called “manly outings” in Annadel State Park that seemed to lighten Kingston's spirits.
The friends never connected.
The next morning, a Tuesday, Kingston walked Zane to her car. He kissed her good-bye and said he would be OK, she recalled.
Thirty minutes later he sent her a text message: “I love you.”
Shortly before 5 p.m., Zane's son David was headed to school when he found Kingston's body hanging from a tree in the backyard.
Zane had been due home from a Board of Supervisors meeting. “I ended up getting home a little bit late,” she said. “It was just a matter of 30 minutes. I really do think he wanted me to find him.”
No note was found.
Zane and Anderson believe Ursuline's pending demise pushed Kingston over the edge.
“It didn't kill him. It was his long-time struggle (with anxiety) that killed him,” Anderson said. The school's closure “was just the last straw.”
Like Zane, Anderson defended Kingston's work at the school. He never heard a mention of fiscal impropriety or mismanagement, he said.
He offered a different version than Zane of Kingston's stance on the school's financial situation.
Kingston told him several times that he'd wished he'd been quicker and clearer about raising the alarm with school officials. “He said he could have done more and sooner,” Anderson said.
Anderson said he didn't know when Kingston may have initially raised that warning. “For some reason, he felt like he had held back,” Anderson said. “That's what he told me.”
School officials announced Kingston's resignation five days before his death. He'd submitted the resignation a week earlier with the understanding that he would stay on in some capacity through June to help his replacement, Zane said.
In interviews immediately following his suicide, one school official acknowledged that Kingston had taken the school's closure “very hard.”
“We kept assuring him that it certainly wasn't his doing — the declining enrollment and the economy,” said Sister Joanne Abrams, one of three nuns who oversee the school and its board of trustees.
“My heart is broken,” she said at the time. “He was such a nice guy, warm, gentle. I just can't believe it.”
In private conversations following Kingston's death, Zane said she learned something remarkable. Dozens of people she knows, people she works with daily, have lost loved ones to suicide. Yet many of those losses have gone unmentioned because speaking about suicide can be taboo.
“We don't talk about suicide because we're ashamed of it. It's a very intimate act when you expose yourself to the world in terms of the pain you're in,” Zane said.
Providing help to those considering suicide, those who've survived it, and those left in suicide's wake is vital, Zane said.
Various nonprofit and health care groups in the North Bay offer such services. Sonoma County also recently launched a mobile mental health response team geared toward suicide and drug and alcohol intervention.
Zane, who already was a champion of such efforts, said her experience has made her more passionate about finding money to keep those services going.
“People should not have to die — and they do in this country — because they don't have access to health care,” she said. “In Peter's case we did have good health care. Sometimes you do your best and you still can't necessarily prevent it from happening.”
Outside of her work, she hopes to find some solace in continuing to talk about her pain and encouraging others affected by suicide to do so.
“When you see a tragedy like my husband's suicide, you see that it brings out a lot of good in people. You see people come together.”
She paused and then picked back up where she left off in January.
“We need to stop being ashamed of our pain,” she said. “It's pain that brings us together as a community. It's pain that actually binds us. It is the most powerful element in our human lives. It can either destroy us — as was the case with Peter — or it can bring out the best in us.”
Contact Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@ pressdemocrat.com.
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