- Associated Press - Saturday, April 29, 2017

QUINCY, Ill. (AP) - A lifetime of advocating for others has helped Dawn Whitcomb open up about and cope with her son’s suicide.

Whitcomb grew up in Payson and began working at the Illinois Veterans Home as a student worker while attending Culver-Stockton College in Canton, Mo.

“Just being around those veterans and hearing their stories … even at 22, I knew I needed to see what else was out there, so I joined the Navy,” she said.

“I was a pom-pom girl. When I came home and told my roommate I’d joined the military, she couldn’t believe it. It was something I’d kind of thought about, but I knew if I didn’t just do it now, I never would. I was on that bus to St. Louis, and I kept thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ “

Her service helped her develop focus. Her final duty station was at Naval Air Station Miramara in California with the Naval Alcohol Rehabilitation Center, a 28-day program for active-duty service members.

“I was an in-taker, so I did a lot of the patient histories,” she said. “As a corpsman, I could have been placed anywhere. I could have been in a hospital, with the Marines working sick call, anything.

“I did hear a lot of very sad stories. A lot of abuse. They would come in there and get open and honest. It opened my eyes. The whole military experience opened my eyes. I was exposed to different cultures, different backgrounds, and it made me appreciate where I came from.”

She received a bachelor’s degree in health care administration while in the military and met her first husband. The couple moved back to Quincy after their enlistments ended.

“My first job out was at a place called Life Skills Center in Hannibal,” she said. “I worked there as a (partial hospitalization) therapist. We worked with the chronic mentally ill, teaching them life skills. Most of the clients were schizophrenics. Most of them were medicated, but it depended on the day. There were outbursts every once in a while.

“I had worked on the psych unit at Bremerton Naval Hospital. I would get home, and I would think about these patients a lot. How do you not? I learned that by taking my uniform off every night before I left the hospital and putting my civilian clothes back on, that was kind of a symbolic thing. I’m leaving it here, and now I’m going home.”

After two years at Life Skills Center, she accepted a job at the Illinois Veterans Home. From 1996 to 2002, she was an activity therapist there. She then transitioned to the adjutant’s office as a staff member, and in 2010 became the adjutant.

“I loved being an advocate for the veterans,” she said. “When you’re raised by a nurse, you tend to lean to the helping field, and that’s what I did.”

When her son Dylan Muldoon was 2, she and her husband divorced. In 2002, she married Charles Whitcomb, a South African immigrant.

“We met skydiving,” she said. “He’s a tandem instructor. It was at the World Freefall Convention. We struck up a friendship, emailed back and forth, and I eventually went to visit him in South Africa. He had been offered a job to come here and work. It was kind of odd, but it worked out.”

The marriage gave Dylan cultural awareness and an opportunity to travel to foreign countries.

Dylan was a great kid,” she said. “He didn’t know a stranger. He was always very comfortable around adults. I could take him anywhere, and he would strike up a conversation with somebody.

“He was very active. He was always outside, jumping over something, ramping something. He did football, wrestling, cross country, the hockey league out at Scottie’s (Fun Spot) and the hockey league at the Crossing. He was involved in a lot.”

Whitcomb found her son after he committed suicide at 18 in November 2015, and she now suffers from PTSD. A breast cancer survivor, she had been an advocate for that cause. After Dylan’s death, her focus shifted.

“I didn’t know anybody that had died by suicide,” she said. “To have my own child do it and to wrap my brain around it was one thing, but to talk about it was another.”

Shortly after Dylan’s death, another student from his school took their own life.

“There’s a support group here in town for people who have lost a loved one to suicide,” Whitcomb said. “I called another support group member and said, ‘I’m going to the high school. This was only three months after they lost their friend Dylan, and they were reliving all that. I sat with students most of that day and tried to comfort them as best as I could.

“I want a purpose out of Dylan’s death. I have to find one. It’s about helping others. I choose to talk about my grief. That’s how I deal with it. There’s no set pattern to the five stages of grief. I know I’ve probably experienced all of them, but not in any one set sequence.”

It is still difficult for her, but she tries to always walk through the pain, rather than avoid it.

“Every morning, I get up, get out of bed, and I put one foot in front of the other,” she said. “I go to work, and I do my job to the best of my ability. I honor my son every day by remembering him.

“I want him to be remembered as the fun-loving kid that everybody knew. So many people came through his visitation and said he was always the kid that came in and cheered me up. In retrospect, Dylan was sad inside. A lot like Robin Williams, always putting himself out there.”

She is slowly starting to find joy in life again, but she says the grief will never leave. She describes it as an unavoidable wave that knocks her down when it comes on. It can be spurred by a seeing a particular kind of cereal or hearing a song on the radio.

“I used to believe God doesn’t give us more than we can handle,” she said. “I don’t know. My whole perspective on life has kind of changed. I used to believe things happen for a reason. I don’t know if there’s any reason to Dylan’s death, but can I make something out of it? Can I find purpose in it? Absolutely.”

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Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://bit.ly/2ovAPKf

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Information from: The Quincy Herald-Whig, https://www.whig.com


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