Breaking News
More () »

Grand Rapids's Leading Local News: Weather, Traffic, Sports and more | Grand Rapids, Michigan | WZZM13.com

Touched by suicide: Two families share their stories

Vonnie Woodrick and Jeff Elhart both lost loved ones to suicide and now are working towards prevention and changing the way mental health issues are viewed by others through their non-profits.
suicide ribbon

Vonnie Woodrick's husband had two passions: his family and food.

Vonnie says the two are what led to them to open a restaurant of their own, "When we opened up Bistro Bella Vita we named it together and Bella Vita is beautiful life and we definitely felt like we had such a beautiful life together."

But they also lived with something else -- Rob's anxiety driven depression, "I didn’t know that suicide was really an option for him, or even a thought for him." But it was.

Fifteen years ago, Vonnie's husband died by suicide, "I really believe that he felt he was doing us a favor. That [he thought] 'I don't want to burden you any more with my anxiety. I want you to go on I want you to live a happy life.'"

Vonnie was left to raise their three children but there was always a feeling of loneliness, and a need to help other families sharing the same experience.

It's how her non-profit i understand came to be in 2014, "[we wanted] to make a difference wanting to not feel so alone my kids and I we came up with the idea 'i understand,' and the pink heart representing unconditional love. Love enough to get help or loving someone enough to help them."

Vonnie also wants to remove the stigma of suicide, "And rather than saying, my husband killed himself let me tell you that my husband died of depression. And let's focus on the illness."

Jeff Elhart can relate to Vonnie's story. His business partner at Elhart Auto Group, lifelong friend and brother Wayne struggled with depression, "And unfortunately we lost him by way of suicide on March 27, 2015."

Jeff often blamed himself for not recognizing the signs his brother was giving him -- isolation and loss of interest in the things he loved. "I wrote a letter buried in his urn when he was cremated about 11 specific situations where I said, 'Wayne I'm sorry I wish I would have.'"

Jeff's letter motivated his family to advocate for suicide prevention, "Immediately our family decided that we needed to do something it was all about education."

The Elhart family put their efforts behind the Mental Health Foundation's be nice campaign, “They’ve been the tool, our guardian angel if you will since my brother's death 3 1/2 years ago to help bring the story the action tool to notice, invite, challenge, empower so everybody can be a life saver."

Sixteen months after Wayne's death his family found the note he'd left behind, “I love you all this depression has got the best of me please don't blame yourself as it was me, please help others overcome this illness of depression, god please use me to help others. So that's my mission."

A mission that affects many families who've lost a loved one to suicide.

In addition to i understand and the Mental Health Foundation’s be nice movement, there are other resources for those in need of help.

Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services and TCM Counseling are two centers offering treatment for those suffering from depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

►Make it easy to keep up to date with more stories like this. Download the WZZM 13 app now.

Have a news tip? Email news@wzzm13.com, visit our Facebook page or Twitter.