Stephanie Weber's mother took her life when Weber was 31 years old and raising four children of her own.
"I was with my husband on the
The word, of course, was "suicide." The year was 1979.
An academic adviser suggested Weber enroll in art history and join the
But Weber wasn't looking for a distraction from her grief.
"You want to make a difference," she says. "You want to save someone else."
At first, she enrolled in hotline training, going on to counsel troubled souls at all hours. Her hotline work led her to the American Association of Suicidology, which in turn led her to a suicide survivors conference in Iowa City, where she met others who knew her pain and her desire to wrestle it and reshape it into a force for good.
In 1982, Weber and seven others founded Survivors of Suicide to help family members and other loved ones who have lost someone to suicide. The group launched a series of community forums focused not just on recovering from the profound loss, but also on prevention and intervention.
In 1998, Weber and her colleagues founded Suicide Prevention Services of America (spsamerica.org), an organization she directs from an airy, book-filled office in Batavia.
"We're here to prevent death, but we don't sit in the building," Weber says. "We're out a lot in the community."
Suicide Prevention Services works with the Kane County Health Department, schools, universities, police and fire departments, individuals and their families to offer counseling, screen for depression, educate and otherwise reduce the risk of suicide wherever and whenever possible.
"We can go out and do an hour of training anywhere," Weber says. "We can teach people the signs to look for, how to engage in safe talk, how to persuade people to get help. They used to say, 30 years ago, 'Find a therapist.' Now we help you find one and take you there."
Her three decades of counseling and educating have taught Weber a great deal about her own grief, as well as the suffering that plagued her mother.
"Suicide is levels of pain, but it's also losses," she says. "When I think of my mother, I can look at her life and see: At 16 her mother died, and she had to make the decision to put her sisters in an orphanage. In her later years, my dad died. She had a job change. She was fearful of not having enough money. I had moved out of state. She had multiple losses.
"When we do assessments," Weber continues, "the first thing we look at is prior attempt. The next is family history. And then, all the losses."
It's a delicate and painful process, but one that engages people who often feel deeply and profoundly isolated. And that engagement can be critical, Weber says.
"Anyone who's suicidal has a sense of relief that someone would take them seriously and let them talk about their pain.
"We have the motto: Never, ever, ever, ever give up. Your life is worth living. Life is difficult, but it is not impossible. There is help out there."
Q: What is your greatest attribute/fault?
A: My greatest attribute is my positivity. My greatest fault is my inability to "shrug it off," as a beloved older woman used to tell me. I take everything to heart.
Q: What is your greatest possession?
A: While we can't possess people, my greatest possessions are my family. I think of what I would save in case of a fire, and all that comes to me is my family and my cats.
Q: What did you want to be at age 13?
A: A teacher, which was my first career. I was a third-grade teacher for five years.
Q: What's the best lesson you learned from your father or mother?
A: "Be who you are. You are no better or no worse than anyone else."
Q: What's the best lesson you learned from your children?
A: My children taught me humbleness and patience.
Q: Who's your living hero?
A: Nelson Mandela.
Q: What's your favorite way to spend a day off?
A: Puttering in my garden, knitting, hanging out with family.
Q: Who's your favorite author?
A: I discovered May Sarton in the late 1980s when I picked up "At Seventy: A Journal." It just called to me, and I read all of her journals. It was quite a coup when my husband and I were in Maine in the fall of 1995. May died in July, but her memorial service was in New Hampshire two days after we'd arrived. We attended it and then met her partner and were invited to walk the grounds of her home. I was thrilled.
Q: What do you wish every person knew in his or her heart?
A: I often quote