A photo from Terri Banfill's Facebook page dated December 26, 2018. (With permission from Terri Banfill)

Missing Gus: how a Windsor family deals with the disappearance and suicide of a loved one

He was a father you called if your car wouldn’t start — a loving father, private but proud of his years at Chrysler, and close with his family.

“In the beginning, we weren’t sure what was happening with him,” said his daughter, Terri Banfill. “Dad was struggling for quite some time with mental health illness. He wasn’t eating. He wasn’t sleeping, and then the seizures started.”

Murray "Gus" Banfill. (Photo courtesy of Terri Banfill)

Murray “Gus” Banfill. (Photo courtesy of Terri Banfill)

Suffering from paranoia and anxiety, Murray Banfill or “Gus” was diagnosed with early dementia in 2016. His story ended tragically on New Year’s Day, leaving his family grieving and wondering what they could have done differently.

Are you living with someone who has dementia?  There is help available.

“He had always been fairly healthy. He had been sober for 20 years and was very active. His forgetfulness was age-appropriate and we just kind of said ‘oh, he’s getting old,” said Terri.

Terri saw her father every day, sometimes several times a day, living just across the street from where Murray lived with his son Steven and his grandson. She became one of his primary caregivers.

“The family dynamics definitely changed,” she explained. “He recognized that he was losing some of his ability to operate under normal circumstances.”

On September 29, Murray made his first attempted to take his own life. Depressed with how dementia had changed his life, he cut his wrists.

“When I was holding a towel on his wrists and his neck when he cut himself — he told me he didn’t want to live this way,” recalled Terri admitting they did not discuss his attempt further.

If you or a loved one are contemplating suicide, you are not alone.  Seek help.

Mental health educators say it is essential to listen to the words loved ones say, and encourage them to talk about their depression.

“Perhaps a loved one might say all my problems will end soon, or no one can do anything to help me now,” said Jenny Almeida, a mental health educator with the Windsor-Essex branch of the Canadian Mental Health Association. “You would be hearing within those feelings of pain, hopelessness, helplessness.”

Other signs to watch for would be changes in appetite, sleep patterns, and mood. Stressful events can be a trigger for many who are contemplating suicide, according to Almeida.

It sounds simple, but as the signs can be as individual as the people who are contemplating suicide.

“It’s so hard,” admitted Almeida. “I think its just being alert and not being afraid to follow up if your gut is telling you that’s new.”

If a loved one has expressed thoughts of ending their life, she recommended to follow up, encourage counselling, and to come up with a safety plan.

“It’s okay not to know what to do,” Almeida said stressing there is help.

Many find the topic of suicide uncomfortable, but bereavement counsellor Margaret Muzyka insists talking openly, and non-judgementally saves or at least extends lives.

A photo from Terri Banfill's Facebook page dated December 26, 2019. (With permission from Terri Banfill)

A photo from Terri Banfill’s Facebook page dated December 26, 2018. (With permission from Terri Banfill)

“We have to remind ourselves that our perception and relationship with suicide has been influenced by over 500 years of stigma and criminalization of suicide,” explained Muzyka. She lost a friend in the early 1980s to suicide and recalled wondering if the priest would show up for the funeral service.

“The day he actually went missing, to my knowledge, was a normal day for him,” Terri remembered November 12, the day Murray Banfill made his second attempt on his own life. “I was home that day, and I wish he would have just — instead of getting in his truck, wish he would have just crossed the street and came over.”

You can help a loved one who is considering ending their life.

The days without Murray dragged on as his family searched unsuccessfully for him. There was the missing person’s report to the police, the appeals through the media, search parties, and all along, the disappointment.

On Facebook, December 7, Terri wrote, “Day 26. How is this possible? How can we not know where he is?”

Christmas came, and the family held a vigil along the Detroit River. A wreath was hung, and balloons were sent off into the grey sky. Murray had been missing now six weeks.

Again on Facebook, “There are no words to describe the last 44 days let alone even think how we were to celebrate a holiday without Dad. Together we laughed, made some inappropriate jokes, played some Bob Seger and cried. It’s nice not to cry alone.”

A photo from Terri Banfill's Facebook page dated January 1, 2019. (With permission from Terri Banfill)

A photo from Terri Banfill’s Facebook page dated January 1, 2019. (With permission from Terri Banfill)

Five days later, police officers pulled Murray Banfill’s body from the Detroit River.

“I was not prepared to hear that,” Terri admitted. She suspected she would not see her father alive again, but said it still hit her hard. “I have no words for it. It was a bad day.”

“There is a lot of preoccupation with going back and rethinking their own role in prevention. There is a lot of self-blame. There is definitely a lot of shame, and there’s a lot of isolation,” Muzyka explained who families often struggle in the aftermath of suicide.

Comforting the bereaved can be a challenge, as well. There is a temptation to pass judgement. Muzyka said there are things friends can do to help, but avoid cliches.

“Such as, you did everything you could. These are the things that bereaved people do not want to hear. They want their loved one to be remembered and honoured. They hurt worse when people avoid bringing the memory of the loved one up because it reinforces it reinforces the stigma; [my loved one] is not worthy of mentioning now,” she explains. “They can definitely offer ‘whenever you are ready; I am here for you.’ You can, with permission, hold the person.”

Ultimately, Almeida admitted more work needs to be done to understand suicide and remove the stigma against those who die by it, and those bereaved by it.

Concluding she said, “As of today we need to understand that suicide is not yet fully preventable, but its far from inevitable.”