June 1, 2023


Creative living

‘People were afraid to talk to me:’ Woman wants to promote conversations for those who lose someone to suicide

4 min read

When her brother died by suicide in 2014 , Amy Kartheiser had no idea he was struggling with depression. Neither did any other member of her family.

And as they tried to heal, they found it hard to talk about. Friends didn’t know what to say. Kartheiser, of Chicago, said she received strange looks while picking up her kids at school.

“People were afraid to talk to me,” said Kartheiser, owner of Amy Kartheiser Design, an interior design firm in Chicago. “They didn’t know how to approach the subject.”

Going through this made her want to change the stigma for family members and friends who have lost someone to suicide.

In November, she created a charity, Under The Same Sky, to help finance a program at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) that connects people who lost someone to suicide with a volunteer to talk with. The volunteers for the program, Healing Conversations, have themselves lost someone to suicide.

“It’s an isolating experience,” she said. With COVID-19, she added, “They need that connection even more. You’re not seeing your friends and your family, who you’d normally turn to, to be able to lean on.”

Kartheiser felt that if her brother had died in a car accident or had a different illness, people might be more comfortable talking about his death.

“If he would have died by cancer, maybe they’d go, ‘Oh my gosh was he suffering, for how long did he have cancer, what kind was it, what kind of treatment was he getting,’” she said. “Cancer used to be the taboo subject. … It took so many years to get it to the forefront, where now we talk openly about it. And that’s really my goal with mental illness and with suicide.”

Kartheiser wants this topic to be “as comfortable of an uncomfortable topic” as possible to speak about.

Even within her family, everyone handled their grief differently; some people might be more comfortable — or find it more useful — to talk through grief with another person.

As the world enters another year scarred by a pandemic, concerns continue around mental health, with many people isolated in their homes and harboring fears of the virus. Many people are also grieving on their own, as COVID-19 has impacted the protocols around who can be near family and even the mourning process following a death.

Amy’s brother was a painter and someone who loved good food, a cigar and a great glass of red wine. He was a legendary storyteller, she said.

She talked to him regularly and often coordinated family tasks with him, so when he died, her life was turned upside down.

He “was just such a positive force in our family,” she said. “He was someone who was always there for everyone, always there as a sibling, always there for my mom and dad.”

The family struggled, she said, with the fact that they never had a chance to be there for him.

“He was always there for us and didn’t feel comfortable allowing us to be there in his darkest time,” she said. “It really rocked all of our worlds. We couldn’t understand it.”

After his death, she joined Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide, or LOSS, a support group run by Catholic Charities that provides different groups for people who lost a parent, a child, a sibling.

“It just felt so good to be with people who understood what you were going through,” she said. “I think that’s what’s healed me the most.”

Her family began attending Out of the Darkness walks with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

She wanted to do more to help. She enjoyed the walks and appreciated how they were open to everyone nationwide.

In 2016, while in Paris shopping with a friend for items to bring back to Chicago, Kartheiser had the idea to buy multiple items and sell them to raise funds. She bought furniture, art, bags, textiles and blankets. Her first pop-up shop was in 2017, and the items sold out, with all the proceeds going to AFSP. She has since had two each year and has an online shop.

In summer 2018, designer Kate Spade and chef and journalist Anthony Bourdain both died by suicide. The anniversary of Kartheiser’s brother’s death was the same week.

“I had a girlfriend call me up and said, ‘OK, what are we going to do?’” she said. “I felt catapulted on a mission to do more.”

That’s when the idea for the charity began.

The goal is to amp up fundraising; proceeds raised will go to Healing Conversations. Before the pandemic, people could meet in person; now they typically meet over Zoom or phone call.

“We all survived it,” she said. “We’re all still here, and we’re here to tell our story.”

Help is available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or through the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Originally published