ZEELAND, Mich. (WOOD) — There are moments in the quiet when Lori Kroll will pour out her sorrows.
In the shower or when the busyness of the day dies down, she wrestles inescapable grief: the death of her 15-year-old son Zach. He took his own life February 1, 2015, four weeks before his 16th birthday.
“It’s a whole different level of grief,” Kroll said of her son dying by suicide. “Suicide, I think, comes with it like a lot of guilt and more why’s and what-ifs. It’s just hard to comprehend how someone that had so much going for him would come to that point.”
As she talks about her middle child, Kroll smiles — it’s something Zach was known for. He was quick with wit and ready to make other people laugh. Teachers would say they looked forward to him in class because of how he would brighten the day.
“It’s almost like he was hurting so bad inside and he wanted to make others feel happy, even though he was in so much pain,” Kroll said. “I truly believe Zach felt like there was nowhere else to turn and he would just be a burden to anybody that he shared it with because people just didn’t talk about it.”
After his death, in a notebook, Kroll read firsthand what her son was feeling:
“I’m nothing but a helpless, depressed, stressed, and worthless person. I’ve got nothing to live for anymore. And I feel like all the doors are closed and I have no way to escape this nightmare. I’m so depressed. I have no motivation for anything I’m lonely beyond measure. And I’ve got no clue why I spent all night with friends, and I still feel lonely. I want to feel again, I don’t feel any more just pain and sorrow and it sucks.”Zach Kroll
Kroll struggles through reading that portion of what they found. She says softly how difficult those words are to read.
“Someone like Zach, who is funny, smart and liked by everyone, was not exempt from suicide. He was the last person that anyone would expect to end his own life,” Kroll said. “Zach’s story is a perfect illustration of how you never know the struggles each person is suffering in silence.”
The Kroll’s rely heavily on their faith to help them through the grief. But she wrestled with God about the why’s and questioned herself about the what-ifs. Now six years later, she is driven by the purpose of keeping her son’s legacy alive and helping others.
“We know that the path ahead of us is not what we had envisioned at all, but we’re just taking it day by day and following God’s lead,” Kroll said. “We want to save lives from suicide, but we also want to save live lives for eternity.”
In the weeks following her son’s suicide, Kroll says she woke from a dream to her son’s voice repeatedly saying, “Love and lean. Love and lean.” It had no meaning to her then, but she got out of bed and scribbled the words on paper in the dark. She drew a stick figure next to them, a doodle Zach would often do, and she stuck the note in her bible. That’s where it sat for months until a friend asked her if she was ready to raise awareness for suicide prevention.
On Saturday, the fifth annual Love & Lean Walk will spread that awareness — a dream that’s found a cause. The walk will take participants through the wetlands by Zeeland High School’s athletic fields, through the tunnel under Riley Street, around the school, down the walkway between Zeeland East and West high schools and to the parking lot, where the sophomore spent most of his time before he died.
“The purpose of the walk is to love yourself and know that your pain is real, but so is hope,” Kroll explained. “Lean on others because the more you lean on friends, family and professionals, the stronger you grow in mental health.”
The annual walk has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan to support its “be nice.” program. It’s an educational action plan that encourages people to notice, invite, challenge and empower others with their mental health. It is the knowledge that Kroll now has and hopes others can equip themselves with.
“It was a really dark place for a while to try to comprehend how he couldn’t share something like that,” Kroll said about Zach’s depression. “And just getting to know how depression affects people’s, you know, the chemical imbalance in their brain helps me more.”
She has taken that vision of awareness a step further than the walk. She’s started a support group for mothers in the area who’ve experienced suicide, creating a place to wrap each other in comfort and support, to lean on one another and to grow through the grief.
Her growth is noticeable she says. There are more smiles than tears these days compared to those over the last six years. And when she needs a moment to find her son in her heart, she puts on her headphones and walks through the wetlands near the Zeeland High School athletic fields, a place where Zach and his siblings loved to play. She’ll walk through the tunnel under Riley Street and lose her breath — a place she loved watching Zach and his drumline team make their way to the football games. She’ll walk around the high school and down the path between the two of them. It’s where she feels her son. It’s how she loves and leans.
The fifth annual Love & Lean walk is Saturday, April 24th from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Information on registering for the event and donating can be found online.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or needs someone to talk to, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255.