Among the Zebras

Author: Judi Swenson

For those planning on attending the TAPS National Suicide Seminar in October for the first time, this is for you. Please don't get cold feet. Don't be scared. There is nothing else like it. I know this is very long. Please take a few minutes to read it through. I unfortunately will have to miss this years seminar. Don't you. You will find love, support, and understanding. HUGS.

One Family Many Losses Much Hope

I lost my son, Davey, to suicide on June 16, 2005. My family has attended many regional TAPS Seminars, and every TAPS National Suicide Seminar since we discovered TAPS in 2009 at Ft. Hood 

My 15-year old son and I were very much looking forward to the 2014 TAPS National Suicide Seminar in Florida. (Due to work obligations, my husband had to miss this one.) We were excited at the prospect of seeing old friends and reconnecting with our dear TAPS family. At TAPS, we, and our emotions, were safe. We could take a deep breath, and know we were not alone. We were FREE to laugh, cry, talk, listen, and share. THIS is the family that got it! We could hardly wait!

I didn't have to wait long. Deplaning at the Tampa/St. Pete airport, I could hear several people talking and wondering what do we do now? How do we find TAPS? I happily introduced myself, and informed them, "you can't miss them. They will be everywhere with TAPS shirts on, carrying TAPS signs, and guiding the way." And of course, they were.

I was so looking forward to my TAPS family hugs, squeals when a friend was found, and catching up with what had been happening in their lives since last seminar. I knew we would laugh and cry a lot. We would eat constantly, do art, share in groups, listen to panels, have yoga on the beach, have music, quiet time, reflections, and crazy pool time. We would comfort and be comforted. Here we could and would be open. We would not be judged. In this family we are FREE. There is no shame. There is no stigma. We don't have to worry about letting something slip. Newly bereaved, or out by many years, we are accepted and understood. Simply amazing.

On the bus in from the airport I was anticipating which friend I might see first. So excited. Then I looked up at the tall young blonde man "Is this seat taken?" I said "No, and Welcome". This was his first TAPS Seminar. He was attending with his parents. He had lost his brother, their son. I told him not to worry. Here he would be among a whole herd of zebras. He would be welcomed to the family with open arms. We would be a huge herd of zebras. At most seminars we are a zebra amongst a herd of horses. The same, yet different. Here he would be among other zebras. Herds of zebras. And not to be startled by how loud and even happy many are. We are family. TAPS is family.

We never really talked again that whole weekend. As we saw each other, there was always a friendly wave but we each had our own sessions to attend or not. Our own personal benefits to be had from this seminar. I knew he would be fine, surrounded by love, support, and understanding.

I was seeing, hugging, and sharing with so many of my dearly loved TAPS family members. Then, in the lunch buffet line, a young man was trying to balance his plate, while pouring his drink. I offered to hold his plate while he also poured my coffee. He was attending his first TAPS seminar with his mother and sister. He graciously asked me to join them at their table where they shared the loss of their son and brother. Quick hugs, and a little explanation of how to navigate the weekend. No pressure. Many activities and sessions to choose from, and if needed or wanted, quiet reflection time, even had a room for that. Or of course they could go to the beach, pool, room, or whatever fancied them. As we looked at our printed schedules, the young man and I chose the same upcoming session. I had never attended this particular group and was curious. If I didn't care for it, I could always just quietly leave. It was a blast! My new friend and I were partners. He was asked to use his imagination and lasso a cow! We all had tears of laughter streaming down our faces! (you had to have been there!). Later in the seminar, his family and I found ourselves together in a room listening to a panel discussion on how the loss from suicide of our loved one affected our family dynamic. I knew many on the panel, yet I still was able to take away some better understanding, of why my family is the way it is.

Taking a few quiet minutes for myself to walk around and take in the beauty of the resort, I came across a beautiful mother and daughter doing the same. I asked if I could take a photo of them in this beautiful setting, as they were taking pictures of each other. Of course we briefly shared and found out we were all from Texas. We have since become close and visit with each other frequently.

On the final night there was a steel drum band playing for us on the beach while we ate s'mores and said our farewells. I was walking along the fringes of darkness, enjoying the sounds of the surf, laughter, and music when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see the smiling face of my young bus seat partner. He hugged me and said "I’ve been looking everywhere for you! I made you something." He handed me a heart. A zebra paper heart, decorated with hearts and red ribbon. He grinned as I gushed and after another quick hug he was gone. A bit later, seated near the lights of the patio, I turned the heart over. Through tears I read:

From one zebra to another...Thanks for being a friend and making me feel at home.

I keep this paper zebra heart on the desktop with my son's flag case, photos, and medals. TAPS is the family I found when I lost my son. I wish I had never had to even know TAPS existed but I am so very, very, glad I found them.