Laura Campbell: to seek understanding, & to give grace
- Trigger Warning- This story contains distressing content including suicide.
In front of the large gathering of friends and family, Laura Campbell offered an authentic, enduring tribute to her younger brother Todd. In an honest attempt to offer her sibling grace and understanding, she referenced an article in which living with depression and addiction could be compared to living inside a burning house. While some days the flame can merely flicker, other times the flame becomes hard to control. Despite the countless attempts to put out the flame, you don’t succeed. “Would you ask anyone you love to roll around burning alive in front of you for even one more minute, let alone for the rest of their lives? Or would you let them put their fire out?”
It’s been just over a year since Laura lost her brother, Todd Perkins, to suicide at the age of 40. Laura is fully aware of the stigma around suicide, and has had an arduous year trying to fathom her brother’s irreversible decision. “I feel like a contradiction. While I’m certainly not an advocate for suicide, I’m trying to understand the process and what leads a person there. I feel like I need to defend his choice, even though it’s broken me into a thousand pieces,” shared Laura.
Over the last year time has been filled with deafening screams alone in her car, ugly crying on the shoulders of her closest allies, and working through the endless scenarios and questions that appear after losing a loved one to suicide. “There is endless feelings of guilt and shame that are associated with death by suicide. There are fewer questions that come along with other terminal illnesses like cancer. Todd struggled with depression and alcohol abuse for years, and people don’t realize how hard he fought leading up to this decision,” Laura said.
Laura has long ties to Summit County, growing up in Breckenridge with Todd and her parents. Early on, it was apparent to Laura that Todd was the “favorite child,” offering big smiles and even grander hugs to everyone he encountered. Their childhood was filled with ski racing, yearly trips to Lake Powell, and lifelong friendships that began at Breckenridge Elementary School. Todd’s child-like joy and love for adrenaline continued into his adult years, landing him in the Virgin Islands.
It was in the Virgin Islands that Todd developed exceptional adult friendships, a love for scuba diving and adventure, a place for family and friends to escape, and an encounter with a special girl who eventually became his wife. Here on the Island Todd and his friends offered an open-door policy with a rotating couch for visitors and memorable “porch time” conversations until the sunrise cue to call it a night. Todd thrived in the Islands, and a 6-month jaunt quickly turned into a 10-year adventure.
Laura recalls growing up in a quieter, simpler version of Breckenridge. In the year before Todd’s death, he disclosed to his sister that he was around 10 years old when he first thought about suicide, and 18 when he first attempted it. She is aware that growing up in Summit County can feel lonely, sharing your space with countless visitors with no real space of your own. She believes Todd’s story could have ended differently if he had societal permission to talk about the darkness earlier in life.
One-way Laura honors her brother is in her advocacy for long-term depression and fighting against the teenage suicide epidemic. As a Family Practice Doctor, Laura now includes a brief mental-health section in her routine appointments and exams with her teenage clients. She now resides in Grand Junction, and was heartbroken when the community lost 7 students to suicide in a brief timeframe.
“I want kids to know that feeling sad or uncomfortable is completely normal – but it shouldn’t be the only emotion they are feeling,” said Laura. “Managing discomfort is also critical. We as a society have done such a bad job at this. We are taught to always be smiling, with specific roles and expectations. Social media has added an additional challenge for teenagers.” Parents at Laura’s clinic are encouraged to check in on their kids and ask questions. She suggests showing vulnerability and offering space to answer on their own terms.
Laura recalls an unsuccessful suicide attempt Todd had 7 months before his death. Looking back she truly felt like she and Todd had grown closer after this event. After these urges and feelings had surfaced, the family could surely help him thrive and live. “At the time I believed I had an ‘in’ with him. We were revisiting his addiction struggles. Now, looking back, I’ve realized he was already gone. I didn’t know this at the time but his final 7 months could be compared to living in hospice. He was sick of suffering and only saw one way forward.”
Laura and her family are working hard to admonish the sentiment of wishing his death could have been prevented. “We may have not done everything perfectly, but we did do everything we could possibly do to help him. I’m trying to remind myself that there wasn’t anything distinct we could have done to change the outcome, and offering Todd grace and understanding helps us all exist in a better place. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done is giving up the idea that things were supposed to be different.”
Journaling, running, and patience, among other things, have also been imperative in Laura’s healing journey. She is working on being more present and understanding she can only control her own role in certain aspects of her life. Typically an extrovert, she is embracing more time alone, and focusing on a smaller, closer group of people that seem to understand how to support her during this difficult time. “I hope that if anyone has to experience this pain, they can come to a place of understanding, not anger.”
Every 2 weeks Laura and Todd’s 5 lifelong best friends get together over Zoom to catch up and support each other. There can often be assumptions about suicide victims being alone or classified as loners – but that wasn’t the case for Todd. Each member of the group has a variation of a tattoo that includes the beach, a sunset, flip-flops, and 6 birds. Recently after a visit from 2 birds outside of her window and an overwhelming feeling of her brother’s presence, Laura became more open to seeing him around her in various forms and experiences. While she may never get through the loss of her brother, she is learning with time it’s OK to feel joyful again while still missing him.
Todd continues to be celebrated and memorialized for his luminous impact on his friends and family during this part of his life. His childlike bliss for fast skiing, cheese pizza, video games, Harry Potter movies and drinking milk from the carton held steady into his adult years. His love for family adventure and surprise visits, repeatedly trying to beat Pop at golf, Bronco football games and sunsets, and cliff diving in Lake Powell are just a few of the memories countless friends and family recall.
Although Todd’s family wants to acknowledge the darkness that he fought for many years, they also want to focus on the kind, hardworking, funny man they knew, full of hope, courage, and generosity. He was the “loud laughter in a fancy restaurant,” and “the salty ocean breeze,” constantly offering an enormous smile and hug, and never truly giving up his childlike joy. Todd’s friends and family hope to hold each other tight, offer love, and check in regularly on those who may be struggling as life carries on.
At the end of our time together, I asked Laura if she had a special memory or anything she would like to share with Todd today. Light tears began to fill her eyes as she described a recent family outing to a lake in Montana. After attending a family wedding, they spent a day on the lake, water skiing and tubing, just like they had at Lake Powell each year as children with close family friends. She reminisced on the pure feeling of joy while water skiing, feeling Todd there with her on the water, and there with her dad as he drove the boat he loved so much. For the first time in a year she was able to feel Todd’s energy without only feeling sadness. She finally felt like she was able to miss him AND feel intense happiness as she passed along a favorite childhood pastime to her own children.