WEST JORDAN — Robyn Burningham says she often wakes up to the thought: "There's no way this is my life. How did this even happen?"
Two years and two days apart, Jim and Robyn Burningham's sons died by suicide.
Taylor, 15, took his life by hanging two days before the start of his sophomore year at West Jordan High School in 2013. On the second day of middle school in 2015, his younger brother Bradley, 14, died the same way.
"I feel like we're the kind of parents that they can come to us with anything. I’m just like, ‘Why did you choose not to?’’’ she said.
It is a question she knows has no answer. "That’s the whole thing, the shouldas, the whys. They will eat you alive if you let it."
Burningham said her family doesn't want another to experience the loss of a loved one to suicide. It is why they consented that a memorial donation from members of St. Paul United Methodist Church of Copperton be used to help spread awareness of the SafeUT cellphone app.
The app, which can be downloaded free from the App Store or Google Play, provides youths confidential and anonymous two-way communication with crisis counselors at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute or school staff via one-touch options to “Call Crisisline,” “Chat Crisisline,” or “Submit a Tip.”
Help is also available by calling Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, which is also supported by the institute.
"I really and truly hope this app will save somebody. I believe it will, after actually looking into it. I think it’s amazing, actually to just have that," she said.
The Burninghams started attending St. Paul's United Methodist Church after Taylor died. Initially, they went to the small church as part of an assignment for a world religion class Robyn Burningham was taking at the University of Utah, where she's completing an undergraduate degree in social work. She got extra credit for attending the church service. St. Paul's was her husband's great grandmother's church.
"We loved it so that’s when we started going back and back," she said.
The Rev. Carol Loftin, who has ministered to the Burninghams the past few years, was among about 20 clergy who recently attended training on use of the SafeUT app and crisis response offered by Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, and the University Neuropsychiatric Institute.
"I think it was really good. I think you need to have a constant reassessment or re-evaluation of how you’re going to react in those situations — things to say, things not to say, what kind of probing questions you should ask," the Rev. Loftin said.
She said her seminary and counseling training prepared her well to support her congregation under most circumstances, but the Burningham family's loss has been profound.
"You just don't know how hard it is until you have to walk with someone," she said.
The SafeUT app gives clergy another tool to better connect with youth, she said.
"They’re always on their phone. It’s easier for them to click an app than go talk to mom, or the teacher or the pastor. This helps build an awareness that they can have this app but also, that with their pastors being involved and carrying it, it makes the pastors more approachable to talk to as well," the Rev. Loftin said.
By sharing information about the app and crisis services in general, it tells youth that the issue is important to clergy and that they want to prevent suicide, too.
"If they know that, then they’re more willing to come to you if they have those problems because they know that you’re interested and you’ll pay attention and listen to them," she said.
The app was introduced about six months ago and appears to have been well received, said Thatcher, a state lawmaker behind the effort.
“What makes SafeUT so exceptional is that we’ve found a way to connect the people who are in crisis with those who can help,” Thatcher said.
“Suicide is the single deadliest crisis facing our youth. With the SafeUT mobile app, an anonymous chat, text or call could save your life or the life of someone you love. It’s the only way we can tackle something of this magnitude."
Barry Rose, crisis services manager for the University Neuropsychiatric Institute, said about 1,000 people have contacted the institute via the app since its launch, resulting in 12,000 exchanges between texters and the CrisisLine.
"Some are just a couple of exchanges when someone wants a referral and others can go on for hours," Rose said.
Youths seem more comfortable talking about their feelings through texts, he said. "We're getting real, honest feelings that they may not be able to express over the phone," he said.
The SafeUT app, funded by the Utah Legislature, has enabled users and CrisisLine workers to "have very important conversations with people we may not have been able to talk with before. It's a really terrific addition to what we are doing," Rose said.
Burningham said it is difficult to know if the app would have made a difference for her sons. They insisted that all of their children eat family dinner every night and they have attempted to instill in them a sense that they could come to them with any problem or question.
The family has sought the help of therapists to help them deal with their loss and move on with their lives. The couple has two younger daughters, Hailey, 13, and Gwenie, 9.
"They deserve better than us just moping around. It kind of feels like you’re living a fake life though, because we do get up and go to work and all that. But on the inside you’re just broken. But it is what it is. But there’s no choice," she said.
The Burninghams were able to donate their sons' organs, tissues and eyes for transplant, which provided some consolation.
"You know with Bradley, right after, one of the ladies that got one of his kidneys was a single mom from North Carolina. She asked the donor place to give us the message that just said, 'Thanks for the gift of a better life. I promise to take care of it.' He lives on in her and her family doesn’t have to feel this. It was good," she said.
It helps but there is an inescapable void in all of their lives, she said. There are constant reminders that their lives have been forever changed, such as when the family goes out to eat and a server asks how many seats they need or when people who used to stop and chat with the family of six in the grocery store but "now they will now look at us, make eye contact and turn around and go the other way.
"People will say they don’t know what to say to you. I get that, but we’re still just people. When they’re avoiding us, it makes us feel like they’re judging us. They don’t have to bring it up, but don’t avoid us."
Each in their own way is finding ways to cope with their loss.
This summer, Burningham and her daughters have decided to start each day taking a walk together or going swimming.
"My daughters and I have decided we're going to try to see how many miles we can walk this summer while they’re off track. So we got up this morning and did it. We just started yesterday. Yesterday we walked 2.3 miles and today we walked 3.2. We’ll see," she said.
Hailey attended the same middle school as Bradley, who had just started the ninth grade when he died and she was in the seventh grade. "She’s a strong-willed little girl and his friends really did take good care of her. They looked after her," Burningham said.
"She had wanted one of those 'Be the voice. Stop suicide' shirts from the (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) forever. And I just kept thinking, ‘You’re not going to wear this, there’s no way. People already know and you’re going to like draw more attention to yourself.' We finally got her one and she wears it. She wears it proudly."
In Utah, suicide is the leading cause of death among youths ages 10 to 19, according to the Utah Department of Health's Violence and Injury Prevention Program. On average, 37 youths die from suicide and 942 are injured in a suicide attempt each year.
“In fact, the number of teens taking their own lives exceeds the next three teen causes of death all combined,” Reyes said.
Asked what she wants people to know about Taylor and Bradley, Burningham said, "They were really good boys that just made a bad decision. I guess I wish these kids could just see that although stuff seems bad right then, it’s just right then. These are irrational, impulsive decisions."
While rates of youth suicides in Utah have increased in recent years, Rose said the suicide deaths of siblings are rare.
"Unfortunately, (youth suicide) is becoming much too common. That's one of the main reasons we're doing this and the Legislature gave us money to provide another resource to try to make an impact in our state," he said.
Rose said he was likewise grateful for the contribution from the Burninghams and their church, which was used to print calling cards about the app, including numbers for the CrisisLine.
The Rev. Loftin said the family hopes to raise awareness of crisis services so they can help others. "You take something that is so devastating, I mean I still cry about it almost on a daily basis, too, and you turn it in to helping others," she said of the family's support of the SafeUT app.
"I hope and pray that this helps. I hope so," Burningham said.
If someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, there are resources to help. Call the UNI Crisis Line at 801-587-3000, the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
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