Though Lindsey Doolittle is an art teacher, she never imagined she’d have her own exhibition. Nor did she imagine writing a book that’s now on permanent display at the Van Gogh Museum Library in Amsterdam.
The public speaking tour has been a surprise, too.
But this is her new normal since her husband, Brett, killed himself in 2015.
In the weeks after Doolittle found her high school sweetheart in the garage of their home and couldn’t stop blaming herself — to the point that she tried to end her life as well — she knew she needed help.
Brett had been a police sergeant for the Kansas City, Kansas Police Department. The emergency responders that night were his colleagues. Doolittle says they interviewed her and no one else. Their official report listed their marriage as the catalyst for his suicide.
“It was very damaging and added to my grief. People want to blame instead of looking into the mental health conditions because it’s easier that way,” Doolittle says.
At 32, she’d never felt suicidal, but in those terrible first three weeks, she did.
So, she sought a support group and found Suicide Awareness Survivor Support (SASS). She says it was the best decision she’s ever made for herself; it was the safe place she needed to begin making sense of her new life.
She knows there were 29 other people at her first meeting, because she ultimately drew each person. Those drawings are now part of her exhibition “Faces After Suicide” at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center.
“This wasn’t intended for an exhibit,” she says. “It was just something that helped keep me calm.”
Her work is blind contour drawing, meaning that as she drew, she looked only at her subject and not at her paper and pen. It captures both the closed-down body language of grief and the scrambled psychological and emotional states of each person.
On average, she says, one suicide affects 25 other people, and at least six intimately-involved people are completely transformed.
“And I think that’s a really gross underestimate,” Doolittle says. “My husband was a police sergeant in a department of 500, and I know it affected them. It completely alters your life.”
As she’s moved from grief-stricken widow to activist, a sort of gravity has developed around her: information and other people’s stories find her.
She receives solicited and unsolicited informational pamphlets about suicide from all over the globe, all of which are on display at the gallery.
“I wanted to make sure that people who come to my exhibit know wherever they go they can find help, they can find resources if they’re in need. And I want to show them that (suicide) doesn’t discriminate; it’s everywhere,” she says.
People also mail her hand-written letters that are really directed to their lost loved ones.
Of the letters, she says, “I always say that anything is valid: If it’s colorful, if it’s hateful, if it’s sorrow, just letting them know what they’re missing out on. I even have a four-year-old who wrote a letter to their father.”
Every week since the exhibition opened at the beginning of August, she added letters to the display wall of the exhibition — they just keep arriving.
For Doolittle, one of the toughest elements after her husband’s suicide, and the driver behind all the surprising turns her life has taken since, was explaining Brett’s death to kids. How could she explain to their six nieces and nephews? What could she tell her students at Nashua Elementary who’d met Brett on days he visited the school at lunchtime?
Her search for useful books yielded nothing.
This led her to the idea of using Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings as an aid.
“I noticed how we, as art teachers say, ‘This is a pretty picture by Vincent Van Gogh, “Starry Night,”’ but we’re not telling them why he painted it or where he painted it. And we say, ‘Here’s a picture of him after he cut off his ear,’ but we’re not saying why he cut off his ear,” Doolittle says.
“That’s when I thought: We have a great opportunity as educators to be introducing terminology to them and explaining it in a gentle way because the second leading cause of death for 10 to 24-year-olds in Missouri is suicide.”
Her book, “Goodnight, Mr. Vincent van Gogh,” explains death by suicide in terms of Van Gogh’s struggle with depression.
“Sometimes people become sick in their tummies, others become sick with fevers and coughs, and sometimes people become sick in their minds, which can cause them to feel very bad inside,” Doolittle wrote in the book.
The conversation about suicide, she says, must start earlier than at the high school level, which is where most schools begin.
And just as important, people must be willing to talk about signs of depression and suicidal thoughts regardless of age. The more people talk to each other about suicide, the more likely it is that someone is able to intervene and help.
Doolittle says parents need to tell their kids: “If you ever feel (suicidal), know that this is a medical emergency just like if you were throwing up — we would need to get help from a doctor. If you’re having those feelings you need to get help from a doctor. Talk about it, don’t keep it in.”
“Faces After Suicide” artist signing, 6 to 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7; then 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday through September 28 at Leedy-Voulkos Art Center, 2012 Baltimore Ave., Kansas City, Missouri 64108.
Suicide Awareness Survivors Support 15th Annual Remembrance Walk, 9 a.m. Sunday, September 9 at Loose Park, 5200 Wornall Road, Kansas City, Missouri 64112. $25 in advance, $30 the day of. Register on the SASS website.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Doolittle drew support-group attendees over a period of time rather than all at her first meeting.