Tragedy transformed

| October 26, 2011 | 1 Comment

As the first anniversary of their daughter’s suicide approaches, local couple feels called to help other families

Gross Family

As Michael and Anne Gross continue to grieve the death of their daughter, Teresa (shown), part of their healing process has involved planning an adolescent mental health seminar at their parish, St. Paul in Ham Lake. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

It was a normal day, a beautiful day on Nov. 1, 2010, when Anne Gross drove home a group of giggling girls from St. Agnes School in St. Paul. Among them was her 14-year-old daughter, Teresa, who was laughing and joking with two of her siblings — Rebekah, then a junior, and Mary, then a seventh-grader.

At the time, Teresa seemed to have completely recovered from the depression that had caused her to start cutting herself just three months earlier.

On their way home, they stopped briefly at Leaflet Missal in St. Paul, where Anne bought a prayer card of Blessed Mother Teresa as a way of encouraging her daughter’s devotion to her namesake.

When they got home, Teresa bounced over to one of her neighbors to walk the dog, as she had been doing for folks in the neighborhood throughout the summer and fall. A future as a veterinarian seemed like a distinct possibility.

Meanwhile, her father, Michael, was just returning home from a Catholic conference in which the featured speaker was Father Raniero Cantalamessa from Rome, Preacher to the Papal household.

As Michael put it, he was “flying high from the conference” and, to add icing on the cake, his favorite song was playing on the radio on the way home — “Let the Healing Begin” by Tenth Avenue North.

Little did he know at that moment how deeply meaningful this song would become.

Eventually, after a walk with friends, Teresa came back home and went upstairs to her small bedroom on the second floor. Anne was busy in the kitchen making a batch of chili for Michael and the six of their nine children still living at home.

Inspired by the conference and his favorite song, Michael continued to play this tune, downloaded from iTunes, on his computer.

Finally, dinner was ready about 5:30. Anne called everyone into the dining room, but the kids were slow to arrive. When Teresa failed to answer the summons, Anne sent Mary up to her room to get her. Mary knocked on the door, but there was no answer and it was locked.

She came down and told Anne, who was growing irritated by the delay. She had worked hard on making the meal, and the least the kids could do was come promptly, she thought.

She charged upstairs and knocked on the door. Again, no answer. Pulling out the key, she went in and immediately looked to the right, where her bed was.

Teresa Gross

This photo of Teresa Gross, taken less than two months before her death in November 2010, is her parents’ favorite. Courtesy of the Gross family

No Teresa. Puzzled, she looked behind the door to her left and was horrified by what she saw — her daughter’s lifeless body hanging from the door by a dog’s leash, the prayer card of Mother Teresa laying next to her.

She screamed. Downstairs, Michael felt a chill at the sound and instantly knew something was wrong with Teresa. He feared the worst, and it wasn’t long before his worst fears were realized. Their daughter, who was so full of life and so deep in her faith, was gone. She took her own life while her dad’s favorite song was playing, a song that talks about healing.

One year later

The one-year anniversary of Teresa’s death is approaching, and the Gross family is amazingly energized and uplifted as they prepare for this sad anniversary.

They have chosen to become better and not bitter and, to that end, have organized an event at their parish, St. Paul in Ham Lake, that is designed to help other families struggling with a child’s mental illness.

The event, an adolescent mental health seminar, is called Teresa’s G.R.A.C.E. — Guidance Resources Awareness Catholic Education. It will take place Saturday, Nov. 19, beginning with Mass at 8 a.m. and going until noon.

All six of the featured speakers are Catholic and will bring that faith perspective to their talks, not to mention practical wisdom about what to do if your child shows symptoms of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, which is what Teresa had been diagnosed with in August 2010.

Despite the positive steps — and strong evidence of God’s hand on their lives and hearts — the Gross family still is struggling to come to grips with a tragedy that unfolded so quickly, and on the heals of what Anne and Michael believed to be a significant improvement in Teresa’s condition.

Such a tragic and shocking reversal of progress is not surprising to one of the event’s speakers, Dan Reidenberg, who serves as the executive director of a national organization called Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE). Reidenberg, who attends All Saints in Lakeville, said this phenomenon of improvement is one aspect of suicide that many people may not be aware of.

“Very often, somebody will be really struggling and then they will appear better, and then they’re just gone,” said Reidenberg of the often impulsive decision to commit suicide despite improvement. “That’s the kind of thing that is the most baffling about suicide for people. . . . It’s painful; it’s really, really hard on families when this happens.

“What was going on for Teresa that day may have been nothing [negative] at all. She really might have been fine that day and she could have been smiling and laughing. Teenagers, almost by nature, are impulsive. And, it takes some degree of impulsivity to take your life. So, you add the two together — teenage impulsivity and somebody who’s at risk for this — and you worry. Then, it [suicide] happens, and you’re like, ‘How could they have gotten to this place?’”

Parish offers mental health seminar

  • What: Adolescent mental health seminar at Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake called Teresa’s G.R.A.C.E. (Guidance Resources Awareness Catholic Education)
  • When: Saturday, Nov. 19
  • Cost: $15 per person, $25 per couple (scholarships available)
  • Includes: Mass at 8 a.m. followed by seminar from 9 a.m. to noon, featuring child psychiatrist Daniel Huesgen; family practice Drs. Mary and Matthew Paquette; therapist Catherine Mollner; pyschologist and suicide expert Daniel Reidenberg; and Father Jon Vander Ploeg, pastor of the Church of St. Paul (all six speakers are Catholic)
  • Registration: Call the Church of St. Paul at (763) 757-6910

Few warning signs

In Teresa’s case, that is not an easy question to answer. Up until the summer of 2010, she was showing characteristics of someone at the opposite end of the spectrum from the deeply depressed teenager who began cutting herself and caused a worried friend’s mother to report the behavior to Anne and Michael in July of last year.

“The words that describe her and come to mind, not only to us, but to anyone else you would talk to, are ‘joy,’ ‘a zest for life,’ ‘independent,’” Anne said. “She smiled all the time. We only have pictures of her smiling.”

That smile and zest for life also drew others to her, her parents said. And, perhaps most significantly, she showed a deep faith that seemed to be beyond her years.

“She was a very spiritual person,” Michael said. “She loved the Catholic faith; she understood it very well. She was home-schooled for several years. Before the day began, we would gather as a family in a room for morning prayer. The kids were offered a time of sharing their insights on the readings for that day, which we read. And, she would have the most insightful thoughts and reflections of the readings. She kept a spiritual journal or diary — phenomenal things in there.”

As her faith deepened, Teresa showed a strong interest in her namesake, Blessed Mother Teresa. Teresa even did some volunteer work with sisters of Mother Teresa’s order, the Missionary Sisters of Charity.

Along with this developed a love for animals. It led to the family obtaining several pets and to Teresa walking dogs of people in the neighborhood. Both of those passions emerged when she applied to a local private school.

“She, on her application, said, ‘I love animals, I want to be a veterinarian,’“ Michael said. “‘But, above all, I want to be a Sister of Charity.’”

How does someone from a large, deeply religious, intact family with a strong parish community and lots of good relationships reach the point of taking her life?

This question even can stump the experts.

“You don’t see a lot of suicides in large families,” said Reidenberg, who spoke with the family after Teresa’s death and, subsequently, was invited to be a speaker.

“We know that family does provide a protective factor [against suicide],” he said. “[In the case of] large, intact families very connected to their faith community — faith community is a protective factor — you go: ‘What happened? How did this happen? What made this one so different from others?’ And, I don’t know that we really know many answers to that.”

Thus, the Grosses are left picking up the pieces and, perhaps, spending the rest of their lives asking questions they may never be able to answer. Yet, they are aware that they have important choices to make today, choices to heal and, more im-
portant, choices to help others do the same.

“We believe very strongly that we are called to minister and called to bring an awareness about this very real disease,” Anne said. “We want to bring new life out of what we’ve lost.

“The picture in my mind is of a dandelion that’s gone to seed, a beautifully formed, big puff — it’s just so beautiful, but yet the wind comes and blows it all apart and spreads those seeds. And, thus, new life. That’s the picture I have of Teresa.”


Pastor endured similar tragedy in his own family

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