Ty: Sharing your story, in my estimation, is essential to the grieving process.
For those who lose a loved one to suicide, sharing your story with someone who has felt and lived the same pain is life-giving.
I’m thankful that I’ve had the opportunity to share my story with and listen to the story of Nancy Eigel-Miller.
Sometime last year, I was searching for local resources to give to students and families that I speak with who are hoping to learn more about mental health, when I stumbled across 1N5. To my surprise, I discovered that the organization was founded and headquartered right here in Cincinnati, and the founder also happened to be a fellow Miami alum. On a whim, I sent a message to Nancy Miller to let her know how impressed I was with the work her organization was doing, and asked if she’d be interested in grabbing a coffee.
Over a dark roast at the Mariemont Starbucks, Nancy and I got to know one another. As you can imagine, she talked about 1N5, and I talked about Seeya Bub; but more than that, Nancy talked about her husband, Jim, and I talked about my Father, Scott. Our work in suicide prevention may have been what brought us together for coffee, but it was our mutual loss of a loved one to suicide that brought us to the arena to battle against a mutual enemy—and I’m thankful for Nancy’s graciousness, kindness, and mostly, her bravery.
I invited Nancy to share her story of her husband, Jim, here at Seeya Bub, and I’m honored that she agreed. Jim’s story, like my Dad’s, is one that is heartfelt, raw, and important for anyone who is suffering or grieving.
Nancy: Jim had a big personality. He was loud and goofy, and he could fill a room with his energy. If you think of personalities like Robin Williams or John Belushi, that was Jim. He entertained people. But as we now know from those folks, that personality was likely a defense mechanism.
He was a great father, mentor, and friend. He was a soccer coach, a member of the pool board, and the Director of the Gallagher Center at Xavier University, where he worked for 23 years here in Cincinnati. Kids were drawn to him. He understood them and could always help them through whatever they were dealing with. He was a mentor to more students than I could count. At Xavier, he was in charge of the Student Government, ran the Student Activities Council, and was on the Disciplinary Board. He was always good at working with kids and just knowing when there was something wrong. Whenever a student got in trouble, he would reach out to try to get them back on track. I think it helped him to be able to help these kids. Jim was an amazing dad, too. By the time the girls were in about first grade, Jim started coaching soccer. He was great at it. He would get on their level and get really involved. He was a really hands-on parent, too. He was constantly dreaming up activities that the girls loved, like camping in the backyard, catching frogs, watching their favorite shows and laughing along with them. And he was always that parent who came into class all the time. He was just really close with the girls.
He also had a lot of hobbies. He was a big collector. He had this enormous Pez collection, and he had these acrylic display cases to show them all. The walls in our room were lined with these display cases, and he even had a Pez hospital down in the basement where he would fix broken Pez dispensers. He would take the girls to Pezomania conventions, and Elizabeth now has the acrylic display cases in storage so that she can display in her house someday. Once, when she was little, she was downstairs and got ahold of a rare Pez that somehow got broken. She came running upstairs and said, “Dad, the space man fell apart.” And Jim just fixed it up. He was also fascinated by Mail Pouch Tobacco Barns. We would drive around to find these barns, and he would get out and take pictures for hours, just leaving me in the car to wait. And he was so organized with his collections. All the photos had the dates and locations of when and where they were taken. He took pride in them.
When Jim was 10 years old, his father died of a heart attack. He had two older brothers, ages 14 and 18. Jim’s brothers and his mom took his dad’s death really hard. They struggled with depression, but everyone always said Jim was just different. But he was just a kid, so of course he was going to process it differently. He didn’t get a lot of support from home, so people in the community started to take him under their wing and help him out. Later on, in high school, he became an avid runner. He ran the mile and won the state title. He’s in the Mariemont Hall of Fame. He ran all through his adult life, too. He ran 5k’s, organized a group of Mariemont runners to compete in the Little Miami Triathlon, and even ran a marathon once. He would run 8-10 miles a day until, a few years before he passed, both of his knees started giving him problems. He couldn’t run the way he used to, and that really discouraged him. He would say, “My spirit can’t soar anymore.” I’m not a runner, and I never really knew what he meant by that, but looking back now, I’m sure that was one thing that really impacted his mental health. Running was always his saving grace, and when he lost it, I think he lost part of himself.
On July 28, 2008, Jim didn’t come home from work. Every day, he would always get home around 5:30 PM. Both of the girls were out that night. Elizabeth, who was 17 at the time, got back home around 7 p.m., and I told her Dad wasn’t home and wasn’t answering his phone. We got in the car, drove to Xavier, and kept trying to call. Around 9 PM, I called my parents and they came over for the night. Kate, who was 15, got home a little later. We called the police, but they wouldn’t do anything until he had been missing for 48 hours. We were all so worried, so it was a sleepless night. The next morning, we called the Xavier Chief of Police, who happened to be a friend of Jim’s. He told us to come over to Xavier. The Xavier police asked us so many questions all morning until about 11:30 a.m. Then they left for about an hour and a half. At about 1 p.m., they came back and asked me to come with them. They had found out what happened to Jim, and they told me first. He had driven to Chillicothe the night before—that’s where his parents are from—and stayed at a hotel. When they told me what happened, I couldn’t even process it. How could this happen? Jim never spoke of being depressed. He never even talked about being sad. I made the decision to tell the girls right away. Telling them was the hardest thing I have ever done. We clung to each other and asked to go home.
The Xavier folks drove us home. The car ride was silent, broken only by the sound of sobs. Right away, you start questioning how something like this could happen. You start questioning every conversation from the past few months. You try to make sense of it. Jim didn’t leave any kind of note to explain his decision. It was hard not to blame myself. How could I not have seen something was wrong? Did I do something? Did something happen before this? Something at work? Was he sick? Was there something else we didn’t know? But then, it became clear from somewhere outside myself that we were going to be very transparent. We were going to talk about what happened. That decision changed everything for us. We hoped that we could help someone else. The same year that Jim passed, seven other parents of students in Elizabeth’s senior class passed away. The school would always send out notes and ask for prayers for the families, but they didn’t do anything for us because Jim died by suicide. It made me so angry that I went to the school, and they wound up changing that policy. I didn’t want another family to have to go through that experience.
The next few days were a total blur. People filled the house, and there were so many decisions that needed to be made. But I just felt sort of numb. Kate was supposed to babysit that night, and she called that family to tell them she couldn’t come. This random family that I didn’t know very well…they were the first to know what happened. They were the first to come by. And then my mom started making phone calls. People started showing up, bringing food and flowers. The girls and I were sort of in a daze, just sitting in the living room as people filtered in and out. We were adamant, though, to tell funny stories about Jim so that it didn’t feel so heavy all the time. We asked people to write stories about him, and I still have binders full of stories from families, friends, coworkers, students who all knew and loved Jim.
Even with the love and support of family and friends, grief is hard. But I was very clear on what we had to do as a family. We had to have open conversation. Nothing was off limits. We went to counseling, we counted on each other, we had to go down to the depths of our pain in order to move forward. We had to process everything—all the feelings of guilt, anger, fear, frustration, grief—so they wouldn’t resurface later in life. I decided that we were going to walk through the fire. It was the only way we could come out healthy on the other side. I pushed the girls to confront their emotions at the time. We decided we would let our feelings show, so we spent a lot of time crying. But we were always there for each other.
About two weeks after Jim passed, my dad sat me down and said to me, “This is the deal, you’ve had a great life. You had a great marriage. You have great kids and a great support system. You are going to hold your head high and fight through this. We are here to support you, but let’s go.” My dad golfed with a man whose wife was a psychologist. He connected the two of us, and she spent hours with me, educating me on mental health and what I had missed with Jim. She helped me realize that mental health starts at a young age and that Jim, in all likelihood, knew early on that he suffered from depression. He created that big personality as a sort of mask. He entertained everyone else and had to engage at a very high level to boost his own serotonin. He was also very compassionate, which is another common trait in those living with depression. With this knowledge, I decided that I had the ability to help others, and I wasn’t afraid to talk about my experience.
That October, we held the first Jim Miller Memorial Mile, which was more of a celebration rather than a fundraiser. A group of 12 guys that Jim knew put it together, led by a close friend of his. The first year, about 800 people came. The second year, only about 400 came. After the second year, the girls said, “This is going to go away, and we will have done nothing.” We decided we needed to do more, so we started the Warrior Run, a 5K fundraiser. I knew I wanted to help kids because that was Jim’s passion. I also knew mental health issues start early on, yet no one was really doing anything to educate youth on mental health or mental illness. I did a lot of research and discovered the Surviving the Teens program at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. When I met Dr. Sorter, the Medical Director of Psychiatry at CCHMC, I knew I’d met a kindred soul. We donated the funds from the Warrior Run to that program, and we as 1N5 continue to support it at an increasing level. Now, Surviving the Teens has transformed into Adapting for Life, and the program is being implemented in 70 greater Cincinnati schools.
We continued with the Warrior Run for a few years until Memorial Day, 2014 when Brogan Dulle and Santa Ono changed my life. Brogan, a University of Cincinnati student, was missing for eight days leading up to Memorial Day. Thousands of people joined the search, and he was found the night before Memorial Day. He had died by suicide. The next morning, I woke up, went to work, and wrote a note to Santa Ono, then President of UC. We needed to do something. Our children were suffering in silence. Santa invited me to his office and shared his own story with me. He had attempted suicide twice in his life, once at age 14 and once at age 29, and was diagnosed with depression. He had never shared his story publicly, but he believed in our mission to promote youth mental health education and stigma reduction. So that’s how 1N5 began. I decided to quit my job and work on the organization full time. Two years later, Santa told his story at the first 1N5 fundraising event in April of 2016.
1N5 has come a long way since then. We started out working with just a few schools, but the more you talk to people, the more you learn that the need is high. We also realized that the youth voice is extremely important in the conversation about mental health. So we started creating #iAM1N5 videos. Through the videos, we were able to create a connection by being real and being open. Suddenly, people realized they were not alone. We wanted to break down barriers to allow people to talk about their mental health. It’s been a building process since then. I realized that with an organization like this, you have to meet people where they are. Different organizations, different schools, different demographics all have different needs. There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution. And I never like to say no. I’ve made it a priority to meet with anyone who wants to meet with me, and we’ve made a lot of incredible connections that way. As an organization, we’ve already made huge strides in the Cincinnati area, but the goal is to take it even further. We are currently working with 65 local schools and all 5 major universities in Greater Cincinnati, but we’re constantly pushing forward, constantly asking, “How can we do this better?” My hope for 1N5 is to be in every school in Greater Cincinnati and, ideally, figure out how to take our model and spread it to other cities. Our vision is a community of youth with optimal mental health so that they can grow into their best selves.
My journey has taught me that life is a roller coaster. We are here to learn lessons. Before July of 2008, my life was sailing along until it took a dramatic turn. In that moment, I had to decide how I would handle what life had thrown at me. The choices I made defined both where and who I am today. I put my trust in the universe and the connections that show up. Going through that journey has taught me to live and cherish every moment. Love fully, laugh often, speak your truth, be honest to a fault, guide yourself with a strong moral compass, and believe in the power of the universe. Be open—you never know where someone will take you. Find the good in every situation. I know that I am very fortunate to have a clear head. I do not personally live with mental illness, but continuing to grow as an individual and educating others on mental health is very important to me. Since Jim passed, I have experienced many amazing things. I would never wish this tragedy on anyone, but because of the path that it’s led me down, I am in a much better place and am so thankful.
Ty: Bravery. When I read Nancy’s story, that’s the word that keeps coming to mind for me. From the moment she lost Jim, Nancy dug deep inside and found the bravery to always talk openly with her daughters, family, and friends about Jim’s death. In her grief, Nancy found the bravery to start an organization that is saving lives day by day.
Nancy’s story is a case study in bravery for anyone who is grieving, and a reminder that we can take our pain and turn it into a purpose. 1N5 is transforming the way we talk about mental illness in our schools and with our adolescents who are at such a vulnerable and formative age. Years from now, Nancy and those who serve and support 1N5 will see the fruits of their labors as individuals who were susceptible to suicide no longer follow that path.
But perhaps most importantly, Nancy’s bravery in sharing her story is helping those who are suffering from mental illness to talk openly and avoid falling prey to the stigma that stole her husband and my father. Watch a video published by 1N5 or follow them on Instagram and you’ll find people—openly and willingly—talking about their pain, their struggles, their fears, and their hope for the future. It’s the type of conversation that is freeing and soul-quenching because it helps us remove the masks that we all wear. It’s normalizing the way we talk about mental illness—and ultimately, it will save lives.
Although I never met Jim, I see so many similarities between him and my Dad. They loved life, they loved fun, and they loved their families. When you lose someone who loves that much, it can be hard to bounce back. My heart breaks for Nancy and her entire family because Jim was such a force for good in the world around him—but his memory is living on thanks to the courage he instilled in Nancy and his daughters. And that, in the end, is the hope that all of us who have lost a loved one to suicide share. We hope that, as time wears on, those we loved will never be forgotten. And thanks to Nancy, Jim never will be.
Dad, I wish you had been able to feel free of shame. I wish you had been able to talk openly about your mental illness, especially during the times when you likely felt so alone. I wish that individuals like you and Jim could have known, deep down, just how much you were loved and how much you would be missed. But, from a distance, I hope you’re able to see how much you were loved by the work being done in your memory. Dad, you were so loved by so many, and I know that you knew that in the depths of your soul—I only wish that the stigma associated with mental illness had not been there to help you remember that in each and every moment. But, for as long as I live, I’ll continue to honor your memory and work to make sure that everyone who listens learns from your life. I’m thankful and grateful that there is a community of individuals, like Nancy, who are in this same fight. Dad, I can’t wait to tell you how important you are to me and so many other people. I look forward to the day when I can embrace you again and let you know how much you mean to me. Until that day, seeya Bub.
To learn more about the amazing and important work being done by 1N5 to stop the stigma surrounding mental illness, and to donate to help their efforts reach even more students, please visit www.1N5.org.
Author Bio: Nancy Eigel-Miller, Founder & Director, 1N5
Nancy Eigel-Miller, Founder and Executive Director of 1N5, created the James W. Miller Memorial Fund in 2010 after losing her husband to suicide. Prior to founding 1N5, Nancy worked in the marketing/market research field for over 20 years where she spent much of her career at Gardner Business Media. Nancy’s fierce passion and dedication to STOP the STIGMA that surrounds mental health and raise awareness by bringing mental health education to greater Cincinnati schools has resulted in reaching over 87,000 students and raising over $1M for mental health programming. Nancy recently received the regional Jefferson Award for Public Service for her efforts in destigmatizing mental health. Nancy then attended the Jefferson Awards Foundation’s National Ceremony, along with 75 other regional award recipients, where she won one of five Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Awards for Outstanding Public Serve Benefitting Local Communities. Nancy holds a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Miami University. Nancy is on the board of MindPeace and the Cincinnati Children’s Convalescent Home.