Linda Martin knows that when her son committed suicide, he wanted her to be the one who found his body.
She found Jeff Woodard in the garage of their Gardnerville home almost 25 years ago, on Sept. 16, 1988. He was in his beloved Volkswagen bug, curled up with a pillow in the back seat.
Jeff, 22, had known his mother was coming home for lunch; she’d agreed to bring him a sandwich. She realized later why he’d chosen her to be the one who’d find him.
“I thought that since I was the person who brought him into this world, what better person to see him out?” she said.
Martin says that on the worst day of her life, she was greeted with a reaction at the emergency center that she’d have to adjust to over the coming years.
“The doctor there was very, very suspicious, like I was a bad mother,” she said. “There was a whole atmosphere that was really weird. … They handed me a prescription for Valium and sent me on my way.”
The distrust and lack of understanding continued for years in tight-knit Gardnerville and Minden, Martin said, underscoring how different society’s understanding of suicide was in the late 1980s.
“People that I knew would see me in the store and literally turn around and walk the other way because they didn’t know what to say,” she said. “My neighbor even said, ‘At least you have two more kids.’ People say the most bizarre things. But they don’t know what to say.”
Amid the increased isolation, Martin waged an internal battle. Certain she’d failed as a mother, she grappled for years with intense guilt.
“We had Jeff cremated, which again was against (Catholic) Church law at that time,” she said. “I didn’t want a service and to have people come because I thought people would judge me, thinking I was a bad mother. All these emotions go through you, and the guilt is unbelievable.”
The understanding gradually improved through the years. Martin and her husband, Richard, found support groups and, in 1998, discovered something even more helpful.
That’s when the Suicide Prevention Network of Douglas County came together. The group focuses on education, prevention and intervention, operating out of a small office on County Road. As the region’s only such nonprofit network, it serves Carson City and other areas beyond Carson Valley.
Martin attends the group’s twice-monthly meetings and has taken part in the network’s six Walk in Memory/Walk for Hope events since; the seventh is Saturday at Carson Valley Museum & Cultural Center.
“Suicide is such a traumatic thing for families,” she said. “And Memory Walk is one of the best things that’s ever happened to this town. It’s cleansing. It’s cathartic. You laugh. You cry.”
One of the event’s founders is the Rev. Pete Nelson, pastor of Carson Valley United Methodist Church. In the days after Jeff’s passing, friends connected Martin with Nelson, who told her something so powerful that she still sometimes has to compose herself when uttering it.
“He said, ‘Jeff left you a gift, but it’s up to you to find it.’ That has stuck with me for a long time,” she said. “It helped me get through things.”
Today, Nelson reiterates the need to talk to people who might be showing signs of being suicidal — although he adds that they’re often difficult to detect. The key, he said, is to “notice that a person’s behavior has changed.”
“It’s like you’re walking around with a big sign on your back, and when nobody notices, you just get more depressed,” he said. “So when someone recognizes that sign, you can open up a little bit.”
Nelson acknowledged that despite changes in people’s attitudes toward suicide, some still utter the word “coward” when referring to victims.
People who take their own lives often assume they’re doing the people close to them a favor, he said.
“People think, ‘How selfish of them,’” Nelson said. “It is kind of a selfish act, but it isn’t done out of selfishness.”
Debbie Posnien, the executive director of the Suicide Prevention Network of Douglas County, said Saturday’s breakfast and walk aren’t mournful events. Each contains moments of remembrance, but they also bear elements of celebration. She also made clear that no one ever fully gets over the suicide of someone close.
“What I try to do with the survivors is get them through it in a healthy way,” she said of her organization’s events and meetings. “There’s always that part of them that doesn’t want to get over it, especially a mother losing her child.”
As for Martin, Nelson had told her Jeff had left her a gift. She wondered for years what it could possibly be.
“The gift he left me was that our family was a little fragmented,” she said. “My husband and I were recently married. After Jeff died, we became this cohesive unit and still are to this day. ...
“It’s funny what tragedy can do. It can either tear you apart or bringing you closer together.”