The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 6, 2013

A time for healing: Suicide victims mourned at balloon release

JOHNSTOWN — Heather Haman scribbled “Fly High, Angel” onto a yellow balloon Sunday.

Then she let it go, and watched as it joined dozens of balloons just like it disappearing into a soft blue sky above the Inclined Plane.

It was a moment to mourn, and also serve as a powerful reminder that those like Haman, of Johnstown, aren’t alone in their path to healing from a loved one’s suicide, organizers of Sunday’s Memory Balloon Release said.

“Today is about letting those we’ve lost know they are still in our hearts,” said Cambria Coroner Dennis Kwiatkowski, whose office helps organize the annual event. “But it’s also a day we hope is a start – or part – of the healing process.”

A crowd of more than 70 people joined him Sunday for the Cambria County Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program’s 9th annual prayer service and balloon release. Some who attended wore T-shirts remembering friends lost, and others, tear-soaked faces as they penned messages like “I luv you” and “Miss you son” on yellow balloons that they released minutes later.

For John Shingler it was both a sad and stunning sight.

The Cambria County man lost his son, “Tink,” nearly nine years ago.

“And it’s still tough,” he said, pointing to his heart and choking back tears.

“But seeing this today ... it’s real nice,” he added. “It’s so surprising to see all these people.”

Fran Shuster of Windber remembered feeling the same way when she first attended the event several years ago.

The experience, and her desire to keep her son, John’s, memory alive – brought her back again Sunday.

“You come here and you see that you’re not alone,” she said.

“And you’re remembering those you loved publicly, acknowledging their lives and the loss out in the open,” Shuster said. “I think that means something.”

Those who attended Sunday’s event have all suffered a traumatic loss, Kwiatkowski said. It’s a loss that for each will require a unique path of understanding and healing, he added.

But he hopes those who have lost loved ones to suicide will see there are others who understand the struggle, and there is support for those who need it.

Sunday’s program concluded with a reception for attendees, allowing them to meet and mingle. It also included a prayer from Pastor Charles R. Mahon Jr. of the Rayman Church of the Brethren, Friedens.

“You’ve all fought through the absolute worst life can throw at you,” Mahon told the crowd. “The fact you’re here today shows you have what it takes to move on.”

David Hurst is a reporter with The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter @tddavidhurst.

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