As a little girl, Jody Lita loved the color yellow. Her mother, Donna Lita, would wrap any gift for her with a yellow ribbon, and that of her sister, Nicole Lita Bedynek, with a blue ribbon.
Tragically, in May 2015 at the age of 19, Jody took her own life. Donna, and the rest of Jody's family and friends, were blindsided by the loss of their beautiful girl. She is one of more than 40,000 people in the United States who commit suicide each year — the 10th leading cause of death in the country. But for those aged 15 to 24 years old, it's the second leading cause of death.
Here in Austin, nonprofit Austin Survivors of Suicide (SOS) provides support to loved ones who are left behind, helping them to heal. Facilitated by Linda Davis, who is a survivor herself, the group meets twice monthly to share stories of people they've lost and learn ways to cope with unimaginable grief in an atmosphere of support and true understanding. Attendance is free and open to anyone who has suffered a loss by suicide.
After counseling, it was recommended that Donna join a bereavement support group to become equipped with coping skills for her loss, especially when significant dates roll around, such as holidays, birthdays and anniversaries. She found SOS.
Donna, who is an Austin artist and art instructor, teamed up with SOS Austin to paint a new mural at Castle Hill's HOPE Outdoor Gallery to commemorate Jody's life and raise awareness about teen suicide.
"It seems the only way my other precious daughter and I can cope is by reaching out to somehow help others," Donna says. "It must somehow prevent us from being consumed with the diverse emotions of guilt, shame and utter helplessness and all the questions. I can't feel peace unless this somehow has purpose and serves others."
On Saturday, August 8, Donna and a group of young graffiti artists who were friends of Jody's, joined together to paint the Castle Hill mural. They began at 7 am and finished around 1 pm.
For her inspiration for the mural, Donna turned to Jody's first favorite color, yellow. She had a vision of vibrant yellow with an angel urging her to paint — two hands wrapped around hers, holding a paintbrush that was creating huge arcing swaths of yellow.
Donna also knew that many people who have experienced personal loss identify butterflies with the presence of their loved ones. She knew she had to incorporate an image of Jody releasing a butterfly to represent the many others who have passed on.
"I was so grateful and humbled by the outpouring — especially from these young friends of Jody's and her sister Nicole," Donna says. "Amazing young creatives sweetly working together to bring this vision to life and knowing how much Jody would be thrilled. I am proud beyond words of them."
Those who assisted Donna in the mural were Edie Hauschild, Mckenna Seger, Chris Lita (Jody's father), Nicole Bedynek (Jody's sister), MJ Mitchell, Dylan Bedynek, Daniel Wrecks, Reggie Garcia, Natasha Holbrook, Andrew Horner, Danielle Nicole Gines and Kelley Worden.
"If I knew the answers we wouldn't be painting this mural at all — Jody would be here with us," says Donna. "I personally would never condone the taking of one's own life, but understand suicide seems to the person the only escape from when anxiety and depression feels too unbearable. They never intended to leave their loved ones in the excruciating pain, guilt and self-doubt we share. I'm sure no one would wish their pain on others so I actually think they are trying to let us know that they are okay and that they are whole now, and want us to find joy and beauty in this world until we meet again."
As the SOS Manifesto says, "I believe I lost my loved one to an illness not unlike cancer, diabetes or heart disease. That illness might not have been visible, but it was no less real — or deadly."
For Donna, the best advice she got from SOS was to make a point to grieve every day, long before bedtime. "I no longer feel guilty if I push aside the memories and stay busy, as long as I do reserve a time to embrace whatever emotions and remember her. I sleep much better now."
The mural comes just before National Suicide Prevention Week, which is September 7 through 13. Suicide prevention is everyone’s business and anyone can participate in National Suicide Prevention Week. This year’s theme is “Preventing Suicide: Reaching Out and Saving Lives,” and will focus on raising awareness that suicide is a major preventable cause of premature death on a global level.
"I want people contemplating suicide to see that there is help for them and not to be ashamed of what they are feeling and talk about it; and that what they leave behind is devastating to their loved ones," Donna says. "I also want people to take it seriously when someone mentions suicide. Most of all, we can't control others' actions and can't succumb to the guilt and unanswered questions. As survivors, there is support out there."