(KTXL) — What makes a woman remarkable? For each of those we love, it could be 1,000 little things.
Back in December, FOX40 started asking everyone in the Sacramento Valley to tell us about the remarkable women in their lives.
Out of the huge response, FOX40 has picked four finalists who are eligible to win prizes and a national award sponsored by our parent company, Nexstar Media Group.
This is the story of Remarkable Women nominee Marilyn Koenig.
Suicide is not part of its name on purpose, but that is what Friends for Survival is built around — surviving one of the most unimaginable kinds of losses of someone you love.
Sacramento’s Marilyn Koenig was blindsided by such a loss 45 years ago, and after finding her own way through it, has dedicated her life to helping other people see hope still exists.
“Victim number such and such jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge — that is all I ever knew about suicide. I just thought it was a homeless alcoholic with no family that was killing themselves,” Koenig said. “I mean, that’s my vision of somebody that was hopeless or desperate enough to kill themselves. Who else would do that? I mean, I had no understanding of it at all.”
Koenig’s understanding of the “who else” came home to her drastically and devastatingly on April 4, 1977. That’s when her second oldest child of seven, Steven, a Christian Brothers Falcon two months away from graduation and a well-liked golf and bowling team member, left what would be his last shift at Baskin-Robbins.
He drove out to a then-deserted part of Sacramento’s Fruitridge Road and sat on the road beside his car with a pistol.
“He wanted to give the car to a girl he’d had one date with who needed a car. He got outside the car so that he wouldn’t mess up his car,” Koenig recalled.
“But he wasn’t dead, he was still alive. So they took him to UCD and then he died the next morning about 10:30, but it was like he was already dead,” Steven’s mother continued.
After that, the trance-like state her son lingered in for a few hours became Koenig’s entire existence.
“It totally disrupts your whole world, it really does. It does it physically, mentally, spiritually,” Koenig said. “It’s just like a bombshell. It’s like there was a volcano eruption in your life and the whole thing blew up in your face.”
“And if you lose a child, it’s like, ‘I should have been able to know that. I should have been able to stop it. I should have been able to prevent it because I’m a parent of this child and I’m responsible for them,’” she added.
After three years crying in every quiet moment and a few more years of what she described as her brain reengaging with life, Koenig said she was looking for people to sign letters to support a legislative effort she’d mounted to get some kind of suicide prevention program into high schools.
That’s what led her to one support group.
“I thought, well, some of these people will write letters, that’s why I went there. I didn’t go there for help,” she explained.
But after teaming up with another mother whose teenage son had taken his own life, Koenig found a way to help others — one that’s been going strong for 39 years.
Everyone who comes to Koenig’s nonprofit, Friends for Survival, shares a terrible loss and, eventually, a deep appreciation for Koenig.
“I know this, that had Marilyn not been there, that road which you know everyone who loses someone by suicide goes down, that road would have been so infinitely tougher,” said John Meltzer, a Friends for Survival facilitator.
Twelve years ago, Meltzer’s 39-year-old son, Robert, shot himself with a brand new gun from Walmart while he was struggling with bleeding ulcers, a chaotic shift schedule and the sudden death of his fiancée.
“What I know about Robert is that he did the best he could for as long as he could,” Meltzer said.
Kellie Holmstrom’s fun, athletic husband, Travis, died by suicide while away on a work trip in May of 2012.
“It’s been almost 10 years and working with Marilyn has really given me hope and given me that understanding of how things can get a lot better even in the face of really complex grief and some crazy tragedy,” Holmstrom told FOX40.
“My name is Tina Graybill and this is my brother Jonathan Charles Graybill. He’s three years younger than me, born in 1951, and he died when he was 63 years old,” Graybill said, showing a photo of her brother. “That was after a whole 20 years in the Navy. He became a commander before he retired.”
Graybill believes the pressures of a crumbled marriage and providing for children he couldn’t see as often as he wished pushed her brother to find a final answer for the pain. She said she recognizes the irony in the loss that has helped so many gain so much peace.
“Marilyn is such a good leader,” she said. “It’s terrible that she had to lose her son for all this good to happen, but we’re so glad to have her.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with a death by suicide, you can find the help Koenig offers through Friends for Survival by dialing 916-392-0664.
For immediate help if you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.