Special Report: Surviving My Father's Suicide

Baihly Warfield
November 13, 2017 01:38 PM

Super Bowl Sunday 2012 is a day Alyssa Johnsen will never forget. It was February 5. 

It's the same for Arne Vainio. His life changed July 17, 1963. 

"Now that you look back, you see symptoms," Johnsen said. "We knew he was sad. But I guess we didn't know the extent of it."

Dennis Johnsen was 49. He was handy and worked as a mechanic. And he loved to take his kids along on his favorite hobbies. 

"He loved to fish," Alyssa said. "He used to have a big boat, like a Lake Superior boat. And we'd go on Lake Superior and go fishing in that."

Those are some of her earliest memories with her father. As she grew into her early 20s, he hit a rough patch. He was going through a foreclosure on his house. 

"He got mixed up with the wrong people," she said. "They got him into drugs."

She and her family thought he would get through his struggles. 

"I went and visited him Christmas Day, and that was the last time I saw him. He called me on my birthday, which is January 31. And that was the last time I talked to him," Johnsen said. "And then he was gone five days later."

She remembers the gut-wrenching phone call. 

"He walked out into the woods. And he shot himself in the heart," Alyssa said. 

The pain and turmoil that followed is not unique to Alyssa's family. In fact, men ages 45-64 have the highest rate of suicide, according to prevention experts. 

Arne Vainio can't remember his father's voice. He was only four when his father shot himself. 

"He thought about it, and he threatened it," Vainio said. "My mom said that he threatened suicide a few times."

When he was a kid, he was told his father had been gored by a bull. But he heard the whispers, and they told a different story. 

"When I first really realized that had happened, that my father committed suicide, I always blamed myself for that," he said. 

His father and mother owned a bar called the Good Luck Tavern.

"Where I came from, alcohol was not an uncommon thing," Arne said. 

And the guilt he felt about his father's suicide stayed with him for decades. He turned to alcohol to cope. 

"It was always in the back of my mind," he said. "But when I was drinking, that was the primary thought in my mind was that I was to blame for that."

Eventually, he quit the drinking. It took decades to move past the blame. 

"Even after coming to terms with it mostly in the last 10 years or so, there isn't a single week that goes by that I don't think about it," Vainio said. 

He said he remembers a defining moment in that journey of grief and blame. Another relative had died, and he was at the traditional "Washing Away the Tears" ceremony a year later. There was a fire burning.

"I was watching the sparks go in the air, and I was thinking about my father and washing away those tears in that way. And I forgave him for that, for his suicide. And I asked him to forgive me," he said. 

He doesn't know what his life would have looked like had his dad stayed in it. He suspects his path may not have led him to medicine without the experience. 

"He would have loved the things, the opportunities that I've been given," Arne said. 

For Arne and Alyssa, there have been years of events their fathers missed. 

"You don't realize how special people are in your life until they're gone," Alyssa said. 

Now, each are working to turn their pain into light and illuminate the darkness. 

"A suicidal person can't give somebody their hand," Arne said. "It has to be the other way."

If someone you love needs help, there are many resources. 

Join us for more of Surviving My Father's Suicide, Thursday on Eyewitness News at Ten. 


Baihly Warfield

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