For the Rakestraws, their son lingers in memories and suicide prevention efforts
By Dianna Troyer
Toni Rakestraw says it was easy to pick the song she will listen to while walking in a 5 Kilometer walk/run to raise awareness about suicide prevention this month.
“It will be ‘One More Light’ by Linkin Park because our son Christopher loved that band,” says Toni, a member of Zero Suicide, Elko County, a nonprofit organizing the event at Carlin City Park the morning of September 10.
“One of my favorite lyrics is ‘Can I help you not to hurt anymore?’” she says.
Carlin resident Toni and her husband, Scott, joined the organization after Christopher died by suicide at age 26 on January 5, 2019.
Members provide education about suicide, promote prevention and offer support to those who have lost someone to suicide.
“Our intense pain and sense of loss made us not want anyone else to feel this way,” Toni says. “Helping others eases our grief a little.”
At Zero Suicide meetings, the Rakestraws learned they would grieve in different ways and at different times.
“When Scott’s down, I’m there for him, and when I’m having a bad day, he’s there for me,” Toni says. “We focus, too, on the wonderful times we had with Christopher.”
After Christopher died, Toni says several times when she turned on her car radio, the song “Numb” by Linkin Park would be playing.
“It’s one of our family’s favorite bands,” she says.
As a Christmas gift for their family, Toni and Scott bought tickets to see a Linkin Park concert in Salt Lake City in February 2011.
“(Christopher) liked their music, although he didn’t always admit it to his heavy metal friends,” Toni says.
After Christopher’s death, Scott says they started finding dimes in random places and still do, “as if he places them for us to see at a store or car wash or someone’s house. The songs and dimes remind us he is always with us in our memories.”
To take their minds off Christopher’s death, Toni says they stay busy with Zero Suicide events and their jobs.
Toni, 43, is an administrative assistant at Ames Construction in Carlin. Scott, 53, works in the parts department at Gallagher Ford in Elko.
They also get together with their four children, who range in age from 21 to 32.
Toni says another way to cope is to celebrate Christopher’s birthday.
“I make a cake with the number on it of how old he would be,” she says. “His birthday is August 9, two days after mine. The first year after he died, I didn’t want to celebrate at all. Having a cake for him has helped me and is our way of honoring his life.”
To express their ongoing love for Christopher, the Rakestraws—who explore Nevada ghost towns on weekends—take along a large stuffed Chewbacca they nicknamed Tophacca, a combination of Chewbacca and Christopher’s nickname, Topher.
“He loved that ‘Star Wars’ character and did a great imitation of him,” Toni says. “When we’re at a ghost town, we’ll putTophacca somewhere, take a picture and post it on my Facebook page. It’s a way for him to be with us on our adventures.”
No Warning Signs
Scott and Toni say Christopher gave no indication of his suicidal intentions when they were together on Christmas Day 2018.
“That was the last time we saw him,” Scott says. “He was optimistic about his future. Then he went missing January 2, 2019.”
Toni says she was puzzled he didn’t reply to her text messages. For 3 days, the Rakestraws, Christopher’s friends, local law enforcement officers, and search and rescue personnel looked for him in Carlin.
“A girl happened to be walking at the city park and found him,” Toni says. “He had shot himself with his gun.”
Citing studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Toni says Christopher is an example of the more than 50% of people who die by suicide, but show no warning signs and have no diagnosis of a mental health condition.
“He made people laugh,” she says. “Sometimes, the person who tries to make others happy does it because he knows what it feels like to be unhappy.”
She says Christopher’s diverse interests and talents enabled him to relate to many people while he worked as a bartender and in food service.
“He liked hunting, fishing, playing guitar, listening to music, art, cinematography, fantasy books and movies, especially ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Star Wars,’” Toni says.
As he grew up, Toni nicknamed him Topher to reflect his personality.
“He was such a unique person, so I thought he should have a more creative name,” Toni says.
Committed to Prevention
Seeking advice about coping, Toni researched suicide grief and programs to prevent it.
She says she learned rural areas— especially in the West—have a shortage of mental health professionals who can counsel despondent clients seeking help.
The region from Montana southward has been referred to as the Suicide Belt because suicide rates are higher than the national average, according to CDC data.
During a workshop last spring in Elko, the Rakestraws and others learned how to approach and talk to someone who is considering suicide.
“It was both heartbreaking and inspiring to hear from Clint Malarchuk, a professional hockey player and coach who tried to take his life due to depression and drug addiction,” Toni says.
He wrote a book about his struggles called “The Crazy Game.”
Another speaker, Wylee Mitchell of Pioche, Nevada, launched a suicide prevention campaign after losing a high school friend to suicide. She prints T-shirts with the words, “Why Stop Now?” and a semicolon.
The punctuation mark is the symbol of Project Semicolon—a nonprofit dedicated to mental health awareness and suicide prevention. Organizers chose the semicolon because “it represents a sentence the author could have ended but chose not to. The author is you, and the sentence is your life.”
Toni says she tells people to call her if they ever need someone to talk to.
“I’m a good listener and remind people they are loved,” Toni says. “I’m not judgmental. Know help is there for you, so try to have hope and know tomorrow will be better.”
If you are contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or (800) 273-8255, or chat on the Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. The service is free and confidential 24/7.
Zero Suicide, Elko County 5K
Zero Suicide, Elko County will host a 5K walk/run September 10 at Carlin City Park to raise awareness about suicide prevention.
Registration begins at 8 a.m., with a program at 8:30 a.m. and the walk/run at 9 a.m.
The National Alliance on Mental Health designates September as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month.