Spreading Hope, Rock by Rock

WINTERVILLE—After her son, Bob, committed suicide in 2017, Nancy Owens needed to find a way to cope with her immense grief. After learning about Suicide Prevention Rocks, she not only discovered the outlet she’d been searching for, she found a way to help others struggling with suicidal thoughts.

For the past two years, Owens has been decorating rocks and painting inspirational messages on them. She hides the rocks in various locations throughout Pitt County, and, often times, the individuals who find them post pictures of their newly-found treasures on social media.

In conjunction with National Suicide Prevention Week (Sept. 8-14) Owens honored Bob’s memory by scattering her ornamental rocks throughout the county, including the Pitt Community College campus, where her middle son, Rick, serves as vice president of administrative services. They were a hit.

On Tuesday, which was designated “World Suicide Prevention Day,” PCC administrative assistant Lisa Elmore was walking into the Vernon White Building when she came across one of Owens’ creations. Resembling earth as seen from outer space, it bore the message, “You are amazing.”

Delighted with her find, Elmore posted a photo of the ornate rock on Facebook with the caption: “What a way to start my day. Can’t wait to share it.”

Across campus, student Timothy Tompkins Jr. saw a dark, grayish object with flashes of pink, purple and green. He picked it up and found the words “you matter” written in black marker. Like Elmore, Tompkins snapped a picture of his rock and posted it on Facebook, saying “I found this, and it made my day 100 percent better.”

For Owens, it was mission accomplished. She’s able to take heart in the knowledge that she is actively taking measures to remind people that life is precious. And she’s making strides to help ensure that a mother somewhere in the world doesn’t have to experience what she went through on a spring day two years ago, the day her 46-year-old child decided he could no longer continue his internal struggles and left behind a wife of 19 years and two daughters.

Like his mom and dad, Rick Owens couldn’t believe it when he received the news of his brother’s suicide. “We’d talked on the phone and swapped text messages the night before,” Rick recalled this month. “He said he was good, that he was working on completing a book and he was ‘just tired.’”

Rick Owens says the hardest thing he’s ever had to do is “stand in front of people that loved my brother as much as I do and try to deliver a eulogy that did justice to how fierce he was in his love for his family and how he lived his life.”

In the time that’s passed since Bob’s death, Rick says he strives to “focus on the simple, kind gestures that can help remind someone they matter and are needed.” It’s very much like his mother’s ornate rocks — kind gestures to remind people that every life has value.

“Suicide Prevention Week helps remove the stigma around asking someone how they’re doing and if you can do anything for them,” Rick says. “I never imagined that someone who was my biggest antagonist and cheerleader would die by suicide. Watching how my parents have taken one of the worst events imaginable in the life of a parent and use it to spread kindness and make a difference is awe-inspiring.”

According to the World Health Organization, nearly 800,000 people die from suicide each year. For perspective, that is roughly 2,200 suicides per day or more than one per minute.

“Every day, we miss and think about Bob,” Rick Owens says. “That, I think, is what reminds us that it is always okay to check in on someone who’s having a difficult time, to smile and ask a stranger how they’re doing, or to leave a few words of encouragement for someone to find and remind them they matter.”

For anyone considering suicide or with knowledge of individuals who are, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The Crisis Text Line provides free, 24-hour support. For help, text HOME to 741-741 for free.