Because September is Suicide Prevention Month, Ankeny Fanatic publisher Dan Holm has interviewed a variety of guests in an effort to promote awareness of the topic. He will also be interviewing two other guests on the Ankeny Fanatic weekly podcast.
Here is his interview with his nephew David Holm, who lost his cousin–Jeffrey Czapla–to suicide a little more than five years ago.
Dan: Well David, thanks for joining me today from Columbus, Ohio. I know you’re getting ready to celebrate a big day as you and your fiance, Rachael, will be getting married on Oct. 8, and (my wife) Jen and I are looking forward to making the trip out there to celebrate with you. Thanks for giving me some time. How are you doing?
David: I’m doing really well. Life’s pretty crazy right now getting ready for this wedding in two weeks, but things are falling into place and we’re very excited about that. And I’m happy to be talking to you today.
Dan: Well, it’s a pleasure to talk to you, and happy belated birthday by the way. I wish it was under different circumstances, but maybe I can have you on my podcast sometime to talk about Ohio State football or your favorite musical artists. I know it’s not easy to talk about losing your cousin, but I do appreciate your willingness to do that. Your cousin, who lived in Connecticut, died a little more than five years ago. He was 20 years old at the time, so he was about three or four years younger than you, right?
David: Yeah, exactly. We were about 3 1/2 years apart in age, but the age difference never really mattered. We really felt like brothers our whole lives together growing up. We were just best friends. The time together was so precious and so fun.
Dan: I only met Jeff a couple of times, so I obviously didn’t know him real well. I do know that he was a talented athlete. He played basketball all four years in high school and played an integral role on a state championship team his junior year. He also played lacrosse his first two years of high school and volleyball his senior year. I know he was also a big sports fan and among the teams that he liked were the Ohio State football and basketball teams, so I’m sure that his love of sports was one of the big things that you guys had in common, right?
David: Oh, absolutely. Jeff was a huge athlete and sports fan. We loved watching Ohio State football and basketball games together and cheering them on at our grandparents’ house. We loved playing sports together, too…really anything under the sun. Like you mentioned, basketball was definitely his best sport. He was a true beast out there. I’ll never forget the point in time when he surpassed me as a basketball player. Even though I had three years on him, at a point he just got so big and so talented that he would really put it on me when we would play one-on-one. It was a huge part of our relationship together.
Dan: I know you’re a pretty good player David, so he must have been really good?
David: Yeah, he was great. His most famous basketball moment was coming off the bench in the state title game out in Connecticut. He just had a huge impact on the boards and on defense. When his team’s starting center got in foul trouble, Jeff came in and I think he had a double-double at least and played a huge role and got a state championship ring. So that was something the family was really proud of him for.
Dan: Now do you think his fandom for Ohio State was because of you and your family?
David: Yeah, absolutely. And Jeff’s mom, Kay, my aunt, she graduated from Ohio State. So there was a family tie there. But I think it also helped that I was such a big fan myself.
Dan: I know he was passionate about music as well. Did you guys have some similar tastes in music?
David: We did. We really bonded over music as well. Our favorite artist was Drake. We just grew up loving his music. We’d sing and rap and dance together, all sorts of goofy things. It was definitely a shared interest of ours as well.
Dan: Well David, I know you and Jeff took several vacations together with your families over the years, and you guys were pretty close. Did you have any idea at all that he was going through some tough times after he graduated from high school? Did he ever reach out to you for any advice?
David: Yeah, I was aware of his struggles with mental health during his final few years of his life. He was open about it with his family and with me. Obviously, I was always looking out for him and checking in on him. I just cared about him so much. We talked frequently. Even though we only saw each other a couple of times a year, we’d regularly text or talk on the phone. I was aware of his struggles. Before he actually passed in 2017, he had a couple other attempts with suicide that weren’t successful. It was on our radar, but it didn’t make it any easier when the day finally came that he did pass. It was definitely the hardest moment in my life, and I know the same could be said for his immediate family and the rest of the family. But we’ve been working through that grief in the five years since. Jeff will never be forgotten, but we’re all moving forward.
Dan: I’ve done a little research on this topic, and I know that researchers in the field still haven’t nailed down how to better predict who’s at risk for attempting suicide, and whether or when vulnerable people will do it, and that’s according to Justin Baker, the clinical director of The Suicide and Trauma Reduction Initiative for Veterans at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center…right in your backyard there, ironically. So David, I’m sure you still think about Jeff an awful lot. Does it seem like he’s been gone more than five years now?
David: Gosh, it really doesn’t. It feels like he was just with us and I was hugging him and laughing with him. I miss him every day. I wouldn’t say that time has made his loss any easier, but I would say in the five years since, we’ve continued to build our lives around the grief of losing Jeff and just continuing to honor him and remember him during appropriate times. Yeah, just never forgetting about him.
Dan: I know you have a great family….were you all able to lean on each other to get through the tough times?
David: Yeah, absolutely. Our family was the most important piece of getting through this loss. Spending time together and giving each other a shoulder to cry on, and sharing stories has been a really helpful thing. Remembering the positive times when Jeff was with us and talking about his wonderful personality–he was just so kind and gentle and funny. The family, I don’t know how we would have gotten through this without each other.
Dan: Would you have any advice for anyone who has suffered a similar loss? Did you find anything that you could do that was helpful?
David: Again, I found that it’s helpful in those times when I miss Jeff just to reminisce about those positive memories with somebody who knew him, or even with somebody who didn’t know him. I just think that’s a good way to kind of honor who they were and keep their spirit alive.
Dan: I’m sure some people have feelings of guilt when they lose someone that they love, because maybe they think they could have said or done something that could have prevented it. Did you ever experience that?
David: Yeah, I definitely felt some guilt in the immediate aftermath of his death. Just asking myself, “What else could I have done or said? How could I have helped him through this particular difficult moment that may have saved his life?” I think it’s impossible not to ask yourself those questions. But you know, at a point, you have to let it go. You have to forgive yourself and go easy on yourself and know that in my case I was the best cousin and brother and friend to him that I could be. We were all looking out for him all the time. Not that this is what any of us wanted, but it’s what happened and we have to keep on pushing forward. Jeff wouldn’t have wanted us to live our lives down and sad. We have lives left to live, and I think all of us are doing our best at that right now.
Dan: Well David, again, I appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today. I know it’s not an easy subject to discuss, but I know you feel like it is important to talk about. I read where nearly 800,000 people worldwide die from suicide every year, so it’s something that affects a lot of people all over the globe. And I know you feel like there’s a stigma surrounding mental health and suicide, and how it’s so important to talk about, right?
David: Yeah, absolutely. One thing that I’ve learned is that there’s a big misconception even in talking to friends who might be having issues with mental health. There’s a big misconception that asking them if they’ve had suicidal thoughts or suicidal intentions that it will push them in that direction, and that’s really been proven to be untrue. Asking those people who are struggling how they are doing…I just think that’s so important to let them know that you care and that you want to help them. I just think it’s important for people to share their experiences and reduce the stigma around talking about these very difficult topics.
Dan: Well David, I know it’s been a tough few years for you. You not only lost your cousin, but you also lost your dad John–my brother–to pancreatic cancer about a year later, and that’s been a huge loss for both of us. I know nobody could ever replace your dad, but I want you to know that you and your sister Sarah mean the world to me….and I feel like I have three kids, not just one. I just wanted you to know that. And I’m so happy for you and Rachael, and I can’t wait to see you guys in a couple of weeks. It’s going to be a great time, I know. So thanks again for your time today, David, I love you man!
David: Absolutely. I love you, too. I’m so grateful to have you in my life.
Dan: You bet. We’ll see you soon.
David: Alright, thank you.