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Living With a Terrible Grief

An East Bay mother, whose son was never found after his suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge, counsels compassion for the family of Danville teen Alliy Bayliss.

For the family of Allison Bayliss, it is possible that their grief will be complicated by the fact she has not been found. 

Sadly, that is a reality that many families of Golden Gate Bridge suicide victims endure for days, months and years. 

Compounding the tragedy of losing a loved one to a suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge is the fact that the bodies of many who jump are never recovered, according to a Hercules mother whose 20-year-old son probably  jumped from the bridge on the morning of Nov. 15, 2007. Matthew Whitmer is still officially "missing," as are others whose bodies have not been found. 

"If no one saw them jump, there is going to be an even bigger hope that they walked off the other end of the bridge," said Dayna Whitmer, whose son would have turned 24 Saturday. Nearly four years later, he is not officially dead but is listed as a "missing person."  "You can't let go of the hope. It's almost impossible to let go of the hope."

Bayliss, a 15-year-old  student, was seen walking onto the bridge at about 10 a.m. Monday but wasn't seen leaving it,  Her locked bicycle, with her helmet beside it, was found in the parking lot of Fort Point, right below the bridge.

The CHP and Danville Police say their investigation found she ended her life by jumping from the bridge — something that even many people who didn't know her find hard to believe, based on comments they're posting on Patch.

Even Saturday morning, after the family announced a Monday public celebration of Bayliss' life, one Danville resident posted: "I still continue to have hope. How do you know she didn't get in a car and that's why you didn't see her come off the bridge? I'm still hoping and praying for a miracle."

Patch has repeatedly questioned authorities about the evidence they have of Bayliss' suicide, and they've assured us that their information is accurate.

"She walked onto the bridge and didn't come back," said Danville Police Chief Steve Simpkins.

In their announcement, released Friday, the Bayliss family extended their thanks to the Danville community and invited people to attend a  at 2 p.m. Monday at Danville's. "Alliy was a caring and compassionate young woman and an avid learner who was always interested in helping others," the statement said.

Whitmer has become an advocate for families and for erecting a suicide prevention barrier at the bridge. She also has created a website, goldengatebridgesuicides.com, that offers practical resources for families who are coping with this unique tragedy.

"It's so difficult when you can't get them home," said Whitmer. "It’s not unlike all the MIAs in Vietnam, you never know for sure until you get them home."

John Bateson, the executive director of the Contra Costa Crisis Center and the author of a forthcoming book on suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge, said that a number of the 1,550 confirmed suicides are not officially recorded as "suicides" because the bodies were never found. He can't say what percentage of bridge suicides are classified as missing person's cases, just as no one can say for sure how many people have died.  

He and Whitmer said the currents of San Francisco Bay push the bodies in various directions, over to Marin County, down to San Mateo County or out into the Pacific Ocean. Both Bateson and Whitmer said the bodies of people believed to have jumped from the bridge have been carried out and turned up as far as away as Santa Cruz, the Farallon Islands, even Mendocino County. 

Ken Holmes, the former longtime coroner of Marin County, whose office has conducted the majority of autopsies on bridge suicide victims, told Whitmer that some bodies don't resurface. After Matthew disappeared, Holmes advised her to keep calling his office. But after six months, she was told to expect his body probably would not be recovered after being in the water for so long.

Whitmer said her son, who had been in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, had a mental illness. At the age of 12, he told his mother he had tried to kill himself. After a hospitalization, he was given a diagnosis of schizo-affective disorder, an illness that has components of schizophrenia and a mood disorder. Matthew received treatment, stayed very active in sports, completed high school, and traveled  to the United Kingdom and Ireland as a student ambassador for People to People, a program for young adults to travel around the world. 

When he died, he was going to school to become a massage therapist. In the past, he had always been very open with his family about whether he was becoming depressed or hearing voices. The family also talked openly about suicide and what he should do if he was having those kinds of ideas. 

The night before his death, he had gone out with his older brother David. The two returned home at about 10 p.m. and stayed up playing video games. Matthew was last seen by his brother at home about 1:30 a.m.  

Whitmer woke up at 6:25 a.m. "I just sat up right in bed, feeling that something is terribly wrong." She got up and looked for Matthew, knew he had an 8 a.m. class and tried to reach him by texting him. 

Through the Hercules police, the family learned later that morning that his car had been found in the south parking lot of the Golden Gate Bridge. According to what they were told by the California Highway Patrol, joggers  had reported seeing a young man wearing a hooded sweatshirt leap over the side of bridge at about 6:25 a.m. They also saw a splash. The U.S. Coast Guard searched the waters but didn't find anyone. 

Matthew Whitmer had texted a friend at 6:23 a.m. the words "Peace Out." He had also printed out directions to the Golden Gate Bridge, which were found in his car. Other information came in later: that Matthew had apparently attempted suicide three days earlier and that he had started to hear voices again.

The first days and nights, Whitmer and her husband, Mark, contacted every hospital in the Bay Area, looking for a John Doe. They also called and called the Coroner's Office in Marin County.  "We just kept calling and waiting and hoping it wasn't him [who had been seeing jumping]." 

Three weeks after Matthew Whitmer apparently committed suicide, family and friends held a sunset vigil at Point Isabel. Over the years, Dayna Whitmer learned more than she ever wanted to about the Golden Bridge and its history as a No. 1 suicide site in the world. She has provided DNA to the coroner's office in case her son's body is ever found.

And, every day, Whitmer has moments of thinking that Matthew will still walk through the door. A CHP officer told Whitmer about the particularly sad case of a family whose religion required the burial of body in order for them to begin grieving. For any family with someone missing from the bridge, that sense of "closure"— a stage important for emotional healing — becomes ever more elusive, she said.

Whitmer said she and other relatives "feel it all over again" when they hear about another Golden Gate Bridge suicide. That's how it was Tuesday, when she first saw a tweet about Bayliss going missing, then read that Bayliss had left a suicide note and her bicycle was found near the bridge. 

Bayliss reminded Whitmer of Matthew in that she was reported to be smart, physically active and fun to be around.

Whitmer was heartened to see that 2,000 people turned out for Bayliss' vigil Wednesday evening. "That's the kind of support you don't often get when someone commits suicide," she said.

That's because suicide often is seen as a "choice," or because of the fear friends and family will be judged for not noticing that their loved one was in such deep distress and intervening, Whitmer said. "Her family should get the utmost care and compassion, " she added. "They shouldn't be stigmatized because of it."

In their statement, the Bayliss family said that the tremendous support they have received from people around the Bay Area "has been overwhelming."

The Danville Community Presbyterian Church is at 222 West El Pintado Road. The family asks that people wear blue and bring any photos and other memorabilia of Alliy to add to their scrapbook.

The family has established the “Allison Bayliss Donation Fund Account” to further her interests. Donations can be made at any Wells Fargo bank. Expressions of sympathy may be delivered in care of the Danville Police Department at:

Bayliss Family
c/o Danville Police Department
510 La Gonda Way
Danville, CA 94526

michelle Gregory May 28, 2011 at 10:03 PM
Help Needed. Community members are hoping to service refreshments at the Memorial Service being held this Monday at CPC in Danville @ 2:00pm. If you can contribute please visit www.signupgenius.com/go/track20

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