After suicides, a family's journey toward grace

After suicides, a family's journey toward grace


His brother would find him in dreams.

The door would open and he'd be standing there. That handsome face. Blue eyes. A wide smile.

Come here, his brother would say. Give me a hug.

The empty embrace gave way to reality. He'd wake up crying.


At night, surrounded by their pictures, the memories come back. What he'd give for another chance to throw horseshoes. Or go bowling. To hang out, just one more time.

In the morning, Blair Wagner drives to the weight room at Eastern Michigan University, where he works as the strength and conditioning coach.

Blair wasn't blessed with his brothers' natural athleticism. They teased him about being small. Then, at 14, he discovered weight lifting.

The 27-year-old now works out several times a week. When he needs motivation, he thinks of the pride his brothers would have felt. When he wants to quit, he remembers their pain.

"Any time I'm faced with adversity or a difficult situation, I just think about what they were going through with their lives," Blair says. "[I] say, 'You know what, let's fight through for them and you.'"


He grew up the middle of three brothers. By his 25th birthday, he was the only one left.

Brett, the youngest, killed himself in December 2005, two months before he turned 20. His depression could appear with a stunning swiftness. On that final night, he talked of forgiveness and the future. And then, like the flipping of a switch, something changed.

The oldest, Beau, struggled for years with depression. In the final few months of his life, mounting problems pulled him into a downward spiral. His family tried to help, but nothing could keep him from slipping farther into darkness.

Four years after his brother's death, Beau told his stepfather that Brett, who had shot himself in the head, had done it wrong. Days later, he went up to the attic of his family's home and shot himself in the chest.

The dreams followed Beau's death. They'd be at a party together. Beau would be asking for him. Blair always hid from his brother. He knew the illusion would end if he was found.

"I could see his face, and he looked so real," Blair says. "But in my dream, I just knew. This isn't real. He is going to hug me, and it's not going to feel like anything."

Last year was the deadliest on record for Wyoming suicides, with 127 self-inflicted deaths.

Wyoming's suicide rate consistently ranks near the top in the nation. Only car crashes claim more lives of young people in the Cowboy State.

Yet those deaths rarely receive attention. Suicide tears a hole in the lives of friends and family. It hardly registers a ripple in the greater community.

Wyoming's culture is built on the spirit of independence and self-reliance. But traits essential for survival on the prairie form obstacles between suicidal tendencies and life-saving intervention. Beau and Brett Wagner experienced depression in a state where emotional pain is still viewed as a weakness, a character flaw.

"A lot of people look at it like it's an easy way out," Blair says. "They judge people really too quick."


They lived in Wheatland as children, always looking for the next adventure. Sunshine or rain, it didn't matter. The boys preferred the outdoors, fishing by the creek or shooting baskets.

There was always competition. If one scored 10 points, the others wanted to score 15. But they stayed close, supporting and protecting one another.

"Growing up in a small country town, it was just us three," Blair says. "We didn't care to have anybody else with us. It was just good enough, us three."

Their mother, BJ Ayers, raised them herself. The boys' father had an alcohol problem and was never around. Years later, they learned he'd been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Still, they were a typical Wyoming family.

"My kids didn't lack for anything," BJ says. "They knew that I loved them."

Beau, the oldest by 16 months, made people laugh. He was smart, too, and if he didn't apply himself, it's because he didn't have to. His friends called him Bo-Bo and he was a talented enough athlete to play six defensive positions on his high school football team.

Brett also excelled as an athlete. He could rocket a baseball from the outfield to home plate. His teammates called him Hollywood because he wore sunglasses when he played. He had an artistic side as well, doodling on every piece of paper he found around the house.

Blair may have lacked his brothers' physical gifts, but he had something they didn't. He knew where he wanted to go and was determined to get there as fast as possible.

"I was always looking for that straight line," Blair says. "Those guys were more dynamic and were kind of interested in seeing what else was out there."


The first signs of depression appeared during his senior year of high school.

Brett withdrew from friends. He lost a job. He drank and used cocaine.

BJ and Jeff, her boyfriend, tried talking with him. They tried getting him help.

I'm fine.

Inside, he was suffering. Although he was never diagnosed, BJ believes Brett may have suffered from depression, or like his father, bipolar disorder.

Years after Brett's death, BJ discovered a poem he'd written.

"The pain that emanated from that piece of paper was just heartbreaking, as a mother," she says. "He was suffering. And you or I can sit here and talk about what people should do, but when someone is ... living with that depression or living with that mental illness, it's not as easy to do that."

At 19, Brett moved to Laramie, where his brothers attended the University of Wyoming. He moved in with Beau and got a landscaping job at the university.

But Brett also surrounded himself with the wrong types of people, according to Blair.

"He felt alone," Blair says. "I remember that comment coming out of his mouth."

A few days before Thanksgiving 2005, Beau and Brett got into a fight. At some point, Beau stabbed his brother in his chest.

Blair met his brothers at the emergency room. Brett was getting stitches. Beau had a cut on his thumb.

Blair never learned why exactly his brothers fought. And he still can't understand why two brothers would go after one another with knives.

"That's kind of when I realized there is something way beneath the surface here," he says.

When BJ arrived, she spoke with the doctor.

I'm worried about my son. He needs help.

Brett didn't want to talk. Nor did he want help. It was a cold night, but he walked out of the hospital wearing only a shirt.

Nine days later, he was dead.


After the fight, Brett told his mother he had no reason to live.

She could hardly respond at first. When the words finally came, she insisted he had plenty to live for. But she was left feeling helpless.

Brett stayed with Jeff in Cheyenne. They talked several times, but Jeff couldn't convince him to speak with a counselor.

"I just don't think he realized the place where he was at," BJ says.

Brett went to Denver to visit a girlfriend. He played cards with his mom. On his last night, he gave her a big hug.

I love you.

Jeff and Brett stayed up late. They watched television. They sat in Jeff's hot tub and talked. They discussed the future and forgiving Beau.

And then something changed. And then the depression returned.

He didn't leave a note. His family still doesn't know his reasons, or even if he meant to end his life that night.

When he pulled the trigger, the look on his face told another story.

I didn't mean to do that.

But there are hints Brett planned to do it eventually, even if he hadn't decided to pull the trigger at that moment.

That final night, Jeff offered to help him look for a job or give him a ride back to Laramie to grab his truck. Brett declined both.

"He knew that he didn't need that truck," Jeff says.


It's been more than five years since Brett Wagner took his life. His mother still has trouble finding the words to describe the emotions that followed.

The grief left her in a daze. People would offer help and 10 minutes later, she'd forget she'd even spoken to them.

For a long time, she existed minute to minute. The pain would recede, just a little, and then come back as strong as before.

Time offered little consolation. The second and third years were even harder.

"I got through the grief, but it is really hard to settle into the sorrow," she says, her voice cracking. "Because the sorrow in my heart was that it was forever. He was gone and life has never been the same again. I never got to see his smile. I was never going to hug him again."

Brett's death shocked Blair at first. He also felt embarrassed. Suicide would bring negative attention. And he didn't want people feeling sorry for him.

For a while, he could only remember the times his brother asked to hang out. And all of the times Blair said no.

Eventually, the good memories returned. The days they would walk down the halls in school and Blair would introduce his brother to a girl, just to see him turn red.

"There are good times," Blair says. "But they are so hard to find."


It took BJ nearly four years before she was ready to spread Brett's ashes. Three weeks later, on Aug. 4, 2009, she received an ominous message from her oldest son.

She woke up early that morning to a text on her cell phone. Beau sent the message sometime during the night to his girlfriend, who forwarded it to BJ.

I have a gun. I'm dead.

The past few months had been difficult for Beau. His drinking was causing problems. He expected to lose his job. He was facing jail time.

"It was just this vicious downward spiral," BJ says.

After all they had been through, she never thought Beau would harm himself.

From a campsite 45 minutes north of her Cheyenne home, BJ contacted Beau's girlfriend. She learned Beau didn't drop off his son at his girlfriend's house. He wasn't answering phone calls, and when his girlfriend went to his home, no one answered.

BJ and Jeff, now her husband, began an agonizing drive home. In their hearts, they already knew.

Police met them at the house. The officers found a note inside, but no sign of Beau. BJ suggested checking the attic.

They found him there. The 26-year-old had shot himself in the chest.

This isn't happening again, she thought. It can't be. There is no way.


On the day of their brother's funeral, Blair and Beau Wagner had made a pledge.

"Look into my eyes," Blair told Beau. "I'll promise you and you promise me that you'll never do anything like this."

Blair thought back to that moment on the August day when he heard Beau was missing. He knew his brother was depressed. He knew Beau had been arrested again. But they had made a pact.

Then he got the phone call.

"I was the most angry I've ever been in my life," Blair says. "He broke the promise."

He thought of his nephew, Blaize. The boy, a little more than 1 year old, would grow up without his father. Just like Blair and his brothers.

BJ was also angry with Beau.

"It's like, how dare you?" she says. "How dare you do this to your family, to your brother, to your grandma, to me?"

That anger, for the most part, has been replaced with sorrow for the pain that consumed him. Beau, she says, didn't choose to die.

"But that pain he was in," she says, "it was just so overwhelming that even that little boy that he loved so much wasn't enough to help him out of that really deep hole."


Unlike his brother, Beau Wagner left a suicide note. Pain seeped from the words.

"It was just crushing," BJ says. "And ... I couldn't help him."

Beau's fall came gradually at first, and then picked up speed as his problems mounted. He knew it was happening. So did the people who loved him the most. But no one could find a way to stop it.

BJ believes Beau blamed himself for his younger brother's suicide. Afterward, she tried to console him.

This is not your fault. You have to believe that.

"But I'm not sure he ever believed that himself," BJ says. "I think he carried an awful lot of guilt. I don't think he ever got over it."

He had a difficult relationship with Blaize's mother. Toward the end, he seemed convinced there was no hope they would reconcile.

He sought relief from his problems with alcohol, but it only caused more damage. He was arrested twice for driving under the influence.

There was a pattern to Beau's life, Blair says.

"He's had so many highlights in his life, but every time he gets up to that top notch, he just gets kicked down, just because of his own personal decisions or because of specific instances he puts himself in," Blair explains. "I mean, he does well for himself at times and then boom, he gets kicked down."

Beau talked about suicide. He told his girlfriend he wanted to kill himself. Once, he remarked that he, and not Brett, should have been the one to die. But other times, he assured his mother that he'd never hurt himself.

BJ tried to get him help. Beau went to a counselor, but only to discuss his relationship problems. Grief was off limits.

"I think he was afraid that he was going to turn out like his dad," BJ says. "His dad wasn't involved ... He had an addiction problem. So I wonder if that just truly scared him. It's like 'I don't want to be like my father.'

"I don't know," she continues. "I just don't know. Even though he left a note, the question of ‘why' is still there."


A few days after Beau died, his mother, alone in her backyard, made a deal.

God, I will do whatever it is you need me to do. You can use me however you need to use me.

She didn't want another mother to experience the pain she felt. She didn't want a sibling to know her surviving son's hurt.

Most of all, she did not want to quietly recede into the darkness of grief.

Grace for 2 Brothers came to her.

The foundation would focus on preventing more suicides. She wanted to reduce the stigma of seeking help for depression and mental illness. She wanted people to know they didn't have to suffer in silence.

"There is another solution besides suicide," she says.

Sixty people attended the first organizational meeting. Hundreds more have attended events to raise awareness about suicide.

"It was the first time I saw some passion in her eyes," Blair says.

BJ started sharing her story in Wyoming schools. Occasionally, school officials told her they weren't interested in her message.

We don't need the help. Suicide isn't a problem here.

She remains undeterred. Her organization raised enough money to produce nearly 50,000 cards containing suicide prevention information for students all over the state.

"I will not go quietly," she says. "And I will keep talking to people about suicide."


Sometimes it's hard to think about the good days. Grief and loss get in the way. The anger dims, but deep down, it's still there.

Certain thoughts trigger it. The Wagner boys grew up without a father. Beau's son will have to do the same.

"It still flashes back some of that anger, knowing that when he gets to be a certain age, people are going to ask him, ‘Where's your dad?'" Blair says.

There are even days when his brothers' deaths still don't feel real. But other times, he's finally able to accept what's happened. He lives for himself, but also for his brothers.

"Every day is still hard, but it is much more bearable because I know that I'd be making them proud right now," he says.

He doesn't hide from his brother anymore.

Those dreams finally went away. One night while he slept, he saw Beau on their grandfather's farm. The boys used to spend their summers there. Beau was driving a pickup and the road seemed to go on forever.

Blair woke up happy.

Contact Joshua Wolfson at (307) 266-0582 or at Visit to read his blog. Follow him on Twitter @joshwolfson.


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