Michael Bullinger’s mom, Sandy Kovar, STEMI and stroke coordinator at Altru, affectionately nicknamed him “Sweet Pea.”
“He was my first child, and he brought so much joy into my life,” says Sandy. “He was such a kindhearted and lovable kid. He would do things like sit by the lonely kid at school to have lunch and then invite them to his hockey games. His tender heart showed on a daily basis.”
Michael loved hockey, first picking up a stick at age two and playing throughout high school. In the summers, he headed to the lake for water sports. And he loved his little sister, Shalee, teaching and coaching her how to play hockey.
Nineteen years ago in the summer of 2003, Michael had plans to attend the University of North Dakota in the fall. He wanted to study sports medicine. And then one day in August, Michael died by suicide.
“We didn’t see any signs that anything was wrong,” Sandy says.
From Processing Grief to Speaking Out
Sandy and her family were left struggling for answers after Michael’s death.
“I had never experienced a suicide loss in my life,” Sandy says. “It was an entirely new journey looking for education, and what I found is that there was just this huge stigma around talking about suicide, especially at that time.”
After her loss, Sandy found support from her Altru colleagues. “My work family is what helped me through,” Sandy says.
Slowly, Sandy also started to connect with other families who had lost loved ones to death by suicide. In 2004, she co-founded an outreach and support program named TEARS (Together We Educate About the Realities of Suicide). Altru partnered with the group in 2012 to help spread the information in our community and region. Working with the program has helped Sandy manage her grief.
“I have a very purposeful life,” Sandy says. “I have a mission to help raise awareness around suicide prevention in our community.”
Moving on But Never Forgotten
Sandy still visits Michael’s grave every day and talks to him. She makes sure a candle is always burning by his headstone, even during the coldest days. But grief does not consume her.
“I want people to know that even with something as tragic as suicide loss, we can continue to walk forward in life,” Sandy says. “I have a very beautiful life. I have a loving family, a supportive daughter and two grandchildren. With support from TEARS, friends and family, you can keep moving forward with purpose.”
If you or someone you know is contemplating ending their life, immediately call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or 800.273.8255 for emergency help. For non-emergency instances, Altru’s behavioral health providers can get you on the road to recovery. Call 701.780.5000 or find a provider at altru.org/provider.