There’s no official training for people who give death notices. You might get a few pointers, a few dos and don’ts, but nothing prepares you to actually deliver the news that someone’s loved one has passed away. Nothing can train you for that moment: the look on the person’s face or the words that come after. There’s no easy way to say it, and it never gets easier. You’re still delivering a devastating blow. It’s not cheery, nor romantic, but someone has to do it.
Veronica Sites was no stranger to death. The daughter of a police officer and descendant of a long line of service members and first responders, she knew that death was always a looming prospect. But the first time she encountered the crushing grief and emptiness herself, she was 10 years old. Her cousin was hit by a car and killed. “I was very close with my cousins—our families lived together for a long time, so I grew up thinking they were my siblings. I often called them my brothers,” she says. The news was not given gently, and her other cousin Oscar, who saw the accident, later told her in great detail what happened. As an imaginative child, her thoughts were plagued with gruesome, gory scenes. “Post-traumatic stress has its primary victim, and then depending on how the trauma is exposed or overheard, there is such a thing as secondary post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says. “I didn’t know it then, but that’s what I had.”
When she was 12, her half-brother was killed in a car accident. And when Veronica was 20, Oscar and another cousin died in a car accident. “Oscar was leaving the next day with the Air Force for his first deployment,” she says. The trauma of his death mounted on top of what she had experienced as a child, and all the thoughts and images came rushing back. A couple years later, Veronica had an ectopic pregnancy that took her child’s life and almost her own. For someone so young, death seemed to be everywhere.
Veronica accepted the Lord as a young child—a few years before her first cousin passed away—and she remembers the moment she first felt the Holy Spirit’s presence and peace. “I was at a Baptist revival that my neighbor invited me and my mom to, and adults were praying around me and for me,” Veronica says. “But I remember so vividly talking to the Lord in my own way. I just knew He listened to me.” At seven years old, a life-giving, conversational prayer life was launched— one that would carry her through many years to come.
After pursuing college and her master’s degree in theology, Veronica was asked to consider chaplaincy. Her immediate response was no. Her only frame of reference was military chaplains and she didn’t want to join the military. The job description also included, among other many emotionally and spiritually trying situations, hospital visits and giving death notifications. “I sunk at the thought of having to give that type of news because I so vividly remember receiving that news several times growing up,” she says. “But I realized that along the way my family had also been ministered to by chaplains.” Veronica spent time in prayer and decided to pursue corporate chaplaincy, praying that her first death-notice wouldn’t be for a very long time.
She was only on the job five days when she got the call that it was her turn. With a colleague by her side, she was asked to make a home visit to a family with three teenage girls whose father died in an accident. The situation hit a little too close to home for Veronica. “I remember leaning against the wall praying, ‘Lord, I don’t know how to do this. I just need the words, please,’” she says. “I heard Him say back, ‘You know how not to do it, and that’s how you’re going to do it.’” She realized then that He had readied her, and He was going to take everything she had known and flip it around to help someone else. It wasn’t a lot to go on and she certainly didn’t feel ready, but it was enough for Veronica to open the door. Through this, she found her deepest, most profound calling to ministry, and it wouldn’t be the last time God used the hard things in her life to help others. Pain was looming on the horizon again.
When she and her husband had their first daughter, something was triggered in Veronica. She fell into depression caused partially by postpartum and partially by the memories of the baby she lost in her ectopic pregnancy years earlier. The effects of the depression, combined with preexisting dysfunction and abuse in their marriage, only grew as time went on. “We didn’t know how to navigate each other’s baggage,” she says. “It soon became evident that we were not on the same team any longer.” Her husband of 20 years wanted a divorce.
Although it was not unexpected—Veronica knew they were unhappy and dysfunctional—it was still a blow. “When my younger brother was born, my dad placed him in my arms and said that I had to take care of him because he was leaving. It ripped my heart out,” she says. “And when my husband left, those same feelings rushed in.” Growing up in a multiple divorce home, Veronica didn’t want that life for her daughters. She made a vow early in her marriage to do whatever it took to make it work. While a noble sentiment, the enemy twisted it and Veronica carried the weight of her marriage on her own. It was too much for her. “I didn’t recognize how depleted I was,” she says, “and the enemy took advantage of it.” The divorce was not only devastating emotionally and spiritually but also professionally. “Because there was a no-divorce policy with my job as a chaplain, I lost my job shortly after the divorce, and everything just fell apart,” she says. Veronica took a sabbatical from her PhD studies—a program for which she had a full scholarship—but it was timed, and she knew there was very little chance she’d go back to successfully finish it. That was her breaking point. In a short time, Veronica lost her husband, her job, her studies, and the future she had planned for herself and her family.
The depression took over. She was going to counseling and taking anti-depressants, but it wasn’t helping. “I wanted everything to stop. I wanted the pain to stop,” Veronica says. “And I didn’t want to be in the way of my daughters having a solid family. I believed I brought nothing to the table but dysfunction.” Veronica couldn’t think straight. The pain painted everything in her life, and as much as she tried, the grief consistently overwhelmed her and addled her thoughts. “I always told my daughters that ‘emotions make poor choices,’” she says, “and here I was, caught in their grip.” The enemy fed her lie after lie about ways to end the pain, even wrapping lies around Scriptures—confusing her with ideas that seemed biblical but weren’t. Her heart threadbare and ragged with loss, she thought of a way that would give her and those around her the pain-free peace she desired.
“I decided to end my life,” she says. “One Saturday night, I purposely overdosed.”
Afterward, Veronica got in her bathtub with a knife—her plan B if the overdose failed. “I was broken, but I knew deep in my spirit that what I was doing was contrary to who I was. So I prayed,” she says. Her prayer life was all she had left, and she cried out to God—for understanding, for peace, for hope, for something. Her mind was like a rope that had frayed to a single strand. As the drugs started taking effect, she began to understand that taking her own life was against anything the Lord wanted for her. Her body was a temple of His Spirit, and the enemy was trying to take her out. But she knew it wasn’t too late for her God. “In that little space of clarity, I realized I wanted rest, not death,” she says. “I prayed for the Lord to have mercy on me. I didn’t know how He was going to do it, but I knew He could bring me through it.” She put the knife on the other side of the bathroom and doesn’t remember anything else.
Her daughter found her two days later.
Veronica has no memory of what happened on Sunday or Monday. She learned later that she talked with one of her daughters and with her mom over the phone. Her mom said she sounded confused and wasn’t making any sense. It prompted her to have someone check on Veronica. “Sometime between those conversations and my daughter calling the police on Monday evening, something else happened,” she says. “When the police broke down my bathroom door, they discovered what looked like a crime scene.” Despite her resolve to live, in her overdosed state, Veronica had retrieved the knife from across the room and sliced her wrists, arms, feet, and even her neck.
“I woke up in the hospital on Tuesday morning hooked up to life support and angry,” she says. “Angry, not at God, but at myself—for believing the enemy’s lies and not having more control.” It was hard for her to reconcile her faith and her actions. She kept asking “How does a believer get to this point?” and coming up with nothing. For Veronica, she never doubted she was a child of God, protected and promised a bright future, yet what she attempted didn’t line up. After her physical health stabilized, Veronica spent time in a mental health facility receiving counseling and medication to give her some mental stability. Later, she pursued freedom ministry for the post-traumatic stress and depression; she began to reconcile with her tumultuous and painful past. Veronica tried to unpack and understand her desperate act. “A lot of it was spiritual,” Veronica says. “I will probably never know the extent of the battle that was going on for my life. And praise the Lord that I don’t know.” The one thing she does know is that she won’t ever get close to suicide again.
A few weeks after her attempt, Veronica checked herself into a mental health facility again as a precaution as she went off the medication; she felt like the side effects from the medication were actually adding to the problem. Within the safety of the mental hospital, Veronica started to unclench and unwind her mind. She did puzzles (something she hadn’t done in years and forgot how therapeutic they were) and talked with the Lord.
“We treat mental illness like cancer, but it’s not,” she says. “It’s treatable. My mind was pretty sick, but it got better.” But like any kind of physical illness, Veronica knew that just because something was better doesn’t mean you let down your guard. She started to recognize how her body communicated mental distress and learned the physical warning signs of a relapse. “I’m a huge believer in naps and animal therapy. My dogs instantly refresh and relax me,” she says. “Nature is refreshing too—there is a farm I always go to. It’s become a special place for me to go and write.” Veronica eventually got to a point where she stopped asking why it happened and started asking how God could use it. The answer was overwhelming. “He’s given me books to write and an extreme responsibility to penetrate a very dark place that’s becoming more and more prevalent in today’s society,” she says. “God didn’t call me to lightweight stuff. He called me to heavy-duty stuff.” He was positioning her to rattle the darkness.
Now, 10 years after Veronica’s attempt, she is certified in critical incident stress management and serves on several crisis and emergency response teams. She’s a speaker, author, and new recipient of a doctorate in crisis response. She got remarried to a wonderful man named Michael, and they blended their families. She attends Gateway and is involved in our altar and freedom ministries. And every day she uses her experiences and education as a post-traumatic stress fighter, seasoned chaplain, crisis responder, psychology expert, and suicide attempt survivor to help others. She’s participated on the death notice and crisis response teams for Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey—using her experience to train others on how to best deliver difficult news or comfort someone in pain. She’s also on the frontline response team for school shootings, helping equip students and teachers mentally and emotionally for re-entry. She’s an advocate for mental health and self-care, and what most people would shy away from, Veronica has dived into with firsthand knowledge of the mind’s coping mechanisms, immense compassion, and a Holy Spirit–led heart, stitched back together by God’s healing power. She has a special place in her soul for those struggling with pain and grief. “There’s so much to say about my journey, but this is my one message, my plea for people to hear: While you may think that by ending your life the pain will stop, it’s a lie,” she says. “You’re just transferring your pain to everyone you love, creating more pain for more people. God is the only one who can take away pain.”
Most of the scars that mark her battle with pain have faded, except for a few on her hands. Her identity is no longer wrapped up in her suicide attempt, but the memories and how it affected her and her family still sting. She was so close to becoming the subject of the death notices she’d delivered for many years. And although it’s a place of tremendous vulnerability, Veronica has shared her story on several occasions. She is determined to help break the stigma surrounding suicide and she won’t allow the enemy to stop her. This death-lined path is not one she would have chosen for herself, but she’s oddly grateful for it. She knows God saved her life for this moment in time. “God is calling those in pain to His presence and ministry. What I’ve been through means I can be there for someone on the worst day of their life. It’s not about having the right words,” she says. “If the Lord prompts you to reach out to someone in pain, do it. God never wastes a hurt.”
Veronica’s book Rachael, Did You Know? is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble, and her newest book, Lessons from the Pit, will be released in fall of 2019.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, every day and offers free, confidential support. Call 1.800.273.8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.