The Simonson family of Gillette will mourn the eighth anniversary of Kaden Simonson’s death Monday, who in 2015 took his own life at the age of 15.
Shortly after Kaden died, his mother, father, brother and sister each got a semicolon tattoo on their forearms in his memory.
Many tattoos have a story or deeper meaning behind them. The semicolon tattoo holds particular significance as part of a national suicide prevention and mental health awareness movement known as Project Semicolon.
It represents the concept that a life isn’t ended with suicide or mental health issues, in the same way a sentence continues after a semicolon rather than ending with a period.
Ashley Simonson, Kaden’s sister, said there are certain times of the year when she is reminded of her brother and will gaze at her semicolon tattoo.
His mother Trish Simonson has thrown herself into suicide prevention and mental health advocacy and speaks openly about her son’s suicide. But she still struggles when the anniversary of Kaden’s death comes around.
“It’s definitely a hard time of the year,” she said, choking up.
Coping Through The Pain
Coping with a loved one lost to suicide does not follow a single, well-worn path.
Trish Simonson dove deep into suicide prevention efforts after her son died. The Simonson family initially teamed up with Felony Ink tattoo shop in Gillette to give semicolon tattoos, with the more than $6,000 raised from the first month going to the Campbell County Suicide Prevention Coalition.
According to a 2016 Gillette News Record story, within about six months, the shop had done about 200 semicolon tattoos.
Campbell County has one of the worst suicide rates in Wyoming, a state that has consistently has the worst suicide rate in the nation.
“Our coalition was kind of up against a losing battle at that point,” Ashley Simonson said. “We were fighting to bring awareness to it and try to get them some funding.”
After Kaden’s death, his mother became active with the coalition and last year wrote a book about her experience coping with the loss of her son.
Anger, Then Forgiveness
Internally, Trish said she was angry at her son for taking his own life and not sharing with his best friend or any family members the pain he was dealing with. It wasn’t until she finished her book that she finally forgave him.
“I was fueled by what he did,” she said. “It was my way to cope.”
She’s also been a regular attendee of Gov. Mark Gordon’s Mental Health Summit, a forum where state legislators engage with local mental health advocates. She’s also a new member of the Gillette City Council, where she remains a firm supporter of funding the Coalition’s suicide prevention efforts.
“In Gillette there is a lack of mental health resources,” Trish Simonson said. “But we are able to get those resources out to people.”
Ashley Simonson said she and her father are more introverted and kept their emotions about Kaden’s death largely to themselves.
She has many tattoos in addition to the semicolon, including a few others that honor Kaden’s memory. Ashley finds that her tattoos serve as a time capsule of past emotions that might otherwise be lost.
“Tattoos are really healing to me,” Ashley said. “Whatever you do at that point in time, it’s literally putting those emotions into your skin. I like having that memory of whatever I was feeling at the time and how it was affecting me.”
Than Wilson is the owner of Crimson Sky Tattoo in Cheyenne. He lost two of close friends in the last few years to suicide.
Wilson finds pursuing his passion of tattoo artistry and speaking to people with many of the same issues to be his best coping mechanism.
In some ways, there’s no better place to do this than in a tattoo parlor, spending hours in an intimate setting with his clients. Through these conversations, Wilson said he’s realized human beings go through many of the same struggles in life.
“For me, it’s more just soaking myself more into things that make you happy,” he said. “My job keeps me speaking to people with a lot of the same issues, so one way (to do that is) I can kind of talk my own things out with other people.”
Semicolon A Full-On Movement
Wilson said the first people to into his shop around a dozen years ago requesting the semicolon tattoo were military.
Although many trends come and go in the tattoo industry, he said the semicolon movement has been consistent and his shop has done hundreds of variations on the design over the years.
What he finds alarming is that more young people request the tattoo than older customers, symbolizing the sizable impact the suicide epidemic is having on younger generations.
But he’s encouraged that these young people are putting their hearts on their sleeves by receiving the semicolons, a departure from the actions of his and older generations that tend to internalize their emotions more.
Trinidad Serrano, owner of The T.R.I.B.E. Zoo Tattoo shop in Cheyenne, said in many ways, tattoo artists become therapists and sounding boards for their clients.
“Every tattoo artist is an underpaid therapist,” he remarked.
Serrano said his shop has done 50-100 semicolon tattoos. Some tear up when they see the final result, while others are more stoic or upbeat about the experience.
“It’s good closure,” he said. “It gives them a sense of completeness.”
Variations And Inspirations
There are many ways the semicolon tattoo has been designed, which can be completely tailored to a recipient’s personality and interests.
Ashley and Kaden both shared a love for the Harry Potter books, so she got a stag from the book series drawn on her skin, below the title “Compan;on” written above it. The name “Kaden” means companion in its original form.
Serrano said he drew one design where butterfly wings were attached to a semicolon body.
Ashley said her tattoo sparks many conversations.
She said the tattoo helped her mourn in the first year after Kaden’s death, but after that it became more of a trigger. Because of her family’s efforts, many people have approached Ashley looking for help with their issues, which often led to her feeling overwhelmed.
Eight years later, Ashley approaches the anniversary of Kaden’s death first with general fatigue in late April, which turns to a dark realization of what’s coming up when the calendar flips to May.
“It’s like a subconscious awareness that the anniversary of his death is coming up,” she said. “It gets a little harder every time.”
The wounds reopened for the Simonsons recently when a family friend was lost to suicide, serving yet another reminder of the ongoing mental health struggle in America and Wyoming.
“It’s definitely touched our family in different ways through different friends,” Ashley said.
The month of May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Trish Simonson said one of the best ways to prevent suicide is to let people who are struggling know that there is always someone they can talk to about their problems, one of the main reasons she has been a vocal supporter of the state’s 988 suicide hotline centers.
She believes many people who feel suicidal don’t actually want to take their own life.
“It’s about how to go to people who are in crisis and get them in our focus right now,” she said. “We can give people hope and let them know it can be alright.”
This year, Trish has already been made aware of a few completed suicides happening in her county, which last year had the highest tally in the state. But she is encouraged by the recent efforts made in by the Wyoming Legislature to address mental health and call volumes at the state’s two suicide call centers as proof that suicide prevention efforts are paying off.
“When I start to feel down about the numbers, then I think about all the people reaching out for help,” she said.
Trish wants people who are suffering to know that whatever pain they are dealing with, it is only temporary.
“You need to try to live for tomorrow and get past those humps,” she said. “Maybe tomorrow or the whole next month might suck but it’s not continual for the rest of your life, I don’t believe that.”
If you are struggling with mental health issues, call or text 988 to reach Wyoming's Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.
You can reach Leo Wolfson at Leo@CowboyStateDaily.com.