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Posted December 27, 2008 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Road to recovery: Woman relies on faith, community after husband's suicide

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Sherrie Artz and her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Gracie, are framed inside a wreath on the window of her Strasburg home. Artz still grieves over the death of her husband, Sam Artz Jr., who committed suicide several years ago. Rich Cooley/Daily

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Artz finds comfort at the holidays from Gracie, her children and friends. Rich Cooley/Daily


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By Natalie Austin -- Daily Staff Writer

STRASBURG -- That's the thing about small towns. When a prominent businessman dies, word spreads quickly. When it's a suicide, word spreads faster.

When Sam Artz Jr. shot himself in the back room of his family's downtown hardware store, his wife remembers the police arriving and people -- people everywhere it seemed.

A family friend kicked down the locked door and found Artz, who had shot himself in the heart, says his widow, Sherry Artz. The store had been closed since Dec. 23 the year before.

The couple were married 30 years, lifelong residents of the town, fixtures in a community where most everyone knows everyone.

"I was in the parking lot for a while. We were just numb. I was crying. It was chaos," she says.

That was June 7, 2005.

Heading to another room to get a handkerchief, Mrs. Artz recently prepared to talk about her loss, but quickly wanted to change the subject to the path she has been on, a path where she has never been alone.

Members of the community, friends, church members, her pastor and many others were constantly there for her, she says. That support, her faith and two children have allowed her to carry on.

That's just the way it is in a small town.

•••

A framed photograph of her husband, white-haired and handsome, sits on a table in the front room. He was only 52 when he took his life. The house is decorated for the holidays, complete with a massive wreath on the front window that came from the hardware store along with a plastic Santa on the porch.

The decorations bring her comfort, make her feel like her husband, her "best friend," is still around, Mrs. Artz says. The period between Thanksgiving and New Year's can be a grueling marathon of pain for people in grief, she says. She still avoids malls, shopping, going in stores, instead twirling around and quickly heading for the nearest exit, she says, smiling. She feels safe at the home she shared with her husband.

But, at times, even that is hard.

"We were devastated. It's been four years and it's still devastating," she says, "He was the rock."

As acute as the pain is at times, Mrs. Artz says she decided to tell her story to help others, to give them hope. Also, she says, she wanted to let the community know she is OK. Grief is different for everyone, she says. There are fewer tear-filled days, days she doesn't want to eat, take a bath or dress. She has been forced on a journey no one wants to think about, but there's some light now.

•••

Her Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Gracie, is constantly on her lap on this recent afternoon, trying to cop a kiss from her mom at every chance.

She had wanted a lap dog, but her husband kept telling her to wait. She wonders about that, knowing the comfort the dog brings her now.

Artz was a quiet, reserved man who kept his own counsel, but seemed even more withdrawn the last months of his life. He lost a lot of weight, she says, and saw a doctor for depression. He never took the medication.

"I think he pretty much made up his mind a couple of months before he actually did it," she says.

The day it happened, Mrs. Artz says, she had a strange feeling. He awoke before daylight and gave her a kiss, said he had some things to do down at the store.

"I woke up in his arms and he was kissing me goodbye," she says.

The last time she spoke with him was about 3 p.m., when she called to ask if he wanted to go to a picnic that night. Hours passed. Mrs. Artz went down to the store about 5:30 p.m. but couldn't get the lights to come on. She says she thought she saw her husband hanging in there and called a family friend. She rushed home, got a flashlight, headed back, but couldn't find him. When her friend did, he shielded her from what he found. There was no note.

•••

Mrs. Artz had already recently lost her mother and father, the latter of whom died on New Year's Day. The darkness that surrounded her, though, was quickly illuminated by love -- her friends and members of the community were at the ready and descended upon one of their own. Some stayed the night with her and she was never left alone. Some people may get aggravated at living in a small town, she says, but the friends that filed through her door were her lifeline.

"It was a house of doom that's for sure, for a long time," she says.

She began seeing a psychiatrist for medication management and a therapist.

In emotional and physical pain, Mrs. Artz says she hit bottom. Her friend, Jean Miller, of Strasburg, came over and the widow didn't want to hear what Miller said was the only course of action.

Mrs. Artz checked into the crisis care unit at Winchester Medical Center. She had stopped eating, lost 40 pounds and was very ill, from what was later diagnosed as an abscess in her colon. Doctors didn't want to operate, however, until she was stronger psychologically.

"I was at the lowest of the low," she says.

She remained in crisis care for eight days. There, she found structure: meals were served at a certain time, there were therapy sessions, her medications were regulated.

After her release from WMC, she was still unable to be alone and the friends returned, making sure she ate and took her medicine.

She also was able to separate the physical and emotional pain.

"It was the beginning of dealing with life after death," she says.

•••

On New Year's Day in 2006, Mrs. Artz collapsed in the kitchen.

The surgery could wait no longer and a foot and a half of her colon was removed during surgery. The infection was bad. It took her about two months to recover once she was released from the hospital.

It was then time to work harder on the emotional issues.

She enrolled in a 12-week group therapy program at Valley Behavioral Health at the suggestion of her psychiatrist. There was homework. Group members talked about finances and other issues that arise once a spouse has died or is incapacitated. She also began attending a grief group at her church, St. Paul Lutheran Church in Strasburg."My pastor played a huge part in getting me through this," she says.

Last June, Mrs. Artz says she wanted to get away from it all. It was the third anniversary of her husband's death. Her pastor suggested she go to Holy Cross Abbey in Berryville, where she spent 48 hours in complete silence. She forgot to take her medication with her and hasn't taken it since.

•••

"Sam was the least likely person you would have thought would take his own life, but he was a prime candidate because he kept everything in," says Mrs. Artz. "He kept all that in."

Her daughter, Leslie, 30, pops in. She moved back home and is living in the basement. She kisses her mother and shows her a candle she received where she works at Signal Knob Middle School. It was off to Wal-Mart after dinner plans were discussed. Artz's son, Tim, 33, also lives in Strasburg.

With parents and husband gone, her children give her a sense of family. That's part of the reason the house is decorated for the holidays, she says, although it is bittersweet for her.

Her daughter feels some anger; she was particularly close to her father, Mrs. Artz says, and she is trying to help her with that.

Mrs. Artz, 57, is quick to respond to the reconciliation she has made with her husband's suicide.

"He was sick. He had an illness called depression and one of the outcomes of that illness could be suicide."

That doesn't make it less devastating, but it is how she gets her heart and head around such a loss.

"I will never be the same person I was before and that's not a bad thing," she says.

•••

Mrs. Artz already has goals for the new year and wants to make it one of change.

She's back working full time at the bank. She wants to eat better, quit smoking, go back to the abbey for some meditation.

"If I don't make some changes, I'm not going to live long and I don't want to shatter my children with the loss of their mother."

Faith, friends, family -- all have helped her through the losses of her parents and husband.

"Your faith is most important because all of these things I have done to get through this ... I feel are paths God led me down," she says.

*Contact Natalie Austin at naustin@nvdaily.com

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