Former MSGA president opens up about husband’s suicide, need for awareness
By all accounts, April 1, 2017, wasn’t much different from any other April Fools’ Day – an overcast sky; a damp chill in the air. Both hallmarks for an early spring day in Minnesota.
For Theresia Gillie, then-president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA), April Fools 2017 was the day the life she knew ceased to exist. That day Keith, her husband of nearly 34 years and her business partner on the farm, took his own life.
“It was gray and it was cold,” Gillie recalls of that Saturday morning. But unlike any other Saturday, this particular day found the Gillies chasing down yet another last-ditch attempt to avoid selling off parts of the farm, or worse yet, quitting altogether.
The Gillies were struggling. Keith and Theresia enjoyed a bountiful 2012 harvest followed by break-even years in 2013 and 2014. And then came the harvests of 2015 and 2016, both marred by a series of bad weather, from hail to drown outs. The Gillies were barely staying afloat. Banks were less inclined to work with them. Landlords were selling and rent wasn’t getting any cheaper.
On Friday, the day before Keith’s death, Theresia received a call from their marketing advisor with CHS in St. Paul. Theresia, resigned to the fact her and Keith were out of options, reluctantly took the call.
“I told him, ‘I can’t roll the dice again. I just can’t do it,’” she said of her unscheduled call. “‘We just aren’t making ends meet. We really aren’t living off of it, and we’re just loaning against our equity.’”
Her marketing person wanted her to speak with another person who happened to be sitting in his office. Theresia said she figured little would come of it but talked with the stranger anyhow.
After hearing her story, he said he could help, he just needed to see her records.
The Gillies decided to go for the Hail Mary.
“He said, ‘I’m going to work on this over the weekend and I’ll call you first thing Monday morning. I can do something with this.’ I told Keith, ‘Well, I guess we’ll see what he comes up with. We can sure wait till Monday.’”
But for Keith, the wait was over.
Farmers are planners and every decision — from seed, chemical and fuel purchases to selling crop — is part of a farmer’s risk management plan.
But when it comes to Mother Nature, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. In 2015-16, this is how it felt for the Gillies.
“We had an easy time planting and then we end up with these rain events and then you’re struggling,” she says. “You’re struggling to get the harvest off, and you know there just aren’t enough bushels there.”
Theresia, always hesitant to sell too much out of the bin for fear of a poor harvest, also knew there was other trouble brewing on the horizon.
Consecutive break-even harvests forced the Gillies to dip into working capital. Then the first of two poor harvests put the banks on the defense when it came to lending. The Gillies knew they’d need to recapture working capital for the health of the farm.
“In the midst of all this, we had one landlord who wanted to sell, which was great, but then I had two others that wanted to sell shortly thereafter,” Theresia says. “And it’s like, ‘ooh, wasn’t prepared for this.”
By 2016, the Gillies were planting a make or break crop, and the gravity of the situation wasn’t lost on either of them. Unfortunately, Mother Nature reared her ugly head once more, and the harvest left the Gillies in dire straits when it came to their farm.
Working 9 to 5
Being a farmer is much different from working a weekday job. Gillie sometimes wonders if it would be easier. At the very least, she wishes non-farmers had a better understanding of the anxiety of growing a crop each year, and why a farmer’s mental health can suffer when things go horribly wrong.
“Maybe punching a clock and working 9 to 5 Monday through Friday and having every weekend off and not caring if the next thunderstorm shows up probably wouldn’t be so bad,” she says. “That’s what we deal with. We deal with that thunderstorm that comes in the middle of the night and it’s four or five days from wheat harvest. And that thunderstorm comes and you do not sleep at all that night. ’Cause you know when the big white combine shows up, it can annihilate everything you have, everything you worked for and everything you did. And then you get to till it under, if you’re lucky.”
Gillie says caring for crops from planting through harvest also brings its own set of emotions
“That’s maybe one thing that people really don’t understand is that when you harvest that crop, you have so many feelings for it,” she says. “It’s like a child for you and you have to care for it. You put it in a bin and you haul it and you want to make sure you get all of it. It effects your profitability. It effects what you can buy and how you can live.”
Growing up farming
In the aftermath of Keith’s death, Theresia struggled to find meaning. Whatever emotions her mind was having trouble making sense of were alleviated by the support of friends, family, and directors and staff for MSGA and the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council.
One of those friends, Rochelle Krusemark, an MSR&PC director, was a sounding board for Theresia long before Keith’s death. Often times, Gillie says it is Krusemark’s well-timed calls that seem to come when she most needs an emotional lift.
“Rochelle has been a phenomenal support person,” she says. “She calls at the most unbelievable times, and I don’t know how she knows when I’m having a bad time.”
Krusemark suspects there is a higher power at play.
“We talked daily at first. Then a few times a week and then more sporadic,” Krusemark says. “I told Theresia it’s her angel that puts it in my head that I need to call her, because that’s what happens. And when I call her, she needs it.”
One of those moments that sticks out to Gillie was a video of Krusemark’s grandson. In the video, three-year-old Titus is holding a wrench and working on his tractor. He proclaims, “I’m a farmer!”
“How many people at three years old know they want to be an accountant? How many know they want to do communications? They don’t,” Gillie says. “There is something different about little farmers though, because here’s Titus and he’s three years old and he wants to be a farmer. Keith was three years old and knew he wanted to be a farmer.”
In the days after his death, Theresia kept a journal. There she surmised that the problem with identifying at such a young age a desire to join an occupation with so many ups and downs is it becomes a person’s only identity. Of that fact, Theresia wrote:
I was so busy. It was my job to build our assets. It was also my job to protect those assets. I just never thought that I needed to protect his identity, because I think he felt he was losing his identity.
“And that I still believe,” she says. “I think that he was feeling that if he couldn’t be a farmer, his identity was gone. He never had a job where he punched a clock. For him, I think he thought people would think that he was such a failure. But it wasn’t that we were filing bankruptcy; that wasn’t the case. We were just going to quit. And then things changed.”
Highs and lows
Losing his identity went hand-in-hand with losing his farm. But for Keith and Theresia, life without farming was much more difficult considering where they came from. In 1984, Theresia and Keith moved back to Keith’s family farm where he partnered with his father until a bitter split in the early 2000s.
The finances weren’t good then, either, but in 2005 the husband and wife duo came up with a plan: Keith would handle the on-farm, day-to-day tasks while Theresia went to work diversifying their interests and marketing their crops.
She started Roth IRAs for both of them and eventually bought some annuities and stocks.
“I was proud to have this other portfolio – to be able to know that if something were to happen or when we retired there is more than Social Security,” Gillie says. “I wanted to have a little bit of power in what was going to happen to us moving forward.”
Getting the farm in the black was a big high for the Gillies, so imagine the low when the duo talked about calling it quits on the farm, which had been in Keith’s family since 1899. Theresia recalls the conversation being hard.
“The conversation got to be, we are too rich to be broke,” she says.” We have too many assets. We are not broke. We just don’t have working capital.”
In November of 2016, Theresia was elected as a county commissioner in Kittson County. She saw the opportunity as two-fold: she could bring in additional income to the farm while securing health insurance.
For Keith, that concept was less welcoming and led to the biggest regret Theresia harbors from that fateful April Fools’ Day. She found him sitting alone on the deck after her morning walk. The uncertainty of their farming operation was taking its toll, and Theresia admits she was frustrated.
“I said, ‘It’s going to be ok. We’re too rich to be broke,’” she says. “Then I told him, ‘I cannot be the only person that knows how to bring extra money into this house.’ And then I got in the shower. That’s the last thing I said to him. Not very nice, by the way. I was pretty mad, because I wanted him to think outside of his box.”
Where was God?
Theresia spent a good many months being mad at Keith. And why wouldn’t she? He did, as she puts it, leave her and their son, Bryce, behind. Also a Christian, she found she was angry with God.
“I was really mad at God for a long, long, long time,” she says. “I quit going to church. I was angry, and I was angry at Keith. I was like, ‘How dare you leave me?’”
She also had questions without answers. The day of Keith’s death, she recalls asking various clergy members a specific question about her husband’s death.
“I remember asking Father Craig, ‘Where was God when Keith needed him?’ and he says, ‘He caught him when he fell.’”
She felt farther away from God in the fall of 2017 when she and Keith’s 5-year-old German Shepard, Brooke, had to be put to sleep. Brooke became a source of comfort and safety for Gillie after her husband’s death. But it was her son’s purchase of an expensive dog in January of 2014 that eventually drew her back to God.
“I thought he might get a cat or something but he bought a little miniature Schnauzer,” she says.
She says she was very angry with her son for the purchase, but shortly after Keith’s death, Bryce took a job away from home, and his miniature Schnauzer, Bridgette, became Theresia’s new companion, one she leans on and cares for and serves as her riding buddy in the fields.
“When you think about God’s plan, did God have a plan because God knew I’d need Bridgette eventually?” she says. “That was probably the epiphany moment when you think, ‘How long has this plan been going on?’ You think about the big plan for your life, and that’s kind of when I thought, you know, there’s a plan for me.”
Eventually, Theresia made her way back to church. She found solace in the lessons and from the many books provided to her by friends and family. Today, she finds comfort and strength from her faith.
‘He left me’
Often with suicides, there’s no note, no answer to why a loved one took their life. Sadly for Theresia, she too is left with questions but no answers.
“I don’t get to have any whys,” she says.
Only 25-30 percent of those who commit suicide leave notes. With no note, there remains the unopen computer file or some other “hiding place” that lingers in the back of her mind.
“If I find a random notepad, my heart sinks because it’s like, ‘Is it here?’ I didn’t get anything. All I know is he left. He left me.”
There is also a lot of guilt. Aside from the guilt Gillie has for her last words to Keith, she also is consumed by this very notion: “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel guilty,” she says. “That I didn’t see it. If I didn’t see it who was going to see it? Keith was private anyway. He didn’t talk a whole lot to other people. So the one person who should have saw it was probably me, and I didn’t see it.”
In hindsight, the warning signs were there. Gillie says her family noticed him withdrawing years before the couple considered getting out of farming. More recently, in the months leading up to his death, Gillie says she noticed a change in behavior, but chalked it up to her being busy.
“He really, those last two months, every time I woke up at night, he wasn’t in bed,” she says. “He was in the living room or looking something up. ‘I’d tell him come to bed.’ He just wasn’t sleeping.”
Gillie also can recall a change in his eating pattern and often worried he wasn’t eating when she was away on business. Normally a busy person who sought out small projects, Theresia said Keith did little when she wasn’t home, and the house didn’t even appear lived in.
“Now when I look back, that was probably a pretty big sign,” she says.
Picking up the pieces
Theresia admits the road to recovery has been long, and the finish line is still so far away.
“For months, I kept trying to pick up these pieces of my life and they would crash down,” she says. “I bet it took me four or five months to figure out that the life I knew was never going to exist.”
She regularly sees a counselor, and she leans on her friends, family, the community and her church for support. But even all the support in the world couldn’t prepare her for her new normal.
“I keep telling people that I still go to a counselor because I think it as a sign of strength that I know I still need one. It’s not the worst thing.”
In the early stages of her grief, simple tasks had become difficult. Managing multiple projects drained her energy, and so had concentrating for long periods of time. Even reading was difficult. Two and half weeks after Keith’s death, she remembers waking up one morning the day of a county commissioners meeting and dreading leaving the house. It was here she made the first of many choices she’s encountered throughout the healing process.
“I got up and I thought, ‘I can’t do this.” she says. “And I remember telling myself I either need to give up, or I need to get up. I chose to get up.”
More than a year later, she still struggles with the sharp focus she had before his death. She reads more, and empowers herself with devotional readings. She knows she isn’t fully comfortable taking on bigger roles or expending large amounts of energy like she did leading up to and during her presidency. But she knows she is moving in the right direction.
“I told somebody at Commodity Classic, ‘I don’t get to have the old me. I only get to build the new me. Maybe I can be a better me.’”
Small town livin’
In order to even start thinking about her new life, Theresia first accepted help from her old life, the farmers of Kittson County and the community members from Hallock. Being Keith died in April, the Gillies weren’t too far away from the planting season. Theresia still had rent contracts and other obligations to fulfill.
“When my neighbors came after Keith passed away, and they said ‘We’re going to help you farm,’ I kind of thought, ‘What?” she says. “It wasn’t a Farm Rescue thing. It was a neighbor thing and a Kittson County thing. I told them I knew I couldn’t do a whole lot because I was struggling and they said, ‘Just let us handle everything.’”
Gillie said some neighbors helped coordinate the planting effort. Those who couldn’t spare the time purchased fuel and supplies for the farm. She recalls filling her diesel tank about half full. After a few days, a neighbor called her and told her to check how much was left.
“We had taken fuel out of it for a number of days and I called him and said, ‘How did I fill it half full and now it’s more than half full?’ So sometimes somebody else came and delivered the magic fuel ferry. I have no idea how many other people did this. All I know is that it happened. I’m incredibly humbled by it, because you don’t think you deserve it. Everybody else was having a hard time. But we were having a hard time, too.”
All too often
Gillie’s story isn’t unique. Too many people, she says, have been affected by a loved one’s suicide. But being a farmer in Minnesota is a double whammy. According to the Center for Disease Control, people working in farming, fishing and forestry have the highest suicide rates in the U.S., at 84.5 suicides per 100,000 people. Additionally, the CDC estimates that suicide rates are highest in rural areas where residents have the easiest access to firearms, a staple of the Minnesota landscape outside of the metro and surrounding suburbs.
Nationally, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death but in Minnesota it is the 8th leading cause. The CDC estimates that one person dies by suicide every 12 hours in the state, and six times as many Minnesotans die by suicide as they do by homicide.
Theresia recalls a few phones calls she received after Keith’s death in which the person on the other end of the line told her they noticed a neighbor struggling to finish planting and went and helped them, if for no other reason than they thought of her and Keith.
“I think it made some people aware that maybe they need to watch what is going on in their own neighborhood,” Gillie says. “We need to get that out so people understand: Go help your neighbor, damn it. They need some help and they are struggling. When someone goes and helps you and you get a little relief, that’s probably all that person needs to get their sanity back to where it belongs.”
But Gillie resigns herself to the fact that suicide still carries a heavy stigma, and farmers aren’t the best at asking for help, something she said she wished Keith could have done.
“We gotta let farmers know if they need help they’ve gotta reach out,” she says. “And it’s ok to reach out. There’s something with Keith that got off kilter. I can’t fix it now. I only get to deal with it.”
Gillie says funding for rural mental health is critical for Minnesota, something MSGA worked hard to get passed during 2018 before losing it to Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto pen. She plans on using her story to continue to push for help for her fellow farmers.
“I want the policymakers to know that I am going to still stand up, but there are some things that need fixing. I’ll tell them my story. It’s not a great story, but it’s a powerful one. There’s something broken in agriculture. We have some risk management tools but they’re not good enough. There’s a lot of equity and sweat equity and investment that goes with this occupation and they need to understand that.”
- MN Rural Mental Health Counselor Ted Matthew 320-266-2390
- MDA’s Farm & Rural Helpline 1-833-600-2670
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255