A Tale of Two Grief Journeys

There are a million topics I would rather write about than suicide prevention. However, suicide prevention is the topic we truly need to discuss as it impacts the construction industry on a larger scale. Unfortunately, suicide has impacted me personally not once, but twice.

By now you saw the word TWO in the title and the word TWICE , so you have a clue what is coming. I’m going to come right out and type it even though it hurts. I lost two brothers to suicide eleven years apart. Insert curse words here! Just reading it, I am having an out of body experience. This is something that happens to someone else, yet here we are.

Two brothers. Mark in 1983 and Matthew in 1994. My reaction was vastly different for each of them dying by suicide.  With Mark, I turned to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism. You all can guess how that turned out. Not well. Matthew was doing the same thing and sometimes we did it together. I will take this misstep to my grave because while I was numbing my pain, I never looked over to see how much pain Matthew was in -- and he slipped right through my fingers.

Mark & Matthew on the front porch.

Now for your sake, let us focus on the reaction I had after Matthew’s death as there are some solid learnings there.  Learnings I truly wish I employed after losing Mark. The first thing I did was sober up. Probably not a popular suggestion for the construction industry where the workforce is known to “work hard and play hard”.  

We all get it, but stay with me as I was really depressed after losing Matthew and alcohol is a depressant. Drinking at this point would be like pouring gasoline on a raging fire. It is not helpful, and it is really dangerous.  I got hammered the night before we buried Matthew, and I haven’t touched the stuff since.  Typing these words is easy; doing it was hard. I’m not going to lie, but there was a hump I got over and now it is easy.

I highly recommend sobriety to anyone going through a rough patch. I always thought I would come back to drinking, but I really liked who I became while sober. I feel everything now. Intense joy, and yes intense pain and everything in between, and I would have it no other way. Now I was shocked into sobriety and would not wish this path on the devil himself, but there are many ways to this destination, and I encourage you to find yours. Many of my sober friends have used Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and swear by it. You are a smart person; you can find your path. Just know that I could not be writing this article if I did not put the bottle down.

I then did another smart thing (and I am not known for doing smart things) and saw a professional mental health therapist.  My employer at the time had an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and I took full advantage of it.  Side note:  I have had good health insurance and lousy health insurance in my career, and I have paid cash out of pocket to see my therapist.  That is how much I believe in therapy!


Dennis & Mark together.

So, if you are keeping score at home, let us recap.  After Mark died, I employed some seriously negative coping skills like drinking and drugs and that got me absolutely nowhere. After Matthew died, I sobered up and sought out therapy and I am now a functioning human being. I am not going to deceive you and proclaim that everything is all skittles and unicorns now.  Life is hard, but I feel ready to take it on to the point where I have turned my misery into my mission. I now speak about my brothers publicly and about my journey as a suicide loss survivor.  It “only” took me sixteen years in my man cave to even begin to think about talking about my brothers. Grief does not carry a stopwatch. You get there when you get there.

Now, this article will be published in September, which is Suicide Prevention Month. Every month is suicide prevention month, and this is especially important you, the good folks in the construction industry. Your wonderful industry is tops on a list that no one wants to be on. The construction industry has the highest number of suicides and the highest suicide rate of any industry. I literally took that last line right from the CFMA website[1].  In 2016, the suicide rate for men in construction and extraction occupations is almost twice the total suicide rate for civilian working men (16-64 years old) in 32 states1 and 5 times greater than the rate for all fatal work-related injuries in the construction industry in 2018.[2]  Women reading this may notice I am picking on the men and with good measure.  Men account for 78% of all completed suicides. Do not gloat women, as there are three female attempts for every male attempt at suicide.[3] 


Dennis & Matthew together.

In conclusion, we are ALL in this together and despite all that I have personally been through I am hopeful. Hopeful that we are at a tipping point where it is ok to talk about mental health early and often, so we will not have to do so much suicide prevention work in the future. I am also hopeful because of the excellent work of the folks at CFMA for taking on this subject for years now.  I am so proud of this entire movement and honored to be contributing what little I can.  Now if a guy who walked behind two caskets of his brothers lost to suicide can be hopeful about the future, so can you. Push your organization to get more involved in this effort and who knows, the life we save may just be your own. Or your brothers.


The author wants to thank Cal Beyer for his ongoing encouragement and friendship. Beyer CWP, SCTPP, is Vice President of Workforce Risk and Worker Wellbeing for CSDZ, a Holmes Murphy Company. The author and Beyer are frequent collaborators on various mental and behavioral health initiatives in the construction industry.

End Notes

[1] https://cfma.org/suicideprevention

[2] CDC Blog https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2020/09/09/suicide-in-construction/

[3] Facts and Statistics – American Association of Suicidology

About the Author

Dennis Gillan

Dennis is a dynamic speaker who focuses on connecting with audiences to reach the one person that needs to feel hope today. His personal story is touching and demonstrates the power of finding hope and purpose following his grief journey. Dennis is the executive director of the Half A Sorrow Foundation.

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