Seven years later, Janet Benz still raising awareness

I first met Janet Benz seven years ago.

Her heart was crushed, but she was intent on picking up the pieces and turning them into something good.

Janet Benz and her story returned for the seventh annual Christopher Benz Memorial Baseball Tournament last weekend at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School. (Sun staff file photo by Nick Clark)
Janet Benz and her story returned for the seventh annual Christopher Benz Memorial Baseball Tournament last weekend at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School. (Sun staff file photo by Nick Clark)

At the time, her loss was one that none of us can truly fathom.

Even now, we still can’t.

Benz’s son Christopher had decided to take his own life only months prior to when I met Janet.

Our meeting was set up to discus a baseball tournament that she wanted to start to not only honor her boy, but to raise awareness of what it is that leads to the tragic decision Christopher made when he took his own life.

Since then, with the help of countless others, that message has been shared in all corners of the state.

Grants have gone out to high schools across Minnesota to aid the work being done on battling depression.

An offspring of the Christopher Benz Memorial Baseball Tournament in Perham – the Highway 10 Baseball Classic – has completed its second go-around.

The word, of which Benz has become an co-author of, has gotten out.

“It is working,” she said last week. “We are reaching people and changing lives.”

That outreach returned home once again this past weekend, as six local VFW teams from Champlin Park, Robbinsdale Armstrong, Osseo, DeLaSalle, Minneapolis Washburn and Centennial gathered for the seventh annual playing of the Christopher Benz Memorial Baseball Tournament.

The event started with a program inside Robbinsdale Armtrong High School. Each of the six teams involved attended, but hardly a word pertaining to the games they would play over the weekend was uttered.

Instead, they heard stories and received advise on how to recognize depression or any other sort of mental illness that could one day end as tragically as Christopher Benz’s story did in January of 2007.

Maria Willits was one of the speakers on hand. Her son Ricky committed suicide four years ago.

“She tells their families tragic story of suicide when her son Ricky died just weeks before his high school graduation,” Benz said. “She talks about how he suffered in silence from his depression and she talks about that journey and their road to recovery. Her message to kids is to risk the friendship and save the life. His friends knew of his depressions. But her story is not one of blame, at all. It is more about raising awareness to speak up and shatter that code of silence that young people have.”

An extension of the baseball tournament this past weekend helped aid the cause.

Willits started a Shatter the Silence 5K walk in her hometown of Rothsay. Last Sunday morning, with Benz by her side, the two led a Shatter the Silence 5K walk in Plymouth.

“We wanted to bring that story here,” said Benz.

Willits also has helped the Christopher Benz Foundation by speaking at each of the schools that have received a grant through the baseball tournament.

This year, all six schools were awarded at least $1,000.

The donations are one of the moment’s Benz says she enjoys the most each year.

That she still finds enjoyment is part of the recovery process she said she is going through.

This winter will mark the eight-year anniversary of Chris’s death.

There is a Facebook page set up to help remember the young man and to forge his mothers work ahead.

All these years later, Janet Benz is still grieving. That will likely never change. But that broken heart has been repaired by the good that has come of an otherwise tragic story, and the pieces have been built back into a powerful movement centered on suicide awareness.

“Losing a child, whether it is from suicide or any other kind of death, you never get over that,” she said. “But what I think it has done is it has really reshaped my life to where it is truly integrated and apart of my life. I think since those early days I have gotten more courageous about talking about it because it needs to be talked about. There is just too much at stake with these young lives.”