Jessica and Amanda’s mother ran a successful insurance business in Underwood, Washburn and Bismarck for many years. After her suicide they took the bull by the horns and have continued their mother’s legacy in growing the company significantly over the past six years.
A: The absolute worst part was when I got a call from a friend at our state insurance organization. He had gotten a call from the Insurance Department when my mom didn’t show up after they called her at home and said to come to Bismarck. This was on a Saturday morning. Jessica was in Bismarck, our dad was at work. I was doing yard work with my fiancé, Wade. It was a beautiful day for March, sunny and 70.
I started frantically calling her. I checked the house, her office, you try to convince yourself…I thought maybe she was driving around, or even jumped a plane… I knew she wouldn’t do that, it was just wishful thinking at that point. Jessica drove up, my dad came home from work and we went to the office to try and find something that would tell us where she was.
I don’t know how you explain it, I think we all knew, as soon as they said they couldn’t find her. Then we went to mom and dad’s house and just sat, staring at each other. When three cops show up, including the sheriff, you know they’re not bringing good news.
J: It was the longest day ever. One of the hardest things to cope with was, every weekend our family was together. I had lived in Bismarck and I would still go up (to Underwood), we would go to the farm, the office or the cabin – we were always working on some project together. That day everyone was split up. What were the chances?
A: Why she didn’t go back to the few customers involved and swallow her pride, we don’t know. She couldn’t admit she couldn’t do something. If you knew my mom, she did not fail. When she put her mind to do something, she did it. To put it in perspective, the business has grown, but there are four of us doing what she was doing. It was not uncommon for her to work all night.
You think of a million reasons and the only thing it comes down to is, I don’t think she could face the embarrassment and she wanted to protect us.
J: I think certain people kept wanting to make it bigger than it was, so they kept running the same story over and over, and a lot of it was not accurate information. It was very hard to see. We were told we were too young to run the business and we should hire an older man to be the face of the business. We said, ‘No, we can do this.’
A: We did not ever think about quitting. We thought about what we would do if we were forced into it. So, we thought about what if, but did we ever think about closing down?
J: No, that’s not how we were raised. We just took the bull by the horns. They would not let us (the daughters) back into the office for about two weeks. That was horrible. My mom started the business, from scratch, in 1990. I was ten, Amanda was six. We were raised there. Every Saturday we were there filing, taking out garbage. We would work, then get a pizza party. It was where our family congregated, it was what we did. So to be going through all of this stuff and we can’t even walk back in. Wade (who works at the agency, too) took a huge brunt of it and we have great, great employees and it was all handled so we could get things rolling again when we could finally get back in.
Talk about the whole healing process, what would we have done without the office? That is something I feel bad for others trying to heal who have too much time on their hands, too much time to think. We would literally go in at 7 and some nights I would get home and watch the news at 10. It was just work, keeping busy, to help me out of that funk.
A: That is my best advice to anyone that is going through a hard time is to keep busy and productive, a good busy. You have to sort your thoughts eventually, but we had the agency to run and I had a wedding to plan. I think sometimes people do non-productive things to keep themselves busy and get into trouble.
J: We lost clients right away, a small amount. But we had so many good customers say, ‘we respected your mom, we respect you. You’re good people.’ People were so kind and helpful.
I still have customers cry at my desk. Amanda is the spitting image of mom, so some people think they’ve seen a ghost.
A: I leaned on Wade, but between Jessica, my dad and me I think we were all so focused on keeping each other going. It was kind of like, ‘I’m hurting, but not as much as she is, so I am going to keep her up,’ and I think we were all thinking the same thing. If any of us were willing to admit that we individually weren’t ok, things could have been much different. Stubbornness does have its place.
J: I had an apartment in Bismarck, but I lived with Dad for awhile. It was August 1st when I finally moved back to Bismarck. I just kept telling myself I didn’t want to leave him alone, but I also didn’t want to be alone. That was hard on our relationship because we were in each others space and weren’t used to it. We were just trying to save each other. I also remember not knowing what month it was. I think God puts you in a fog for a reason. He brings your head around when you’re ready. You have to realize life goes on.
A: Wade and I had just gotten engaged the end of February, we ran to the office to tell my mom. To have such a huge thing happen right then. I remember saying to him, ‘If you don’t want to marry me any more you don’t have to.’ He did not want to hear any of it.
J: The hardest thing to deal with is when people start questioning me about what happened and I get it a lot because my last name is Cottingham.
A: And I get it in a different way, people think they are talking to a random person and are not always as kind.
J: It does not happen as much any more, but the first year or two people would ask the most blunt questions. Even the first few weeks…
A: ‘Are you telling the whole story? Well then why did she do it?’ There is always that group of people looking for a bigger story. You just have to remember there are way more good people out there and try to focus on that.
J: They are insensitive questions to ask someone who has just lost a loved one.
A: But then there was the outpouring from a lot of other agents, community people, classmates and teachers, people we didn’t even know. It made us realize how much just telling someone you’re thinking about them makes a difference. We have both tried to do better at sending a card, giving a call, just remembering people and letting them know they are important to you.
J: I have a really good support system. I have a lot of friends that have lost parents, too. They knew the right things to say. But, we felt our situation was different and it wasn’t until about a year ago when we could actually say, ‘our mom committed suicide.’
A: It took me a long time to realize that Wade lost someone important too. I think it is hard for a lot of people at the agency when we can’t share our successes with her.
One thing that has really bothered me lately, I don’t know why people don’t talk about things more openly. I had a miscarriage and I told a few people and found most people I told had been there before, but it’s supposed to be kept quiet. Suicide is the same way. We could have a better support system in so many things if people would be honest that they aren’t perfect and use their experiences to help support others. I don’t know how someone goes through it alone. You have to find someone to lean on. Friends are good, churches are good. You have to let people help you.