May we all be a Richard Zipp

I've debated how to go about sharing this personal story, but the fact is ... we lose too many to suicide every day, including our Veterans. So I've decided to take a chance.

Before I begin sharing what happened, I want first to encourage you to read the obituary of a remarkable United States Marine Corps Veteran. The recipient of the Purple Heart for combat action in Vietnam, Richard Zipp later served the citizens of Harris County, with the Houston Police Department, having been known as Officer Friendly. Does that say something about him already? Later, he served with the Williamson County Sheriff's Department.  Please take a moment to read his obituary here: Richard Zipp obituary .

A humble man, Richard Zipp was always and only about service to others. As you can read in his obituary, he carried the Texas flag, leading police officers down Pennsylvania Avenue at the 1989 Presidential Inauguration of President George Bush, Sr.

And there is so much more.

I only knew Richard through my church in Georgetown. My first, very real, up-close-and-personal knowledge of him was in a marriage class that he, his wife, my late husband Terry, and I went through together. That's when I really began to know and appreciate the depth and richness of Richard Zipp and his precious wife.

But I never knew the complete story ... until his death. He was, as I said, humble. 

So what does this have to do with death by suicide?

Back in the late summer of 2012, when my husband suddenly died without warning, I probably went a bit nuts for a while.

Well ... I most likely did.

No ... I really did. I absolutely went nuts.  

About two and a half months down the grief road, when the cold winds began to blow in as Thanksgiving approached, I was invited to a "connection group" (that's what our church calls small focus/house groups that meet for devotionals, usually on Sunday evenings). This group met in beautiful Sun City, Georgetown.

It was an absolutely delightful, joyful group of people that I'd never been around at one gathering. And that, my friends ... that was the first time I looked around a room and suddenly felt overwhelmed. I was THE ONLY ONE who was alone. Everyone else was married, sitting as a couple, living out their dreams.

The devo ended, people talked, mulled about, enjoyed refreshments, and I decided I wanted/really desperately needed to slip out and head home. It was cold, and I would be going home to a dark and empty house, still very new to me. As I started down the foyer and onto the porch, I realized Richard Zipp had stepped up behind me. 

Now ... I want to word this very carefully, so please do not read anything more into this. I do not believe ... nor will I ever believe ... that I was suicidal, but remember ... Richard and his wife had been with me and Terry during a very intense marriage class. He had observed us in many lights ... happy ... angry ... hurt ... healing. But Terry was now dead.

Richard quietly started talking with me about suicide. It totally shocked me, caught me completely offguard, when I realized what he was talking with me about. He talked about how he felt coming home from Vietnam and the horrible depression that overtook him and many of those who served during that horrible wartime. The dire thoughts he'd had ...

It felt like my ears had started buzzing. I could hardly grasp what he was saying to me. But he obviously thought he saw something in my face, in my expression and body language, that made him fear for me. Maybe he only empathized with what he thought I was going through.  But he dared enough to step onto that porch and care.

"We just have to keep on going, Betty," he spoke very softly to me. "I know it's hard, but we have to keep on going."

Others inside that home did not understand why Richard came out there on that porch alone with me ... but so many times after that exchange, I considered his words and the great courage behind them.

I loved and respected him so much for daring to approach a vulnerable, grieving widow with a very bold, but loving challenge, to keep on going. And he gave glory to God the whole time he spoke to me during those few minutes.

Richard had decided to live.  And so should I.

Two years slowly passed by. 

I then wrote the blog, some moments better than most. As you read this, can you feel his humility?  I realize that I barely skirted the issue of what Richard was saying to me that night on the porch. But I hope I have clearly shared the full picture today. It really takes courage to care.

A couple of months ago, Richard came to church knowing he was dying. Cancer was everywhere, and he was not afraid of death. I knew I wanted to try and thank him for those precious minutes he offered from his heart that cold night on the porch ... and the difference they had made in my life and perspective. I sat down on the pew in front of him before church started, turned around, and started into my thanks.

He immediately seemed to know what I was talking about, tried to assure me that he understood, but of course, others kept coming up to talk with him. Everyone loved him.  But in that brief exchange, I'm praying he heard what I was saying.

Many of us have lost friends and loved ones, lost Veterans, to death by suicide. I personally have had two neighbors in two different cities take their lives.

One afternoon, a young mother, hurting inside, is sitting outside in our apartment courtyard, watching her three little children play. I never knew her name, because I hadn't stopped to talk with her. I didn't see her despair.

The next day, sirens are screaming. She had put her children out to play, gone inside, called her husband home, and taken her life by shotgun. 

One night a few years later, a neighbor comes over after dark to give me a Christmas package UPS had delivered when we weren't home ... the next morning, my husband is cleaning that neighbor's blood and hair from his ceiling. I hadn't invited that man in when he brought the package. I didn't see what he was feeling inside.

What I am saying is certainly not new or profound.

I'm just saying, stay aware, and keep on plugging. Keep on trying.

That's what Richard said ... Keep on going. Keep on encouraging others to do the same.

Don't be afraid to ask those very important questions ... not only of others when you see a countenance that causes concern ... but even of yourselfHave you ever wished you were dead?  Have you ever thought about killing yourself?  Do you have a plan in mind? Have you started to prepare to take your life?

It's important. If I had detected anything in that young mother's countenance that made me worry about her, would I have said something? If I had recognized depression or desperation in that man who rang my doorbell one Christmas Eve, would I have invited him in and spoken those important words?

I surely would hope so.

But let me tell you something ... Richard Zipp did. Richard Zipp responded to what he thought he saw. 

Not one moment's hesitation.

May we all be a Richard Zipp.




Betty F. Sandefur


March 1, 2018 - 2:45pm