Mike Pikowski was an Oak Park businessman who was an active parent volunteer and a “dynamic, outgoing and fun guy.” He also had a mental illness, his wife Jennifer Pikowski said.
Despite his efforts to manage his depression, he fell victim to it and took his life on January 30. He was 41. He would have turned 42 on Monday.
Since his death, Jennifer’s journey dealing with overwhelming grief and struggling to help her children understand their father’s passing has been both difficult and eye-opening. This weekend, she'll participate in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention community walk in Chicago, where hundreds will gather to raise awareness about mental illness.
For the loved ones of a suicide victim, making sense of the loss is nearly impossible, she said. The only thing anyone can do is understand it wasn’t their fault.
Michael Pikowski, October 21, 1971-January 30, 2013
Once described as a “bewildering” example of adulthood, Mike Pikowski was “wickedly” smart—someone who was highly respected among his peers.
He was personable, and could be playful and goof around with the rest of them, said Jennifer. He was the guy who was friends with the jocks, the geeks and everyone in between.
And although he couldn’t open up about his own pain, he was able to realize what was deeply important to others, she said.
With his three kids, he was strict when he needed to be, but gentle and tender and playful. He had expectations and high hopes for them, and tried to encourage their creativity and push them when they weren’t doing it themselves, she said.
He had his own bookkeeping business for 10 years out of Oak Park, working with small- to mid-sized businesses.
“And (he was) very, very good looking. My mom used to tease me about that," she said.
Opening up about mental illness
Since January, Pikowski has participated in community walks for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), including the annual walk in Washington, DC, in June. She also organized a 70-person group to go to the White Sox game in her husband’s memory.
These events have presented opportunities for Pikowski to talk about her husband with her children and to raise awareness about mental illness to others.
Mental illness is not necessarily someone sitting in a corner talking to themselves, she said, “It’s a dynamic, outgoing, fun guy who had mental illness.”
“For whatever reason, suicide is something you don’t talk about and mental illness is something you’re shy about,” she said. If someone asks if he died because he was ill, she says, “yes.”
“(When people ask about his death ) …I say ‘yes, he was ill—he had mental illness and he died by suicide,’ as if I were saying he had heart disease,” she said.
“The brain is an organ (just like the heart), they just don’t know as much about it.”
Opening up about her husband’s death has opened Pikowski’s eyes to an astonishing number of others who have had similar experiences.
It’s a club no one knows about, and one no one wants to join, she said. And, unfortunately, the resources and insurance coverage available in the medical field for mental illness are limited.
‘Mental illness is just like any other illness’
“Mental illness is just like any other illness. You can’t will it away. It’s nothing to be ashamed about, (and) you need to ask in order to get support,” she said. “We all need to talk about it more like anything else, so people who do need the help can feel comfortable to get it.”
A mother of two boys, a 24-year-old stepson and 11-year-old Samuel, Pikowski knows men are taught not to share their feelings, cry or feel weak. Pikowski also has a 12-year-old daughter, Celia.
She’s trying to teach them the opposite: That showing emotion is a sign of strength.
“You have to love yourself and know what you need to do to help yourself,” she added.
If she can help her kids, or anyone for that matter, feel less awkward of fearful about talking about mental illness and their personal struggles, then she’ll feel at least one positive thing has come from her horrible pain.
AFSP funds research to help find solutions for people who struggle with all types of mental illness and they are working to remove the stigmas associated with those struggling with mental illness.
The Pikowskis are raising money to support the foundation and the cause. For more information and to donate to their page, go to the Pikowski family's page here.