Jill and Steve Miskelley could not fathom getting out of bed, their lives no longer whole. Grief can wither away the soul, and in those days, weeks, months, the couple was in the early stages of wrestling with the debilitating pain of losing a child to suicide.
Steve and Jill are outgoing. They didn’t want to speak to anyone for months.
“You want to curl up into a ball,” Steve Miskelley said. “You just want this to be a bad dream.”
Ian Miskelley was an accomplished swimmer and four-time state champion and two-time state record holder from Holland Christian, who was on the Michigan swim team. Although he loved swimming and its challenges, he could never seem to enjoy the wins and high marks, shrugging them off, his mother said, as anything anyone could do. Ian was more in tune with the successes of others and offering encouragement when needed. The spotlight, though warranted, was not something he ever sought and never desired.
He was 11 years old when he realized he was struggling with mental anguish and went to his parents for help. Ian was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, but he pushed on with the support of his parents, and older sister, Chelsea. His parents were grateful Ian could receive help at Michigan through Athletes Connected, which provides therapists and counselors to help athletes with their mental well-being. They said it was among the main reasons he chose Michigan.
Entering his junior year at Michigan, where he had been Academic All-Big Ten, Ian died by suicide on Sept. 7, 2020. He was 19. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in this country and the second-leading cause of death among those ages 10 to 34. It is the second-leading cause of death among college students.
In Ian’s final Instagram post on Sept. 1, his words appeared under a photo of an empty Michigan Stadium: “In times like these, where our world is full of uncertainty and unpredictability, it’s important to stick with those around us through thick and thin and support each other through everything each of us face. Here’s to year 3 with the best team out there.”
What follows his post are messages, some as recent as two weeks ago, from teammates and friends who miss him.
“He was an extraordinary young man, and he lost the battle that day,” Steve Miskelley said. “But he battled for years before that, and he stayed ahead of it until that day. I don’t want to remember how he died. I want to remember how he lived.”
From his parents’ grief has come resolve.
They created the Ian Miskelley Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation of Holland/Zeeland and have raised nearly $50,000. Mock Rock, a talent show and fund-raiser by athletes at Michigan, last month went virtual and proceeds were donated to the memorial fund. There is an upcoming youth swim meet in the west side of the state which is raising money for the fund. Michigan has endowed a swimming scholarship in Ian’s name and is creating a memory plaque for him in the Academic Center.
Steve and Jill have channeled their grief into planning and fund-raising to build the “Ian Miskelley Be Better Mental Wellness Center” in Holland, for adolescents ages 14 to 22, targeting an age group that is among the most susceptible to mental illness. They would like to have the doors of their non-profit opened to those in need within two years. The Miskelleys have been working with various consultants from the medical and business worlds, and although they know it’s ambitious, they would like to raise $20 million over the years to support this facility.
“I vowed to Ian that I’m going to turn this into something positive,” Steve said. “I had no idea what that even was, but at that time, I just said, ‘I’m not going to let this go, buddy.’ We’ve got to do what we can to help other people who are struggling to not go through this.”
Developing this plan has been therapeutic and cathartic for the Miskelleys.
“You can sit here and wallow in grief — that’d be really easy — and you could get lost in some days,” Steve said.
“And some days you do,” Jill said.
“The point is, you can sit here and wallow in and at the end of the day get nowhere and just feel bad about it,” Steve said, “or if you’re gonna feel bad, let’s at least try to help somebody else, so that this doesn’t happen again. I think that’s what we really owe to him.”
Jill has built a website, BeBetterHolland.com, to coordinate with the plans for their mental health facility. Steve’s brother delivered a eulogy for Ian from which the Miskelleys drew their inspiration for the center and website names.
“At the end, he said, ‘Ian made us all better for knowing him. That was his greatest superpower. So be better,’” Steve said.
The website features a stylized turtle logo but the main photo of a turtle that greets visitors is one that Ian took underwater during the family’s last vacation together in Hawaii.
“Ian was a turtle fanatic since he was a little kid,” Jill said, her voice light as she shared the memory. “It was our last family vacation and he got to swim with turtles. The hotel just happened to be the best spot for sea turtles, so it was pretty cool. He was a turtle person, and then he just took an awesome picture.”
This facility is about Ian Miskelley’s legacy, and his parents are determined to always shine a light on their son, while also trying to illuminate what Steve describes as an “irrational disease.” Children and adults get medical physicals, but why aren’t they given mental evaluations, especially when they’re younger, they ask.
They are motivated after going through the mental illness fight they shared with their son and finding so many loose ends in the medical system.
“A few times with Ian when he was younger, he was like, ‘I feel like I’m out of control. I need help,’” Jill said. “I’d bring him to the (emergency room), and they said, ‘You just wait here, and we see if he doesn’t think he’s a threat to himself, then we send you home and you’re supposed to call your counselor and we hope you can get in.’ And that’s it.”
They described what they called a series of handoffs — the emergency room can’t handle a mental illness issue, so try a counselor or try a mental health facility, that often doesn’t have beds available.
“Or you just hope they come home with you and you hope they’re fine,” Steve said. “It’s just not good. And that’s exactly the gap that we’re trying to bridge. We’re trying to provide that service where we’ve got some beds that are available for up to 72 hours or something like that so we can get somebody somewhat stabilized and we can keep a close eye on him.”
They also want to build support groups for parents and families.
“I spent countless hours looking stuff up in the internet and trying to find out, ‘How can I help? What’s wrong with him? What does he need? What’s the right thing to do?,” Jill said. “And as a parent, you’re second-guessing yourself, ‘Did I say the right thing? Did I do the right thing?’ We want to get the families involved and counsel the families because you feel like you’re alone, and you don’t know what to do and your kid or person is suffering. It’s terrible, actually, to be completely honest. It was awful. So we’re hoping to help other families not have to go through as much as we did.”
Their daughter is getting married soon, and her future husband, Jeremiah, has been a fixture in the Miskelleys’ lives, especially in the months since Ian’s death. They share glimpses of joy and happiness, but know they will never be the same. Steve and Jill said their friends and community have been a beacon of light and support. They want to talk about their son, they want to share what they know about mental illness, and they are determined to make Ian’s legacy the Be Better Wellness Center.
“The way I look at it is the world hasn’t stopped spinning,” Steve Miskelley said. “My friend put it a good way. He says you learn to live around the hole in your life. It’ll never be the same. But there’s always going to be this underlying sadness for everything now.
“And even if you try to minimize it, there’s always going to be this feeling of a piece of us isn’t here. A piece of us is missing out, and you’re conscious of that all the time. But can we live around that hole in our lives? We’re learning.”
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