Editor’s note: The following article discusses the topic of suicide, and reader discretion is advised.
Cory Swapp seemed like he had so much going for him: a girlfriend, a new skateboard, and a shiny new driver’s license. But on July 10, 2015, the 16-year-old beautiful blonde-haired boy took his own life.
September is Suicide Prevention Month and this week’s All In podcast featured Heidi Swapp, who is best known for her work in the scrapbooking world, but she is also Cory Swapp’s mother—a mother left in the days and weeks that followed Cory’s passing to replay again and again what she could’ve done differently. But as she met with Cory’s therapist, Heidi began to learn things she wished she had known years earlier.
Maya Angelou said, “Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn’t know before you learned it.” Heidi is a big believer in this principle, but she still wanted to do something with the information she was learning. She wanted other moms to have the help she wished she’d had. So, she started a podcast: Light The Fight where she and her son’s therapist, David Kozlowski, discussed important (and many times tough) topics related to parenting. Heidi says the things she learned changed everything in her life.
The following excerpt has been edited for clarity.
Morgan Jones Pearson: Well, this is kind of an interesting thing, I feel like Heidi, to be able to circle back around. Seven years ago, you and I spoke shortly after you lost your 16-year-old son Cory to suicide. And I don’t know how much you remember about that interview. but I found myself thinking about it the last little bit as I’ve prepared to interview you again. I’ve thought about how my life is a lot different and circumstances in my family are a lot different than they were then. I have learned a lot about interviewing people and so I appreciate your patience with me then because I’m sure I was just a mess. But I also just remember how gracious you were to talk—especially so soon after Cory’s passing.You were so gracious and wanted to share the things that you were learning with other people and to hopefully spare others the same pain that you were experiencing, which I think is one of the most Christlike things anybody could do. So thank you for that. But second, I wondered how you would say that you are a different person than you were seven years ago when we last spoke?
Heidi Swapp: Well, I appreciate that. You know, it’s funny when you reached out and you reminded me that you were the one who interviewed me because we never met, we only interviewed over the phone. And, you know, that was the first interview that I ever gave. It was the first time, and I don’t even know why I agreed to do that at that time. And I think to your point, I was really trying to find a voice. I was certainly recognizing that I wasn’t alone with suicide affecting my family. I was realizing that I had an opportunity to share that story. And I think that my personal passion—which has also kind of bubbled into my profession—is that I believe in the power of stories and the importance of stories. So, I knew really soon thereafter Cory passed away that it would be important for me to share the story. And that’s not to say that was my first thought. Because I think that my first thought was honestly like what lie could I come up with that would maybe be easier to talk about than the truth of what happened.
So, you know, thinking back to when we did that interview and for people who don’t know me, just a little teeny bit of background that’s a little bit interesting is that—if you’ll pardon this really broad and interesting description Ill give of myself—people would call me a scrapbook celebrity, which is weird. Very weird I know, just cringe for a second, it’s fine. But for the last 20 years, I have been published in magazines, … I’ve had books published, I’ve had a blog. And when you’re a scrapbooker, you share these really intimate photos and stories. I started teaching scrapbooking classes when I was pregnant with my son Cory who passed away. And so because of that, in the span of his lifetime, I had shared hundreds of photos and stories about him. And the people that were following me, there were a lot of years—16 years—that people had followed me and grown to know Cory in that way. And so when he passed away, I realized it would be necessary for me to tell people what happened.
It was still really hard for me to talk about it when we first chatted. And at the same time, it was really important for me to share the story. Because I knew that via social media and Facebook, this article would be a way that I could both share the story and also share my faith, which has always been an important opportunity for me to give a little insight into my belief system. And that always goes along in scrapbooking, no matter where I’ve been teaching ... Parallelism in my life has always gone hand in hand. So I’ve always talked about my faith. And specifically, that article that you were interviewing me for was in the faith section.
But also interestingly, at that time, Herriman, where I live in Utah, was also kind of a little hotbed force for teenage suicide. It had gained some national attention for that very reason. So, I felt like I wanted to be able to share that story and honor Cory and what we were then dealing with.
You asked me how things are different in seven years, and seven years is a good long time. I can remember meeting people in the beginning and when it was convenient, they would say to me, “Oh, this is very fresh for you.” And now seven years later, I understand what that means. Like, for example, when we first spoke it’s a wonder that you could even understand me, I’m sure that I was crying throughout the interview—it was very difficult for me to talk without crying. And you know, it still is. I’ll be honest, at that time, I didn’t have a lot of vocabulary about how I felt about suicide, about what I was learning, or what I was even facing. And so I can remember still just really having a hard time finding words. I can remember being in interviews, and there’d be just a lot of stuttering and me just really kind of grappling to try to really express myself.
Since that time, about two and a half or so years after Cory passed away, I started a podcast with Cory’s therapist. And the reason why I wanted to do that was because I knew that his therapist was only able to meet with one person at a time in the confines of a little room, and at that time, I’d already been kind of in some coaching with him. Not so much therapy, but more of a coaching relationship that he and I had. And I was learning so much so quickly. And I just wanted every mom out there to somehow have an opportunity to learn what I was learning every time I met with him—his name’s David Kozlowski. Every time I met with him, and every time, in fact, that we would have these podcasts sessions, I just would think to myself, ‘I wish I knew this 20 years ago. I wish this was information that I had access to when I was a young mom with young kids.’ Because the way that I naturally interacted with my kids and directed them and managed our relationships was very much just a spillover from how I had been raised. And I’ve never thought about the way that I was talking, or my body language, or any of the things that I was then learning that certainly impacted the relationship. And so we have done the podcast for about four and a half years. I’ve kind of stepped away from it, it’s kind of going in a different direction. Now David is heading up on his own.
Since that time, I have been invited to speak at lots and lots of different types of events, whether they were within the Church or outside the Church, whether they were to professionals or teachers, to students, to elementary age students, all the way up through college-age students, to missionaries, to what is my favorite audience, which is mothers.
I have really tried to gather and hone in and focus on the things that I wish I would have known the most. And the skills and the shift in perspective that I wish that I would have known about. And if you’ve talked to my older kids ... we have five kids. The oldest three were really close in age, then there was this five-year gap, and we had two more kids that were actually even closer in age, only 11 months apart. And if you ask my older kids how I am as a mother versus my babies, my littles, as we call them—they’re 15 and 16 so they’re not even that little anymore—but I’m a very different parent, my approach is very different. The relationships are very different. The way that I approach problems is very different. The things that are important to me are very different. And so I mean, in your original question that you asked me, what is different? And I would venture to say literally everything.