Despair in Montana: The Sad Story of Farmer Suicide
If you are part of the farm or ranch community, you probably know someone who has chosen to end his or her life. Suicide tends to be a taboo issue in society and especially more so in small communities. Although farmers and ranchers live and work in the beautiful places of Montana, financial despair, isolation, the inability to control Mother Nature and markets, as well as the cultural stigma of asking for help, can lead to depression and in the saddest cases, suicide. These brave families have opened up about their personal stories of loss. This week, we're sharing Part One of the Graft families' story. Over the next few weeks we'll share a combination of personal tales about suicide of a loved one, dealing with depression and how to find help and hope.
In memory of David Graft, wheat farmer, Floweree, October 13, 2014
The voice of Linda Graft, Dave Graft’s wife of 39 years.
David Graft’s grandparents homesteaded in Floweree and over the years the farm became a large wheat farm. From the time he was 12-years-old, Dave worked on the farm. He graduated from the University of California and returned home to continue his career based on his love of farming. At one point, one of his uncles married into a family who had cattle; the cattle ranch was based about 50-miles away, but the cows were shipped to the farm for the winter. There were 65 miles of fence to keep repaired and in working order at the farm and numerous pieces of machinery for four separate places.
We have one son and two daughters. While the children were growing up, our family lived in Great Falls while Dave commuted to the farm in Floweree. Once the children were out of high school, David and I moved to the farm; our son worked there for about 10 years before deciding to get a job at the Calumet Refinery about six weeks before Dave’s death.
The corporation supported eight families and three hired men. Dave ran all the farming and machinery for both places and from the fall through April 1 he took care of the cows. There was always work to do; my husband labored 90-120 hours each week. He lived and breathed it. People around town who knew the situation said Dave was the glue that held everything together. He was diligent and responsible.
I never thought there was a problem; we had a good marriage and we were close, but he kept his struggles away from me. We had no problem with money or the books. He ran a good ship as a farmer. He had a knack for planting things on time. Many farmers would wait until they saw Dave in the field either planting or harvesting, and only then would go into their fields.
He was a big supporter of his son in football and wrestling and daughter in target shooting. He had very kind eyes, but he was built like a Grizzly bear and looked like a Scotsman. He made you feel safe to be around him.
The day Dave died, it was an Indian Summer, probably 65 degrees. A nice day. I always served breakfast to him and the hired help. That day after breakfast when he was heading out to work, I asked him if he’d be home for lunch. He replied, “I might or might not.” I knew he might have to make a parts run, so I said, “Will you stop by Burger King for something?” He replied, “I might.”
After he left, I went upstairs to do some sewing. Our daughter, Arin, had friends coming to town; I wasn’t sure when they were coming as they were bird hunting elsewhere. About 8:30 a.m. or so I heard a shot. I didn’t hear anything else, but didn’t think much about it because it was hunting season. Lunch came and went and Dave hadn’t come in but I wasn’t alarmed since we had discussed he might grab lunch in town. I put food in the crockpot and I went back to a mini-quilt I was sewing.
Our friends, Dennis and Joannie, showed up and we had coffee and cookies, then they wanted to visit with Dave. I told them he might have gone into town but he might be out in the field and told them where to look.
After they left, they drove about a mile to the highway and saw Dave’s pickup as well as another man who turned out to be someone putting in fiber optic cable. Dave had had an appointment with the man at 2 p.m. and that was the man who found Dave and had called the Chouteau County sheriff. Apparently at that point, Dennis and Joanie showed up. Dennis had guns and dogs and the sheriff was giving him the grill. The sheriff’s department first treats everything as a potential murder.
At this time, I didn’t know this was going on. About 4 p.m. one of Dave’s cousin’s sons walked in the house. I’m not used to seeing this young man come in and I said, “Do you need something?” He said no, and seemed to be stalling. He stayed and visited for a while, then he said, “You’re not going to town, are you? I said no, it’s close to dinner time.”
He kept stalling and then said he had to go. It was about 5:30 p.m. and I heard the door open. I was about to say to Dave, “We live in the time of cell phones, why didn’t tell me you were going to be late? I didn’t want dinner to go bad.”
But it was our son. He grabbed my arm and told me to sit down. He said he had to tell me something that wasn’t pleasant.
I answered, did you just say, “David died? Oh my God, how do you know this?”
He responded, “The sheriff is here. They ascertained everything.”
Dave was a big guy and although he was healthy, I said, “He had a heart attack?”
Bryce confirmed it was a heart issue and then said, “He shot himself. In the heart.”
Notes and thoughts
We weren’t aware Dave left notes for us in his truck until the next day. The sheriff had found the suicide notes in the truck at the scene and took them as well as the rifle and his wallet to be evidenced in. They were released the next day.
David had just been talking about how much he was looking forward to retiring, but it seemed he worked for 50 years and found out he couldn’t retire. There was nobody to take his place on the farm, nor were there any plans to find someone. I know he had his ups and downs, but I’m not convinced he had severe depression.
Arin had gotten married four weeks before and everything seemed to be really lovely. The last two weeks I had with him, I told the kids, “I don’t know what it is about Dad, but he’s not stressed. He’s very peaceful.” I realize now he had made his final decision.
It’s sad when someone gets to the point where they feel they have no options. The way the corporate structure was in the family, things were done with a handshake and not listed on paper. It had been incorporated as an S corporation in the 60s.
Write it down and have your own lawyer. Just because it’s your dad, uncle or grandpa, don’t presume there won’t be issues after they die. That’s when people get greedy. He lived through 50 harvests and he worked three men’s normal work time during those years. It’ s enough to wear anybody out.
Sometimes you realize you can’t change the outcome. I remember David was talking to his best friend, Jeff. Jeff was saying he was going to retire and was talking about future plans. David, who had completed more than 50 harvests on the farm, said to Jeff he thought he knew what he was going to do, but one day when he went into to the main farm office, (he was the vice president of the corporation) and whatever he found wasn’t good. He looked at Jeff, looked at me and said, “We’re screwed.” When he said that, I had the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Looking back on it, what he was promised wasn’t written down. Our corporate lawyer had told me he was there for me, but when Dave died, he suddenly told me he couldn’t help me due to a “conflict of interest.”
I was told I had 10 days to vacate a seven-room house. I was naïve, I was alone and I was in shock.
Advice for families of suicide
In Great Falls, Benefis Health System has an amazing Suicide Program three times each year lasting six to eight weeks and is limited to 12 people. It’s led by a licensed therapist; however, she doesn’t instruct you. You share your experiences with others who have lost loved ones to suicide and you voice what you’re feeling.
Suicide is a choice. I know he was hurting, sad and felt he had no options. The domino affect hurt a lot of us. It’s important to get professional help, but I know two things: men in Montana don’t ask for help and those who are serious about ending their life don’t tell you. If you have no warning, you can’t stop what you don’t know. In this case, it’s hard to comprehend when you feel there is no way out; what you were promised is not there.
If you are part of a farm or ranch family business, make sure you have what you are owed down in black and white for your husband or wife. Check on how Social Security is set up. In this case, Dave did not have to pay full Social Security the way the corporation was organized. Since he was a “corporate executive” they can elect to not pay Social Security. Keep in mind that will kick your surviving spouse in the guts. David had carried life insurance which saved me for a couple of years. Make sure you have life insurance, and make sure it will pay the benefit even for a suicide. Have a good lawyer.
When Dave committed suicide, it was hard to tell people what happened. We said it was a heart issue, which it was technically was because had rigged up a rifle and shot himself in the heart. The day after he died, they let us see him. He had the most peaceful look on his face. All the tension was finally gone.
Story originally published in the Spring 2019 Spokesman magazine.
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