Hope, comfort for those impacted by bridge suicide

Healing vigil memorializes deceased loved ones, while supporting all who have been affected by ‘these preventable tragedies’

By Jim McGaw
Posted 5/2/23

PORTSMOUTH — Monica Taft had just left a funeral hours earlier when her phone blew up with urgent calls and messages.

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Hope, comfort for those impacted by bridge suicide

Healing vigil memorializes deceased loved ones, while supporting all who have been affected by ‘these preventable tragedies’


PORTSMOUTH — Monica Taft had just left a funeral hours earlier when her phone blew up with urgent calls and messages.

It was March 14, 2014, and among the many queries came from police in Portsmouth and Bristol. She called one officer back and was told that Michael, the 36-year-old boyfriend of her stepdaughter and the father of a 10-month-old boy, Ethan, had been in an “accident” and was at Rhode Island Hospital.

She learned the truth shortly afterward. Michael, who had attended the same funeral as Taft that day and had worried her with his sad demeanor, had driven to the Mt. Hope Bridge following the ceremony.

“He lived in Bristol,” said Taft, a math teacher at Portsmouth High School. “He stopped about two-thirds of the way, got out of his car and ran across and jumped. He didn’t even pause or hesitate or anything.”

Michael, who died that day, had been raising Ethan by himself and was struggling with the difficulties of single parenthood, as well as other issues related to his relationship with Monica’s stepdaughter. Taft and her husband, Peter, became foster parents to Ethan and now raise him as their own. He just turned 10. 

Taft is just one of many people in the local area who have been impacted by bridge suicide through either losing a loved one or being a personal witness to such a tragedy. There are three major bridges alone that run off Aquidneck Island — Mt. Hope, Sakonnet, and Claiborne Pell — so the issue can hit closer to home here than other parts of the state.

For all those impacted by bridge suicide, Melissa Cotta of Tiverton organized what she described as a “healing vigil” that was held on a rainy Sunday afternoon behind Thriving Tree Coffee House in Island Park.

“We’re standing here together to hold space for and to remember those lost to bridge suicide in Rhode Island,” Cotta said from under one of the tents set up on the banks of Blue Bill Cove. “They were our family members and friends, and our neighbors, and our community members and our fellow human beings. We stand together in support today of all affected by these preventable tragedies.”

Taft was there. 

So were Shannon and Tom Watson, who threw roses into the cove in memory of their son Cole, who died at the age of 22 after jumping from the Claiborne Pell Newport Bridge on May 7, 2022. 

Also attending were Jeffrey and Annmarie Sias and their daughter, Amanda Spear-Purchase. The Siases lost their son, Samuel Elijah Sias, when he jumped from the Mt. Hope Bridge on Dec. 2, 2022. He was 26.

And, there were others.

“I know for many of you that being here today is not easy, and we’re very glad you came,” said Cotta, noting that 

Five licensed counselors were present to offer support to anyone who needed it. 

The vigil wasn’t just in support of families, but others who have been scarred by bridge suicide in other ways, such as first responders and members of the public who have had the unfortunate experience of viewing a fatal bridge jump. (Cotta said she was disappointed more first responders didn’t show on Sunday, but understands they often get pushback from co-workers. “But they are a hurting demographic that I’d like to target a little bit more to help,” she said.)

Supporting suicide barriers

Cotta, a PHS graduate and crisis intervention professional, herself witnessed a suicide from the Mt. Hope Bridge in February 2016 when she stopped her vehicle in an attempt to prevent a man from jumping. She co-founded Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing with Brian Ganley of Bristol, who lost a close friend to suicide. 

For four years the group has pushed for passage of state legislation to install suicide barriers on the Mount Hope, Sakonnet River, Claiborne Pell, and Jamestown Verrazzano bridges. However, the legislation currently in the General Assembly (Senate bill S586 and House bill H6002) seems to have stalled and does not include the Sakonnet Bridge, Cotta said.

“I am going to continue to fight to make sure (The Sakonnet Bridge) gets in there as soon as possible, because we do have people jumping off of it; they’re jumping right onto the pavement,” she said.

She’s never been given a “good” reason why the Sakonnet Bridge was not included, she said. 

“You have to start somewhere, is what I’ve been told. Also, because it has a lower suicide rate,” Cotta said. However, there’s no reason why the legislation couldn’t include a schedule for outfitting bridges with suicide barriers based on priority, she said.

The group contends that barriers work, and point to the reduced number of suicide attempts after barriers were installed on the Bourne and Sagamore bridges in Massachusetts.

Taft said it’s “ridiculous” the legislation hasn’t been passed yet. 

“I don’t know why we’re still waiting. This is a no-brainer,” she said. “I think about Michael. I think if we had those barriers, he would have been here today. He would have gotten the help he needed.”

Healing words, music

Sunday’s vigil featured words and songs “of hope and comfort, peace and inspiration, and love,” Cotta said. Poems were read by Judy Carvalho, Meredith Kidd and Jenny Gaynor, while Diane and Chris Myers performed inspirational songs such as “One Person Can Change The World.” Don Chilton tooted a conch shell to signal the vigil’s start and later played along to a recording of “Over the Rainbow.”

The Rev. John Higginbotham, rector of Holy Trinity Church in Tiverton, led a brief memorial service as the rain starting falling more heavily. “When those we love so dearly slip beyond our reach, it does leave such a sorrow,” said Father Higginbotham. “Time will soften the ache that we feel today and life goes by, but somehow life is never, ever quite the same. Take comfort in the sweet memories of all those days gone by.”

Cotta said she always wanted to organize a healing vigil but had never gotten around to it. Then last December, yet another person jumped from the Mt. Hope Bridge. While she didn’t witness that incident, she was there for the rescue efforts and assisted with the recovery of the body. The deceased family was at the vigil on Sunday.

“I just knew I needed to do something for them. Originally it was going to be something small and it just kept growing,” Cotta said.

Maplewood Farms donated roses to place in the cove for people who didn’t bring their own flowers, and the Newport County Prevention Coalition paid for the free coffee and refreshments available inside after the vigil.

“On days like today when we can’t see the sun,” Cotta said as rain cascaded down on either side of her tent, “be comforted in knowing that it is still there, and find comfort in the knowing that our loved ones remain in our hearts and part of us forever.”

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