The last Wednesday of her life, Monica Held surrounded herself with those she loved and who loved her.
Visiting with family from out of town, the Helds – mother, Peggy; father, Jim; sisters, Molly Held and Michele Scuro; Michele’s husband, PJ, and daughter, Gia – shared dinner and memories, weaving together stories from their shared past.
Monica, a fifth-grade teacher in McGuffey School District, joined the conversation and occasionally laughed along. Looking back, though, something was off.
“I can still see her sitting on the floor,” says her mother, Peggy Held of Midway. “Molly said, ‘School’s going to start.’ And Monica said, ‘I’m out of time.’”
Peggy falters talking about one of the last times she saw her oldest daughter alive.
“She was writing feverishly in Gia’s books,” Peggy says. “I said, ‘You don’t have to finish.’ And Monica replied, ‘I don’t want her to forget me.’”
Monica, who always gave books as gifts, personalized several for her niece that night, writing heartfelt messages on the front page in her cheerful script.
Molly recalls the look on her older sister’s face, pieces of blond hair escaping from their clip.
“She was just sitting there with this really fake smile. And she was someone who always smiled from the inside. Looking back now, I can always see that as not being a true smile,” says Molly. “She just kept smiling so other people didn’t know.”
Over the next four days, Monica cleaned and organized her Washington house from top to bottom. Inside her bedroom closet, she neatly placed items for her family, including a long letter and stacks of books for Gia.
Monica drove north to Erie, a place the family believes she went because she wanted to be near the water.
There, she checked into a hotel and, on Aug. 23, 2010, committed suicide.
“When somebody that you love dies alone and they’re sad when they did it – it’s horrible to live with,” says Molly. “Knowing her and how deeply she felt everything, the only thing I can say for certain is that I know that she was in a horrible amount of pain – so much that she couldn’t see out of that.”
In Monica’s five-page letter, she alluded to feeling hopeless.
“She said her favorite things – the beach, the smell of French toast or Gia’s laugh – none of those could make her feel any better,” says Michele. “She just was sad.”
Born Nov. 8, 1971, Monica Lynn Held grew up in the family’s two-story Bulger farmhouse.
A typical older sister, she called the shots for three-years-younger Michele, but fretted over those around her.
“As a little one, Monica was always happy, always wanting to please, always worried about others,” says Peggy. “Her teacher would call home, concerned because (Monica) gave away all her pencils.”
Playing outside with the other children, “Monica had the run of the neighborhood,” says Michele. “We would fight like cats and dogs. ”
Even when Molly came along, 10 years after Monica, the older girls argued over who would hold their baby sister, of whom they would forgive anything.
“Molly would dance on our records with her tap shoes, and we wouldn’t fight with her,” says Michele.
The Held house was always full of friends. Jim recalls a sleepover in which he had to reinforce the floors because the girls were dancing so enthusiastically in an upstairs bedroom.
Monica was the natural leader. She loved to dance and sing.
After graduation from Burgettstown Area High School, Monica went to Clarion University of Pennsylvania, where she studied science and education.
In her first year, Monica ingested a handful of over-the-counter allergy medication. Frantic, Peggy and Jim took her to a doctor, who said the behavior was “common” for freshman girls.
After the incident, though, Monica seemed to thrive. She made friends and passionately studied environmental science. She continued to dance.
After graduation, she combined her love of education and the environment as a student teacher at McKeever Environmental Learning Center in Sandy Lake.
“She wanted to save everything,” says Molly.
Among Monica’s menagerie were a rat, an albino python, turtles and cats.
After McKeever, Monica moved to Alexandria, Va., where she taught second grade.
The kids, most of whom were from families with incomes near the poverty line, adored their devoted teacher. On Saturday mornings, Monica took her students for ice cream. When kids who weren’t in her class – and who therefore didn’t have a signed permission slip to go – showed up, Monica drove to each house, getting authorization from their parents.
After several years, Monica moved back to Southwestern Pennsylvania to be close to her family and got a job teaching at McGuffey.
Monica continued to devote all of her time to her students. She was invited to and attended their extracurricular activities – basketball games, baseball games, horseback riding competitions.
“She even played donkey basketball because her students wanted her to, which was against her entire being,” says Molly.
At get-togethers, family would beg Monica to put down her pen.
“She was always grading papers. But she didn’t just grade them, she wrote a dissertation,” says Molly. “Everything was a teachable moment.”
Monica was functioning, going to work, volunteering, seeing family and friends. As far as the family knew, she was never treated for depression. But looking back on the years, months and weeks leading up to her death, they can see that sadness was her constant companion.
“We were close. Sometimes, we would have the same dreams,” says Peggy. “I would wake up in the morning with an awful feeling in the stomach. I was feeling what she was feeling.”
The family began to notice a significant change after one of Monica’s best friends from college committed suicide.
The woman had made attempts in the past, calling Monica at all hours of the night. Monica always took the call, talking her friend through the crisis, sometimes for hours.
“Then, she came to a point where she said, ‘I can’t answer anymore,’” says Peggy.
A year passed. The friend called Peggy and begged her to have Monica call her. She told Peggy she was a different person. Peggy relayed the message to Monica, who said she would call the friend back.
She didn’t, though. A week later, the friend killed herself.
“I think that guilt was so heavy for her,” says Peggy. “She started thinking no one cared about her. One day she said, ‘If I went, no one would miss me but you.’”
Molly and Monica took a trip to Ireland in 2009 and, although she sang along with her fellow bus passengers, Monica’s demeanor was changed – more subdued, less vibrant.
“On paper, she had everything she needed. She felt she didn’t have the right to be sad. Monica tried to fix everything, but there are so many causes that couldn’t be fixed. It just sat on her,” says Molly. “And if you asked most people about her, they would say nothing but wonderful things. If you asked her about herself, I don’t think she would have said one nice thing.”
The last summer of Monica’s life, she and Peggy took Gia all over the region in search of new experiences. They visited museums, libraries and conservatories, zoos, amusement parks and aviaries.
At that last dinner, Monica clung to Michele, holding her longer than usual.
“She gave me such a big hug, and I started pulling away,” says Michele. “I just wish I would have hugged her a little bit longer.”
Monica died the night before the new school year was to commence.
Her family still struggles with the reality of her absence. They sometimes can’t believe the girl who recited “A Visit from St. Nicholas” every Christmas Eve, who belted out “Joy to the World” on stage at an Irish pub, who created personalized songs and poems for them, who couldn’t walk by a person in need without giving every cent she had on her, who couldn’t refuse an injured animal, is gone.
“That’s just how she was – giving to a fault,” says Molly. “I think she gave herself away. She didn’t have anything left.”
“You never get over the sense of regret ... that you ultimately let somebody down, like in the worst way possible. That’s what’s the hardest for me. When I look at all that she did for everybody, and all she was for everybody, all I had to do was just step out for a second ... and kind of see where she was and try to help. I don’t think that will ever go away.”
Each of them deals with their unique guilt. Each of them feels they could have – should have – taken action to prevent Monica’s death.
“People have to know, if you’re a little bit suspicious, do something. There is guilt that I should have done more. You always think you have time to fix it,” says Peggy.
With tears streaming down her face, Molly adds, “Now, you wish you would have just dragged her kicking and screaming or opened your eyes or listened to the times when you thought, ‘This is weird.’”
Michele wished she would have acted on her concerns about Monica.
“Even if it’s a few days later, sometimes you don’t really see (a sign). And then you think, should I call? Call. Send the freaking card,” Michele says. “It’s a myth that if somebody is going to commit suicide, there’s nothing you can do. That’s not true. Some people need a hand to help them maybe find a way. There’s a possibility. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.”
Peggy never thought Monica would take her own life because she lived through the suicide of family friend, Charles “Chuckie” Mahoney IV, in 2002.
Molly felt the same.
“I saw what (Chuckie’s death) did to their family and how hard it was to navigate through that, so I just never thought it would get to that point,” she says.
Molly recalls something that Chuckie’s dad, Charles, said to the family after Monica’s death.
“You’re all buoys on the water. You’re all connected by ... this common thread going through you. But at the end of the day, the waves are hitting you at a different time than they’re hitting her and they’re hitting him. So you’re just kind of bobbing there on your own,” she says. “That’s a perfect analogy.”
The Helds know that life didn’t end when Monica’s did, but they struggle to move on without her. They can’t make sense of how Monica never knew Michele’s youngest daughter, Tessa.
“You lost your past and future. She’s not part of the world anymore. It’s a very strange feeling. There’s guilt. How can we do this? How can I make this? How can I laugh?” asks Peggy. “There’s life before and life now. Right now, there’s a silence – a song not being sung. Now, things don’t hurt as deeply or feel as happy.”
Michele’s childhood memories – once gleeful and pure – are bruised by the loss of her sister.
“(They are) now tied to pain. It’s just not the same life,” she says. “There’s joy and happiness, but it’s not complete. Nobody laughs as hard as they used to laugh.”
Adds Molly, “Life keeps going and you don’t want it to a lot of times. You want it to stand still for a while so you can catch your breath.”
For PJ, living meant getting over his anger at Monica’s leaving. He doesn’t shy from new experiences. He takes every opportunity to live the way Monica would have wanted. Like the rest of the family, he takes joy from watching Gia and Tessa grow.
“I feel like, why would I not? She’s telling me, ‘Live your life,’” he says. “We’re still a family. There’s still great things that will happen. We grapple with that. I think it just takes time … to accept that this is the new normal.”
In her last letter, Monica asked that her family keep having dinners and going on vacations together.
“Toast me when ‘Shark Week’ comes on,” she wrote.
The family talks about Monica often. During dinners, they light a candle in her honor and when they leave the room, the candle comes with them.
“I’m grateful for every single day we had with her,” says Peggy. “None of us missed a day in each other’s lives.”