StoryCorps in the Valley: Friendship through Grief and Healing

Jul 28, 2021

As part of WMRA’s partnership with StoryCorps in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia, we’re sharing a conversation today between Dolly Frazier and her friend Marla. Marla and Dolly attended the same high school but never really knew each other. In 2009, Dolly lost her son Austin, who suffered from bipolar disorder. After reading his obituary, Marla wrote a letter that started a deep and lasting friendship.

Note: At the end of this trasncript, you'll find some Mental Health Resources, Austin Frazier's obituary and a link to a story about "Sunflowers for Hope" as well as WMRA's Mental Health Matters series.  

DOLLY: I guess our friendship really began 12 years ago, as you know, with a letter. I remember walking back up the hill from the mailbox and squinting at the return address. I had no clue who had sent it.

MARLA: Yeah, I didn't know you, but I knew you had to be devastated. And the obituary really grabbed my attention. It was so raw and brave, and yet you took this opportunity to help others understand the realities of mental illness. But I knew you had to be a wreck and I just wanted to write you.

DOLLY: I didn't write you back right away. I have no idea what I could have possibly have scribbled. I was so torn up after losing my eldest son to bipolar disease.

MARLA: I didn't even really know what to say, but I just knew I had to write you and give you hope. I knew that you felt like a shell of a person and I just felt like you had to know that things would get better.

DOLLY: Well, you always roll your eyes when I say this, but Marla, you saved my life. When I wrote about my anger, you absorbed that frustration and shared in my bitterness. You read my tear streaked words and you returned messages sharing in the sadness and loss that we all encounter in life. And I feel that you walked every step with me as I traveled through the valley of the shadow of death. When you lose someone that you love... you walk in their shadow a long time.

MARLA: You do. You do. You walk a day at a time, an hour at a time... it was a pit of despair but you climbed out. Just watching the change in you, and seeing you come from being someone who was so deeply hurt, to someone that wants to be a healer. And it just makes me think that, you know, love can be simple. Love can be an apple pie. Love can be a sunflower. Why don't you tell us about the sunflowers?

DOLLY: Well, I personally would say love can come in the form of a letter out of the blue. But the sunflowers... oh my goodness, they we're such an unexpected surprise! A neighboring farmer planted 20 acres of sunflowers in a field that the family owned near town. And we heard from scores of people, that it brought them so much cheer to drive by the flowers on their way to town. So the family decided to allow folks to come pick as many blooms as they liked, and they just asked for a donation to the Austin memorial fund. The event was posted on social media and it went viral. Apparently Austin's obituary, in which his mental illness was so openly discussed, it just must have struck a chord. We had people coming from out of state! Now I am usually very uncomfortable in crowds, but somehow this was different. People kept asking for me. "Where's Austin's mom?" They sought me out with their condolences, with hugs, with tears, and with stories of their own trials involving psychological illness. They spoke about issues like depression... anxiety... anorexia... schizophrenia... bipolar. For the first time in a long, long time, I didn't feel alienated or isolated. Listening to those stories helped me realize that mental illness is rampant! And has such a bad stigma, it's just never discussed... not openly.

MARLA: But that's what you guys did with the obituary. You you gave mental illness a voice in your community. And the ramifications, people are still being blessed because of the early decisions you made to be open.

DOLLY: And I think the event created an atmosphere of acceptance and understanding for those who secretly struggle on an unseen battlefield. But you know I love Wendell Berry. I would love to finish this with a great poem by Wendell Berry. I memorized this poem because I love it so much. It goes like this:

"I don't believe that grief ever passes away

It has its time and place forever.

More time is added to it;

it becomes a story within a story.

But both grief and griever alike endure."

Thank you Marla. Love you.

MARLA: Thank you Dolly. We'll talk again soon. Love you.

Mental Health Resources: Community Services Boards
Harrisonburg-Rockingham CSB
Region 10 CSB
Northwestern CSB
Valley CSB
Rockbridge Area CSB

Suicide Prevention
VDH suicide prevention - Recognize. Talk. Act.

Austin Frazier's Obituary:

Our son, Austin Betts Frzier, died Wednesday, October 7, 2009 at his grandparent's home.

He succumbed to a quiet, insidious disease: Bi-Polar disorder.

Austin suffered valiantly from the ravages of this physically transparent illness since early adolescence. Bi-Polar is incurable and as deadly as cancer or heart disease. It is a disease of the mind, and one's mental outlook.

Austin is survived by his parents; his brother, Cyril Sease Frazier; his beloved little sister, Janie Rosemary Frazier; his grandfather, Dr. James R. Sease; and many loving aunts, uncles, and cousins from both sides of our family.

He was preceded in death by his maternal grandmother, Janie Tune Sease, and his paternal grandparents, Robert Y. and Linda Betts Frazier, all of Harrisonburg, Va.

Austin graduated from Harrisonburg Baptist Pre-School, Blue Ridge Christian School, Keezletown Elementary, Montevideo MS, St. Anne's-Belfield School, and Blue Ridge Community College. He was so proud to be a junior at James Madison University with a major in Psychology. He believed in the Lord and the redeeming grace to be found in Heaven.

While his funeral will be private, the family asks that friends go to Facebook.com and search for "Austin Frazier Memorial" and leave us a message. You may also go to www.kygers.com and leave a note for us on the guestbook.

If you would like to help prevent such tragedy from occurring to other families, and to raise awareness of this disease and lower the social stigma that the afflicted and their families suffer, please send a donation to Austin Frazier Memorial at The Community Foundation, P.O. Box 1068, Harrisonburg, Va. 22803.

We prefer this in lieu of flowers. Austin's loss leaves a hole in our life that cannot be filled. But we are comforted knowing he's with Grandma, Papa, "Mom," and Aunt Carla, now - and with a perfect body and healthy mind.

~ Bibb and Dolly Frazier