Photo courtesy from Pegge Erkeneff Justin Bernecker, age 15, during a family visit to Alaska taken July 2005 during a family visit. Erkeneff said Justin died about 6-7 months after this photo was taken.

Photo courtesy from Pegge Erkeneff Justin Bernecker, age 15, during a family visit to Alaska taken July 2005 during a family visit. Erkeneff said Justin died about 6-7 months after this photo was taken.

One woman speaks out about her son’s suicide

  • By Kelly Sullivan
  • Saturday, May 17, 2014 11:02pm
  • News

Sitting beside her friend, in his power boat on the lower Kenai River near Eagle Rock at 5 a.m. Pegge Erkeneff was again faced with the, for her, weighty question “Do you have any children?”

Her friend lowered his brow into his cupped hands and said to her, “That sucks. I am so sorry.”

It was one of the most honest responses she’s received in the eight years she’s been telling people that Justin Bernecker, her 16-year-old son, died to suicide. Which is the way she prefers to describe it.

“It does suck,” Erkeneff said, now sitting on a bench in Parker Park, a breeze was the only thing cooling off the unusual, late morning heat.

Erkeneff spoke at the Saturday, Walk to Prevent Suicide at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex that drew 70 community members. It was her first time speaking to a large audience about her experience as a survivor of suicide.

It’s the right time, Erkeneff said. She hopes her words can help others heal. There is no “wrong” when it comes to how people deal with grief, she said.

Erkeneff said she has a tendency to shy from certain socially accepted terminology.

“It drives me nuts when people say ‘I’m sorry you lost your son’,” Erkeneff said. “He’s not lost, he died.”

In the weeks leading up to the Suicide Prevention Walk, Erkeneff said she has had some clarifying moments.

“A trauma happens you can’t comprehend until time passes,” Erkeneff said. “There were times when I barely crawled through life. There were years.” Erkeneff said.

These days Erkeneff has learned to ride out sporadic “tidal waves” of grief.

The term “committed suicide” implies the person was fully conscious of their decisions in the moment they chose to kill themselves.

“Would you say someone committed a heart attack or they committed cancer?” Erkeneff said. “I don’t think so.”

While it remains uncertain, Erkeneff said it is likely her son had a rapid onset of bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. The disease unraveled Justin’s mind in just around a week, she said. The warning signs had trickled in and been pieced together throughout the years.

After Justin killed himself, a friend of his approached Erkeneff and said her son had “jokingly” mentioned he wanted to kill himself. From the friends’ revelation she is now able to advise people to take any comment seriously, no matter what.

What is important in potential intervention is helping someone get through that moment, Erkeneff said. Just keep talking and letting them know the feeling will end.

Erkeneff does not consider Justin’s death the defining moment of her life. She said she knows Justin would have wanted her to laugh, and applying meaning to her experience has allowed her to move forward.

Everyone grieves differently, Erkeneff said.

It is likely everyone will experience the classic five stages of grief, but sometimes they will hit all at once, and sometimes they won’t come out for years, she said.

“Honestly I wouldn’t have signed up for it,” Erkeneff said. “The choice is what to do with it.”

Erkeneff she’s often returned to a phrase she once was told about premature death; that “those who died old came to learn, and those who died young came to teach.”

Years after Justin died, Erkeneff received an email from one of his former classmates he’d met in German class.

“I remember he came home one day and announced he would now be called Dieter,” Erkeneff said laughing. “Ok Dieter. Whatever.”

Erkeneff said she’d never met the girl. She told her she was one of the shiest girls at school, but Justin persisted in getting to know her, even teasing her frequently.

The girl said from her friendship with Justin, she had learned self-respect and to be more open to the people. Justin also taught the girl how to laugh.


Kelly Sullivan can be reached at

More in News

Nate Rochon cleans fish after dipnetting in the Kasilof River, on June 25, 2019, in Kasilof, Alaska. (Photo by Victoria Petersen/Peninsula Clarion)
King closures continue; Kasilof dipnet opens Saturday

The early-run Kenai River king sport fishery remains closed, and fishing for kings of any size is prohibited

An "Al Gross for Congress" sign sits near the driveway to Gross’ home in Anchorage, Alaska, on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, after he announced plans to withdraw from the U.S. House race. Gross has given little explanation in two statements for why he is ending his campaign, and a woman who answered the door at the Gross home asked a reporter to leave the property. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Alaska judge rules Sweeney won’t advance to special election

JUNEAU — A state court judge ruled Friday that Alaska elections officials… Continue reading

Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion 
Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen listens to a presentation from Alaska Communications during a meeting of the Soldotna City Council on Wednesday, March 9, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska.
ACS pilots fiber program in certain peninsula neighborhoods

The fiber to the home service will make available the fastest internet home speeds on the peninsula

Nurse Tracy Silta draws a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the walk-in clinic at the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling Highways in Soldotna, Alaska on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. COVID-19 vaccines for kids younger than 5 years old are now approved by both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)
COVID shots for kids under 5 available at public health

Roughly 18 million kids nationwide will now be eligible to get their COVID vaccines.

Megan Mitchell, left, and Nick McCoy protest the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning of Roe v. Wade at the intersection of the Kenai Spur and Sterling highways on Friday, June 24, 2022 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
‘Heartbroken’, ‘Betrayed’: Alaskans react to Roe decision

Supreme Court decision ends nearly 50 years of legally protected access to abortion

Demonstrators gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, June 24, 2022. The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion that had been in place nearly 50 years, a decision by its conservative majority to overturn the court’s landmark abortion cases. (AP Photo / Jose Luis Magana)
Alaskans react to Supreme Court overturn of Roe v. Wade

The Supreme Court has ended constitutional protections for abortion.

Tara Sweeney, a Republican seeking the sole U.S. House seat in Alaska, speaks during a forum for candidates, May 12, 2022, in Anchorage, Alaska. (AP Photo/ Mark Thiessen)
Lawsuit says Sweeney should advance in Alaska US House race

The lawsuit says the fifth-place finisher in the special primary, Republican Tara Sweeney, should be put on the August special election ballot

Gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker stands in the Peninsula Clarion office on Friday, May 6, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Alaska AFL-CIO endorses Walker, Murkowski, Peltola

The AFL-CIO is Alaska’s largest labor organization and has historically been one of its most powerful political groups

A portion of a draft letter from Jeffrey Clark is displayed as the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol continues to reveal its findings of a year-long investigation, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
Federal agents search Trump-era official’s home, subpoena GOP leaders

Authorities on Wednesday searched the Virginia home of Jeffrey Clark

Most Read