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

Sockeye salmon. (Photo via Alaska Department of Fish and Game)
Fish and Game seeks comment on 2022 sport fish stocking plan

The Sport Fish Division plans to release approximately 7 million fish into the Alaska water systems over the next five years.

A map shows which parts of the Chugach National Forest are open to motorized winter recreation use for the 2021-2022 season. (Map courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)
Parts of Chugach National Forest open to snowmachine use

The 2021-2022 winter motorized season will run through April 30.

Kenai Police Department Chief David Ross explains the purpose of a grant to be used for new radios during a meeting of the Kenai City Council on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021 in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai Police to update radios using grant money

The department received almost $260,000 through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Democratic Party candidate for governor Les Gara attends a Zoom meeting with Homer residents on Nov. 18, 2021, from his Anchorage, Alaska, home. (Screen capture)
Gara makes election pitch to Homer

Democratic Party candidate for governor Gara visits virtually.

A man missing for more than 40 years was identified by the Alaska Bureau of Investigation as a Chugiak resident who was last seen in 1979. The man’s body was discovered on an island near Anchorage in 1989. (Courtesy photo/Alaska Department of Public Safety)
Body found in 1980s ID’d through DNA analysis

The body, found in 1989, had been unidentified until now.

COVID-19. (Image courtesy CDC)
COVID continues decline; 1 new death

The state had an estimated rolling average of 253.3 cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days.

U.S. Census Bureau Director Steven Dillingham addresses state and Alaska Native leaders Friday, Jan. 17, 2020, in Anchorage, Alaska. Dillingham will travel to Toksook Bay, on an island just off Alaska’s western coast, for the first count on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Thiessen)
Census reports minimal state population growth

The Kenai Peninsula Borough’s population grew by about 3,400 people between the 2010 and 2020 census.

The old Homer intermediate school building, showing the Homer Boys & Girls Club and gym on the south side of the building at the corner of the Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue.
The old Homer intermediate school building on the corner of the Sterling Highway and Pioneer Avenue, as seen in October 2010. It’s now known as the Homer Educational and Recreational Complex, or HERC. (Homer News file photo)
Homer awards contract to study use of rec complex site

The goal is to help the city understand the maximum use of that property.

Genna Stormer gives Santa a hug during Christmas Comes to Nikiski at the Nikiski Community Recreation Center on Dec. 14, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)
December brings the holiday cheer

Groups across the peninsula get into the spirit of the season with public events.

Most Read