June 28, 1973-Dec. 3, 2016
Matthew Soren Bell, 43, died Dec. 6, 2016.
Matthew Soren Bell was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, on a beautiful sunny day, June 28, 1973. He lived in Fairbanks until age 6, then a year each in Juneau, New Mexico, and Yakutat before coming to Homer with his parents, Bob and Leslie, and two brothers, Lars and Anders. He attended the newly-opened McNeil Canyon Elementary School and graduated from Homer High in 1992. He was active in sports, especially basketball and the swim team. One of his favorite teachers, Jim Holcomb, inspired him to study history and philosophy in college at University of Oregon and University of Alaska Anchorage, where he also was a swim coach.
Matt’s love for the outdoors started early. He camped and hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon when he was 7 years old. He hunted, fished, kayaked and hiked all over the Kenai Peninsula and other parts of Alaska while he lived in Homer. When he was 14 he backpacked the entire summer all around Western and Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union with his family. His desire to explore and pursue his dreams continued throughout his life. Matt also was a talented potter, artistic illustrator, introspective writer and amazing cook. He worked for two years at Disney World in Florida as several of the tall characters, but his favorite was Goofy because “a hundred little kids hugged my knees every day.” He studied Japanese and earned his Personal Training certificate just for his own knowledge. He was a fitness enthusiast and loved working out outdoors, referring to nature as “my church.” He loved to teach, whether it be a child on the breast stroke or an adult on how to use gym equipment more efficiently.
Matt’s biggest passion, however, stemmed from his many summers fly fishing with his dad and deckhanding on Homer charter boats, fishing and just being out on the water. Matt worked for the last several years on charter boats in Hawaii and Florida, winning several awards and earning his captain’s license. His desire to learn more about fishing was constant, as well as his commitment to teach others about the sustainability of his beloved oceans. He didn’t just fish, he studied fish, he examined fish, he swam with fish, he drew fish and he honored fish, using “catch and release” whenever possible. His calls home over the years were often to just announce, “Guess where I am? On the ocean!” You could hear the big smile in his voice. He was living his dream.
But life wasn’t a dream. Sadly, depression and PTSD robbed Matt of a sustained happiness and diminished most positive experiences to no more than mere glimmers of hope. For most of his life, his nightmares came in the daytime, injecting themselves into even his happiest moments. While many who knew Matt didn’t know of his struggles or the personal demons that lurked just beneath his infectious smile, Matt struggled, even in childhood, to find answers and hope with scores of self-help books and many therapy sessions and counselors, but they were never enough to instill the hope he needed for very long. Matt, like many others who suffer from mental illness, would often find other ways to cope. Those who felt they knew him saw the parts of Matt that he chose or trusted to reveal, the romantic with a grin that would brighten a room, or the tormented demon fighter. Surrounded by love he didn’t feel worthy to have, exhausted from fighting a relentless battle, he took his own life on Dec. 3, 2016, at age 43.
While his family can be at peace knowing Matt’s painful struggle is over, we grieve for all that we still had to learn from him, for all the huge grins and hugs, for all his hand-written notes of love and encouragement, for all the fish yet to catch. He adored his 7-year old niece, Iris Peace, who misses her smiling uncle who taught her to ride a bike and boogie board on the waves and shared their favorite food, blueberry pancakes. She already has offered to do the big job of passing on those lessons to her 1-year-old sister, Sonja June, who never got to meet her Uncle Matt. Matt’s mom and dad, Bob and Leslie Bell, his brothers, Lars and Anders, and sisters-in-law, Heather O’Connor and Leslie Harstad-Bell, will be helping Iris Peace with that job too.
Fear of losing a job, missing a spot on the team or being rejected by peers can drive someone with mental illness to avoid seeking help or being honest with those that need to know. While we may think that our society has come to be more understanding of depression and PTSD as diseases, there are still too many that persecute, taunt, vilify and reject those that suffer, pushing them closer to the edge of a dark abyss, making healthy choices and treatment difficult, and seemingly impossible.
There will be many reading this notice of Matthew’s death that have a fear in their own heart of losing someone dear to them to this same disease. Remind yourselves that it doesn’t always end this way. But it doesn’t just go away either. It’s a disease, and it’s a killer. To help make Matt’s life and death more meaningful, we ask that everyone make an effort to reach out to someone in need, talk to someone, encourage a loved one to seek help, and maybe together more tragedies can be avoided. For you, it will be your best way to honor Matt’s memory.
Matt’s family encourages supporting and donating in his memory to National Alliance on Mental Illness, www.nami.org, or American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, afsp.org. Matt would have also suggested honoring him by supporting and donating to Ocean Conservancy, www.oceanconservancy.org.