Despite being in the middle of a marriage break-up, Vega seemed to be in good spirits.
"He said, 'I'm okay, I'm hanging on,'" Gonzalez said.
One week later, Vega, a 40-year-old father of four, took his own life.
Twenty miles in memory
Gonzalez still wrestles with the guilt of not having been able to prevent her nephew's death. She couldn't help but feel that she was not there for him.
Three years after the fact, she still thinks about it.
"It's been in the back of my head," said Gonzalez, 41, who has lived in North Bergen for 15 years, and is originally from New York.
That is why, on June 9, she will walk 20 miles in memory of Rene and other victims of suicide as part of the national Out of the Darkness Overnight walk.
She heard about the walk on the radio and decided to get involved.
"I said, 'You know what? this may be a good way for me to come to peace with what happened and I could help another person or family,'" said Gonzalez.
The walk, which begins at dusk on June 9 and ends at dawn on June 10, will take place along Manhattan's West Side, and is sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Feelings of helplessness
Gonzalez wonders why her nephew never gave her a sign that he had given up, or if he did, she wishes she would have known enough about the signs of suicide to be able to recognize it.
"Why did he do it? Why weren't we there to stop it?" she asks.
These feelings of guilt and helplessness are common, according to Donna Amundson, program manager for New Jersey's Traumatic Loss Coalition.
"I should have, I could have, and I didn't - there's always something that makes us second-guess ourselves about death," said Amundson. "With suicide, that feeling of guilt is compounded."
The New Jersey Traumatic Loss Coalition, which was founded by a collaboration between the New Jersey Division of Mental Health Services, the New Jersey Department of Education and UMDNJ, provides youth suicide prevention programs and trauma assistance to people from across the state through a network of county coalitions.
The coalitions include representatives from schools, mental health, law enforcement, and faith and community agencies and work to develop a response to traumatic loss events, including suicide.
Although her organization's work in suicide prevention focuses on educating the public on the warning signs and indicators of suicide, Amundson said that in many cases the signs are not easily recognizable.
"Sometimes," she said, "[the signs] are so subtle and convoluted that it's complicated for most people to crack the code."
Among the warning signs, both subtle and not-so-subtle, that Amundson said people should look for are mood changes, substance abuse, anxiety, withdrawal, anger, and reckless behavior.
She added that there are certain factors that put some people at risk of suicidal behavior more than others. These can include: having a family history of suicide, having a history of mental illness, experiencing trauma, or substance abuse.
Amundson also admitted that sometimes people purposely hide the signs of their suffering, for fear of letting down their loved ones.
"People can be very secretive about the pain," she said. "They have feelings of shame and guilt. They don't want to disappoint other people."
Caroline Palavicino said that her sister, Arangellis Vargas, didn't show any signs of distress before she committed suicide.
"She was a perfect student," said Palavicino. "She was happy. She was able to handle everything."
Palavicino, who now lives in North Bergen, and will also be participating in the overnight walk, recalls her sister as being a cheerful person who gained joy from helping others.
"She was never depressed," she said.
Vargas, who was an architecture student, also volunteered to teach English to immigrant children. "Every time I remember her face, I remember her smiling," Palavicino recalled.
Coping with social stigma
Vargas was a young mother when she committed suicide at the age of 20. For years after that, her family suffered and kept the true reason of her death a secret, telling people it was a car accident.
Many religions and cultures label suicide a sin, and Palavicino's family, like many families, initially had trouble coping because of the social stigma related to it.
Palavicino was just 13 when it happened. Now 26, she works for the New York State Psychiatric Institute as a research assistant on suicide studies. She studies suicide on the most basic level, seeing its affects on individual brain cells.
She and her family have since come to terms with the fact that Vargas' death was suicide, and they believe that she may have suffered from postpartum depression. She added that she and her family also try to educate others in an effort to remove the stigma.
"It's not ugly, it's not embarrassing," Palavicino said last week from the lab at Columbia University where she works.
"It's something beyond your control."
Palavicino has been working with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to do outreach in the Latino community, where, she said, much education is needed. "If I'm not an advocate for them, no one else will be," she said.
"I don't want my sister to just be a statistic," she added.
William Grard, director of development for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and coordinator of the walk, said that more than 1,200 participants from across the U.S. have registered, proving that to thousands of people, the victims of suicide are not just mere statistics.
He said that the walk seeks to raise awareness for suicide prevention, fund research on the topic and produce educational programs.
With the 20-mile walk just three months away, Gonzalez said that she hasn't yet physically begun to train, but she has started to do some mental preparation.
"Mentally would be most difficult," she mused. "I'll be confronted with other people who have dealt with it and it brings it to the surface."
She said that her team will be walking under the name "hanging on," in reference to what her nephew said to her the last time they spoke. At the walk, she is looking forward to talking with people who have truly faced suicide issues head-on.
"I'd like to talk to the survivors, to people who had contemplated suicide," said Gonzalez.
"I'd ask, 'What went through your mind? What did you need?' Maybe I could fulfill those needs for someone in the future. If I can save one person, it's worth it," she said. Comments on this piece can be sent to: email@example.com. Sidebar: SEEKING HELP
Donna Amundson, of the New Jersey Traumatic Coalition, provides a good acronym to follow when looking for warning signs:
IS PATH WARM, which stands for Ideation, Substance Abuse, Purposelessness, Anxiety, Trapped, Helplessness, Withdrawal, Anger, Recklessness, and Mood changes.
According to The New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services, there were nearly 600 deaths from suicide in 2000, which is about 200 more deaths compared to homicide.
While New Jersey is statistically one of the states in the nation with the lowest suicide rates, New Jersey Chapter Chair for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Peggy Farrell said that it's still too much.
She said that she got five calls last week from people who had lost loved ones.
"If you get that many calls in one week, you don't feel like it's that low," she said.
Farrell agrees with many experts that say that therapy is an important way to cope with suicide.
"Coming to a support group and talking to friends about it is an essential part of getting better," she said. Farrell's son Michael was an assistant district attorney in New York who committed suicide at the age of 39.
"Of course you'll never get better, better," she said, but added, "Now I can remember my son with more joy than sadness."
For more information on suicide warning signs and how to conduct a suicide assessment or a suicide support group, contact Silvana Gomez, the Hudson County coordinator of the New Jersey Traumatic Loss Coalition, at (201) 915-2268, or via e-mail, at SGomez@Libertyhcs.org.
Or, contact Peggy Farrell of the New Jersey Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at (732) 462-5267 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To register as a walker or a volunteer for the Out of the Darkness Overnight walk, go to www.theovernight.org, or call 1-888-the-overnight.