Unfortunately sometimes our best prevention efforts don't work, and someone is lost to suicide (statistics say that over a lifetime 60% of us will lose someone we know to suicide).
When that happens, it can be like setting off an emotional bomb for the loved ones who are left behind. Often people are left in shock, confused, angry, and without an idea of how to proceed or what to do to begin to put their lives and their families back together. For these 'survivors' , seeking help and support from professionals and peers who know what they are going through can be key.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is not only an excellent resource for prevention efforts, they also offer amazing programs and support to survivors looking for answers and healing. There you can find support groups, a survivors e-network, a survivor outreach program, and ways to honor a loved one and to become more actively involved in the work AFSP does. They also organize and sponsor a program that allows the survivor community to come together for "support, healing, and information" on National Survivors of Suicide Day (observed on the Saturday before Thanksgiving each year). Conference sites from all over the world participate.
I attended the event held in Chicago this year (Saturday November 21st), both as a representative of Erasing the Distance and as a survivor. ETD ensemble member Stephanie Diaz (left) joined me to help inform people about what ETD does, and also to participate as a fellow survivor. We enjoyed informing people about ETD and sharing our mental health resources. We also spread the word about a special program we are devising for the University of Chicago to address the topic of suicide, and let people know that their stories can help others to heal.
The day started at 11:00 with a group lunch. After lunch we watched a special 90 minute program from AFSP, as hundreds of sites across the globe did the same thing. The program featured a panel of survivors speaking about their experiences with the guidance of a counselor. This video, along with the webcast from 2008, is available to watch online here. The advice and wisdom of the participants was inspiring.
After the program a panel of local survivors spoke, and the audience was able to ask questions. We then broke into small facilitated groups, organized around who had been lost (parents, siblings, spouses, children, or friends and other relatives.) I was honored to facilitate the group of people who had lost a friend or other relatives. I was deeply moved by the strength of the people who shared their stories of loss. Some people in attendance had just lost someone, others were honoring loved ones who had been gone for years. As many people pointed out over the course of the day, losing someone to suicide is not something you ever forget - but it was strengthening to see that people do heal, form scars, and move on with their lives. That people do indeed survive.
In the closing ceremony, several of us held candles wrapped in ribbon to represent the loved one lost. I held the candles for brother and sister. A survivors poem was read by Julie Reichenberg (from the Child, Adolescent, and Family Development Center in Lake Bluff, IL) who organized the entire event. Each person from the audience lit a candle for their loved ones off of one of ours, and said their loved ones names aloud. It was a forceful reminder that every single person in the room had lost a mother or a child, a lover or a friend. By the end the entire room was lit in the soft candle light. It was a moving experience, a healing experience.
If you have lost someone to suicide, there is a wonderful network of survivors out there who know what you are going through. I implore you to reach out, share your story, and seek help. You do not have to go it alone. If you would like to share your survivors story with Erasing the Distance, you can do so here.
Wishing you a healthy and warm Thanksgiving.