The loss of a loved one to suicide is a loss like no other. Suicide is a leading cause of death worldwide1 and in the U.S., one person dies every 12.8 minutes. A conservative estimate states that annually, one million suicide loss survivors are left behind.2 The social stigma experienced by suicide survivors relates to each family member in a very personal and complex way. Society tends to assume the suicide was due to problems the victim could not or did not solve. Family members are often seen as somehow at fault because of the failure to meet the assumed needs of the victim.
To help create a better understanding of the problem of suicide and its effects on survivors, the concept of a national day was proposed in a federal Senate Resolution in 1999, to be held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving. This year was the 17th Annual International Survivors of Suicide Day (ISOSL,) observed November 21, 2015 when thousands of people worldwide honored their loved ones. This day is sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Its purpose is to minister to the newly bereaved, as well as offer support to all who have experienced this type of loss. ISOSL Day provides help along the journey of becoming a survivor. Most people who experience suicide loss say it takes months, or even years, before they can call themselves a survivor. On this day, survivors have permission to grieve openly together, and give the public – who doesn’t yet understand – an opportunity to think deeply about those who are grieving a violent loss. It is an invitation to draw them into the greater community of the bereaved.
This year’s event in Albuquerque, New Mexico included stories from local suicide loss survivors, a presentation by a local grief counselor, a film called Family Journeys and plenty of time to talk in small groups. The power of personal story lies in the sharing of burdens and learning how others are coping. There is a transformation that takes place when telling of one’s struggles to survive one of the most difficult losses a human being can suffer.
The film produced by AFSP called Family Journeys – Healing and Hope After a Suicide, was shown at Survivors Day 2015 events worldwide. The film traces the ripple effect of a suicide through families and communities, and explores the challenges we face as we cope and heal.
Survivors were encouraged to bring a photo of their loved one and to share their story in the small group discussions. Topics included the emotions of guilt and shame which often plague survivors, questions from the film, and an exploration of feelings surrounding statements such as, “No one is ever responsible for what another person does.” “It is not your fault. It is not my fault. It is not their fault. There is no blame in suicide, regardless of how many times one thinks there is.”
There was an immediate bond within the room as survivors introduced themselves and joined a table group. It is immediate because each has experienced the same grief of suicide loss. Each person’s grief journey will be different, but there is no judgment. Attendees sense this is a safe place.
In the spirit of creating that safe place, the Albuquerque event incorporated a relaxation technique used by Dr. Carl Jung, the coloring of mandalas. The word mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning circle. Circles are at the heart of mandala designs, even if a square or triangle seems to dominate the design. Within its circular shape it has the power to promote relaxation, balance the body’s energies, enhance creativity, and support healing. It also symbolizes the cycle of life, or can even symbolize the cycle of grief.
Elena Santos, in an article in the Huffington Post stated, “Coloring generates wellness, quietness and also stimulates the brain areas related to motor skills, the senses and creativity.” Additionally, psychologist Gloria Marinez Ayala has said, “The relaxation coloring provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress.”
A quote by C.S. Lewis continues the idea of this healing cycle, because “we carry our memories forward in our mind, which is part of our soul that lives on into eternity.” Participants were invited to color as they listened to the speakers and watched the film.
The stress caused from grief needs an outlet. Suppressing grief keeps one in a continual state of stress and shock, unable to move on. Our body feels the effects of it in ailments. Our emotional life suffers. Our spiritual life suffers. As we listened to others’ stories and participated in this day, it was hoped the act of coloring would offer a release from the stress of emotional trauma and provide soothing and healing. Coloring was a new addition to the day’s program, and we looked forward to hearing about people’s experiences with it.
This year there were nearly 60 people in attendance. For many survivors, this was the first time they have spent time with their grief in a public setting, so engaging with ‘mandala therapy’ seemed to offer relief and help. Susan, who came alone and appeared uncomfortable, carefully chose her mandala and began coloring immediately. The facilitator noticed Susan’s jaw and shoulders relax, and she colored throughout the entire afternoon. Another attendee named Rachel said, “Coloring was a healing tool that helped me focus. I could feel less stress in my body. So grateful it was part of this day, which was very difficult.”
It took many groups working together to make this community event successful. The Survivors of Suicide ABQ and Survivors of Suicide Loss, which are peer-run support groups in the Albuquerque area, provided volunteers for ISOSL Day. The local board for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also lends a hand to bring this day of healing to our community. The focus for this day is suicide grief, not prevention. But prevention is something that all survivors eventually must come to terms with.
After losing a family member to suicide the word prevention can feel like a knife to the heart. “What didn’t I see?” “Why did they do it?” “What did I do wrong?” are questions that revolve around and around in our minds. If we are able to understand depression, even situational depression, and other types of mental illness as an illness, rather than a character flaw, we are able to release some of the guilt and stress that comes from this type of loss. We couldn’t have known then what we know now.
The second leading cause of death for youths age 10-24 in the US is suicide.3 and according to a news report from CBS, it is the first cause of death for males ages 40-65.4 It is easy to blame the last event that happened or a succession of final events – bullying, loss of job, stress, divorce, etc. But the answer is never so simple. Often finding answers to the “why?” question is just not possible with suicide.
We are facing a public health crisis, one afflicting the brain. It is widely agreed that mental illnesses have a biological basis, and occur from a breakdown in chemical processing.
Environmental and social stressors can also trigger mental disorders. One in five Americans suffers from a diagnosable, treatable mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, anxiety or depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of all Americans will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives. Without treatment, mental illnesses can get worse, and studies show that 90% of those who die by suicide suffered from a diagnosable, often unrecognized, untreated or improperly treated mental illness – often depression or anxiety.5 Just as untreated hypertension can lead to a heart attack, ignoring — or being unaware of — the symptoms of mental illness can have dangerous, even deadly consequences.
It’s the shame and stigma of mental illness and suicide that keeps people from seeking treatment. As a nation we need to increase the availability and accessibility of treatment. Developing the language to speak openly about one’s feelings and emotions is another important strand to prevention. The “S-word” makes us uncomfortable, but talking about it actually reduces the stigma. Raising awareness saves lives. It has a ripple effect. The work to change attitudes about mental illness and suicide takes all of us. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to prevent suicide. Society is beginning to change the conversation about these previously taboo subjects. Please join the efforts in your communities to “break the silence.” To find out more, visit our SOS survivor support group. Many communities have local chapters.
1 World Health Organization
2 American Association of Suicidology, 2014
3 Children’s Safety Network, 2013, AFSP, 2015
4 Daniel Schwartz, CBS, 2015
5 AFSP, 2015