"You don't know how many times you may have stopped them, by a kind word, a smile, a gentle hug"— Unattributable but said by many survivors
Many of you who follow my blog know that I have spent the greater part of my adult life in the world of suicide education, prevention, and postvention. It is known by most that I entered this realm after my mom took her life in 1979. It is primarily mom that I reference when identifying myself as a survivor of suicide (someone who has lost a family member or friend to suicide). I have, however lost others: a teenager who had come to work as an office volunteer at SPS, a friend of a friend, and, most recently, a member of the attempt support group I helped to start 4 years ago.
SOSA (Survivors of Suicide Attempts) is a new kind of group. As far as I am aware, I helped to start one where few exist. Because Mom had a prior attempt, I have had a fascination for and been drawn to those who tried to kill themselves and lived. Some of these people have come to me as clients. Some are friends who confessed this to me in whispers. I have wondered for many years why these people are shunned; why are family members angry at them (as I was at Mom) after they recovered. Why aren't they grateful that this person lived? Why aren't we, the experts so to speak, listening to the deep pain that caused them to want to die? If it is true, and it is, that a byproduct of suicide is death but the real reason is the deep desire to end the emotional pain, why aren't we focusing on that pain and asking what we can do to help?
I am on the National Steering Committee for the Lifeline which is a 1-800 number that has centers in all 50 states answering these calls. If a center is on with another caller, through some genius of mechanics and technology, the phone rings to another center. The caller is never put on hold. When I entertained the idea of starting a group for attempt supporters, the psychologists practically rose into the air from their seats with, of course, the questions that other less educated people ask: "Won't they all share methods?" or "Have you thought of your legal liability?" Actually, I had to answer "no" to both. I felt that the experience, for the attempt survivors, would be freeing. And it has been.
When one is in this field, we know that it is very possible, even likely, that we can lose a client to suicide. That is why so many "professionals" don't ask their clients if they're suicidal; in fact, even when the client mentions it, the "professional" deflects because of lack of knowledge and, yes, legal liability.
The group lost a member to suicide. While he hadn't been coming for a year before he took his life, the last time he came his life was finally looking up. This man suffered with his bipolar illness, anxiety, and alcoholism for several years. He had lost his job, wife, and home in that order. He went from "having it all" to living with aging parents and struggling, every day, with suicidal ideation. He would attend the group and never stop jiggling his legs; his hands shook.
Peter (not his real name) was a dear man. I felt, as did the others, such a deep connection to him and we could "feel" his pain. He allowed us, as did the other group members, to have someone I know tape an entire meeting so that I could take it to the American Association of Suicidology's Annual Conference and show it. 800 people crammed the room to watch and to listen to other attempt survivors speak. You could have heard a pin drop. Peter's story was poignant in that he would make reservations, every day for a year, to fly to San Francisco to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, then somehow pull it together enough to cancel and reschedule. He had had a prior attempt on that bridge but survived right before he jumped when someone grabbed him off that rail.
I learned of his death, which did not occur out of state but right here in Illinois, by a phone call from someone else in the group asking if I'd read the paper. While he was not as yet identified by his name, we were pretty sure it was him. That was later confirmed. I cannot tell you the deep sorrow I faced. Like any survivor, I turned to the "what if's" and the "if only's." Guilt over the death of someone I hadn't seen or heard from for a year, even though we tried to reach out to him through voice messages and emails. It wasn't unusual for him to not respond and then all of a sudden show up at a meeting.
His services were in another community. While the group processed his death over the course of several meetings, no one was able to attend. I sent a heartfelt note to the family via the funeral director.
Yesterday, Sunday, July 15, I received a phone call. The voice on the other end identified himself as a friend of Peter's. He wanted me to know how much the group had helped Peter and how very much the letter, signed by all of the surviving attempters, meant to his family. I couldn't do much more than cry; well, sob actually. He said that Peter had been doing well for quite a while but things "began to slip again." They encouraged him to reach out to the group, to his therapist, to any number of people. He did not.
The words, "You don't know how many times you may have stopped them" came to me in the soft gentle voice of someone who attends the the Survivors of Suicide Support Group. It was from a mom who had a son die by suicide 16 years ago. Mary. I heard Mary's voice. I was, and have been, an emotional wreck since then. Even prior to this call, I had been watching the video with Peter in it. His sweetness along with his despair was so evident.
Peter's friend told me that Peter had been doing so well, in fact, that he began to volunteer and to apply for jobs. He got a job! Things were getting better. Then they got worse.
I will hold onto the idea that he had that, at least. His despair was gone for a while. He was able to smell victory once again. I wish he was still here.
Rest in peace, Peter. I will survive. I will continue to miss you. I am SO glad I got to know you.