Survivors of suicide discuss prevention, how to cope

By Ian Cummings

Every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, people in Lawrence join thousands across the world in gathering to talk about their friends and family members who died by suicide.

They call it International Survivors of Suicide Day, and more join their ranks each year. Twenty-five Lawrence residents met Saturday at First United Methodist Church to share their stories of loss and help spread the word about the realities of suicide and mental illness. A panel of survivors, including City Commissioner Hugh Carter, who lost son Rees to suicide, led a discussion on how to cope with the unique grief that follows these deaths.

Marcia Epstein, director of Headquarters Counseling Center, organized the event and said Douglas County’s suicide rate was high for Kansas, which itself reports more suicides than the national average. The county saw its suicide rate double in 2010 and counted at least 29 deaths between 2010 and 2011. At least one person commits suicide in Kansas every day.

The survivors are often left with upsetting questions that can’t easily be answered. To help the bereaved cope with those and other difficulties, Headquarters hosts a support group that meets every other Tuesday. For many, these groups are the only places to share a common experience in a society where suicide is still widely misunderstood and difficult to discuss.

Shelly Hampton moved to Lawrence to find support after her 15-year-old son, Blake, suddenly killed himself in 2001. Hampton said he was a happy, healthy teenager who drank too much alcohol one night and made a mistake.

“It’s one of those things people don’t want to talk about,” she said. “But it’s such a long-lasting hurt that you need people to turn to for support.”

Troubled by grief, feelings of guilt and questions, Hampton said she didn’t find much support where she was living in Pratt, west of Wichita, and counseling was not available to her. But she found what she was looking for at Headquarters.

“I just felt like this was a place where I fit,” she said. “People never get answers to the ‘why’ question. When I quit asking that question, it really helped.”

Some at Saturday’s meeting, like Hampton, had lost young children to sudden, unexplained suicides. Others had seen spouses and family members go through years of mental illnesses before an untimely death. Whatever the cause, most agreed that anger, blame and wondering what they might have done differently rarely helped.

The message those participants wanted to spread was that suicide needs to be openly discussed before tragedy happens, as well as after. Mental illness, they said, should be treated just like physical illnesses, such as cancer or heart disease, and not stigmatized. Many regretted that their loved ones never found lasting treatments for the chronic depressions that ultimately ended their lives.

No one at the meeting had easy answers. Rose Foster, a panelist who has been involved in the Headquarters support group for seven years, became a therapist after her husband, Gordon, took his own life in 2004.

Foster said she had met few people who could make sense of these losses on their own.

“We don’t have a blueprint for that,” she said. “We need that extra support. It’s an outlet in life where you can be real with other people and be honest.”

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Tagged: cope, suicide prevention, suicide, health


bearded_gnome 5 years, 11 months ago

this article is a good start but it lacks the basic how-to, what I've been writing about:

please put in each of these articles what a friend or family member should do if he or she knows someone who is considering suicide!

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 11 months ago

It can be very difficult to tell if someone you know is considering suicide. Quite possibly, the easiest and most accurate way to spot an oncoming suicide is that the person suddenly seems more cheerful, looking forward to the end of the pain of daily life. That's going to be very tough for anyone to spot.

I've lost, oh, I don't know, maybe six friends and family members to suicide, and in every case, it was a total surprise to everyone.

But, you asked that something be put in the article what someone should do if they are aware that's about to happen. I was a bit surprised that nothing was stated about that. Here's the thing to do:

Call Headquarters at 841-2345 and ask for advice. Note that the phone number is very easy to remember.

bearded_gnome 5 years, 11 months ago

if this were on ljworld, it would draw more readers and more comments, IMHO.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 11 months ago

You never know what will happen from one day to the next.

A friend of mine, J. graduated from the KU School of Pharmacy with a 3.75 or 3.8 GPA, almost straight As. I don't know how many Pharmacy school students graduate with a GPA higher than 3.75, but I'm sure it isn't very many.

1) Later, there I was, looking at J.'s twenty two year old body in his casket. Since he was a well trained pharmacist and had access to any medication he wanted, it was expertly done, very painless, and an extreme shock to everyone who knew him.

2) I had a neighbor, C., down the street, four houses down. I never talked to him, but I did sort of know him. We always waved whenever we saw each other. He used a shotgun.

3) Then there was S., a man I was rather close to. Even though he had very serious health issues and certainly would not be living much longer anyway, it still was a shock. Those pills can really do it to you, now this made two.

Many years before S. had told me that he had spent quite some time explaining to one of his friends exactly how to tie a hangman's noose, right down to the thirteen turns that it's supposed to have. And then he was so surprised when the man he had instructed so well put his new knowledge to good use only two days later.

4) I could hardly believe it when I received that phone call telling me about D. Why? Well, that's the question everyone asks, and there will never be an answer. It didn't make any sense.

I knew him very well, so I knew he was not very happy where he was living, and that he could sell everything and move to where ever he wanted and probably not even need to work.

He was an accomplished concert level pianist. As he was grinning at you, he could tell you jokes with the music he played. I've never known anyone else that was able to do that. You'll never see that though, because the music has died. Pills number three, or at least that's what I was told. And, they didn't find him for a very long time is another thing that I was told.

5) Another shock was when I received a long distance telephone call telling me that a very good friend of mine, E., was dead. What that stunned me the most when I learned of his death was that I had talked to him on the phone very late the night before.

The coroner's report claimed he died Sunday night. I knew that wasn't true, because we had been on the phone until after midnight, so the day of his death was actually Monday. But it was not possible to determine the exact time, again due to the circumstances of a rope.

I was the last person he ever talked to. He asked me for some advice. I would have given him very different advice than I did if I had known what he was thinking.

Keep that in mind whenever you talk to someone, because it might be the very last time you ever talk to them. Your words can make a big difference in someone's life, and it might be the difference between life and death.

But you'll never know for sure.

Ron Holzwarth 5 years, 11 months ago

That's a repost, but I couldn't put that comment in due to the 3,000 character limit. If anyone feels the need to contact me about mental health or suicide issues, please feel free to contact me. I'm just a layman, but experienced, and I know a lot about those things. I am very easy to find, and due to my personal circumstances, I can talk freely about many subjects that many people would rather not discuss.

Lisa Medsker 5 years, 11 months ago

I wish I had known about this. I've been carrying "Survivorship" around since 1999, and never knew this kind of event occurred.

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