Private Pain, Shared Grief: A Day For Those Left Behind After Suicide

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Brian Snyder/Reuters

When Eric Marcus was 12 years old, his father took his own life. The following day, Marcus, now 56 years old, recalls going to school as though nothing had happened. His family told people his father had died of pneumonia. Marcus didn’t say anything to his classmates about his father’s death, which remained a topic not broached amongst his family.

Thirty eight years later, in 2008, after Marcus had written a book on dealing with and preventing suicide, he suffered a second blow when his partner’s sister took her own life.

“It was traumatic and retriggered, or rather triggered, all kinds of things that came back for me,” Marcus tells Newsweek. “I remember thinking that I couldn’t do this alone again.”

Two weeks later, he attended his first International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day event.

“It was like the first time I went to a gay bar,” says Marcus, now the senior director for loss and bereavement programs at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). “There was something powerful in discovering that I was one of many.”

On Saturday, survivors of suicide loss from Anchorage to Atlanta, from Kathmandu to Santiago, will gather at roughly different 275 events to mark the 16th International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.

The day’s events are frequently an entry point to the survivor community for those who have lost someone to suicide and who, like Marcus, will connect with others who have experienced a similar loss for the first time.

Suicide was the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Data & Statistics Fatal Injury Report for 2012. That year, someone took his or her life every 12.9 minutes in the U.S. to make a total of more than 40,000 deaths from suicide. Between 1986 and 2000, suicide rates in this country declinedfrom 12.5 per 100,000 people to 10.4. But the number rose back to 12.5 by 2012.

Survivor Day was first designated in 1999 by Senate majority leader Harry Reid. Reid, who lost his father to suicide in 1972, introduced a resolution that would mark the Saturday before Thanksgiving “National Survivors of Suicide Day.” The AFSP has since expanded its scope beyond U.S. borders to become “International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.”

“Even today, I can still vividly recall the moment in 1972 when I received the tragic news that my father had taken his own life,” Reid said in a September 2009 statement released for National Suicide Prevention Week. “Over the years that followed my father’s death, my family didn’t talk about his suicide. We were left alone and carried this experience in a very private way.”

The range of emotions people grieving the suicide of a loved one experience can run the gamut, from denial to anger to guilt and sometimes even relief.

“A loss from any death is a painful experience,” Marcus tells Newsweek. But “when you lose someone to suicide… you’re left with additional challenges. [One’s] instinct is to try to make sense of something that is by definition an irrational act.”

People tend to get caught up in a blame gameof themselves, others, or the person who took his or her own lifeMarcus says, and the resulting guilt can be a huge burden for people dealing with loss from suicide. There are many ways to break that cycle, including support groups and one-on-one therapy. Meeting and connecting with others who have been through similar experiences can be enormously helpful, he says.

“The important thing to recognize [is that] everyone grieves differently and we have to respect each other and each other’s grief journey,” says Marcus.

The ultimate goal of Survivor Day is to provide hope for those who have lost someone to suicide, to see how others in similar situations are healing and trust that they can do the same.

“Suicide is a devastating tragedy that can shock families and entire communities. The effect suicide has on loved ones underscores the importance of having a day when survivors worldwide can come together to find comfort and share their stories,” Reid said in a statement emailed by his office to Newsweek Friday.

“I am committed to working toward the day when no one has to experience this tragedy. Until that time, on this Survivor Day, I hope all those gathered across the world find comfort and gain understanding so they can continue to heal.”

The AFSP offers a listing of support groups across the U.S., which are usually peer-facilitated, as well as a training program for group leaders. It has a survivor outreach program to arrange peer visits for those suffering from suicide loss and suicide bereavement training for clinicians, among other programs.

Each year, AFSP releases a video to be screened at Survivor Day events, to allow attendees to hear about others’ experiences in a structured way and to spur conversation. In the past, Marcus tells Newsweek, the video was a simple recording of a panel discussion, but this year they’ve released The Journey, a more sophisticated documentary.

Its maker, Jeff Gersh, is all too familiar with his subject matter. He lost his wife, Heather Hartley, to suicide in October 2008.

“I probably felt like I was breathing through a straw for about two years,” says Gersh, who was confounded by the prospect of telling his then-five-year-old daughter about her mother’s death the morning after it happened. During that initial period, he was “trying to find a way to keep both of us going through the days.”

Gersh and his daughter, now 11, will both attend a Survivor Day event for the first time on Saturday. His short film will be screened at the Portland gathering.  “I wish that I could have seen this film years ago because I think it would have helped me,” says Gersh, who for a long time preferred not to seek out meetings with other survivors of suicide loss even as his daughter did so at Portland’s Dougy Center, The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, every other week for the last six years.

Those who live in large swaths of the world without a local support group or Survivor Day event can join “Survivor Day Live,” an online event hosted by Marcus on Saturday at 1 p.m. EST.

Despite a gradually more open conversation in the U.S., mental health and suicide still carry a certain stigma with them, says Shantell Brightman, who appears in Gersh’s documentary. Her father struggled with addiction for more than four decades and took his own life in September 2012. The discomfort stems, she tells Newsweek, from a misconception that suicide is a coherent choice and a selfish act.

“But anyone in their right mind wouldn’t choose” to end their own lives, she says. “They’re just trying to escape pain, [a] sense of hopelessness that you may never experience.”

Dr. Maryam Hafezi, chair of the counseling department at Argosy University at San Francisco Bay Area Campus, says it can be difficult for people to discuss this kind of death: “Saying I lost my mom to cancer is different than saying I lost my mom because she killed herself,” Hafezi said.

Gersh, who has done some film work for The Dougy Center about suicide loss in addition to making The Journey, says some survivors find that people avoid the topic, or avoid them entirely, because of the stigma suicide carries. “People simply don’t understand it,” he says. “That becomes a very difficult thing to deal with and adds to the loneliness of loss.”

“It’s urgent that people feel that it’s safe, that it’s okay, and that this conversation be more open,” says Gersh. “There is no shame in the way that these people that we loved died. It’s a sad thing, it’s tragic,” he says, but “if we open up the conversation we can save people’s lives.”

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