Survivor Day, 2019

In 1999, Senator Harry Reid introduced a resolution to the United States Senate which led to the creation of National Survivors of Suicide Day. Reid is a survivor of his father’s suicide. The day is now observed world-wide on the Saturday before Thanksgiving is observed in the US. It has now been 20 years since that first Survivor Day and the event is now called International Survivors of Suicide loss Day.

I can’t remember exactly how long we have been holding an event here in Rapid City to honor survivors on Survivor Day, but we started somewhere close to the beginning. In the early years, we held our events at the hospital because the hospital had the technology for us to link up with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s national teleconference. The AFSP organized a panel of experts, some survivors, and some researchers and after the panel discussion, participants could call in questions. As the years went by, the technology changed and we were able to move to other venues for our gatherings. The number of people who participate has gone up and down with differences in publicity and promotion as well as with the ever changing lives of the people of our community.

I don’t expect that this year’s event will be large. There hasn’t been much advance registration. We haven’t received coverage in the news. It isn’t considered to be news any more. We do this every year and every year our message is the same. We gather to provide support for those who have lost a loved one to suicide. We speak openly about suicide and we seek to understand the causes of these tragic losses.

Each year the AFSP produces a documentary video that contains a message of hope, growth, resilience and connection. It is the connection that I find so important.

Because of my work with our community’s LOSS team, I know the stories of a lot of families. I’ve been to the scenes of many deaths. I’ve sat with family members as they confront the shock of sudden and traumatic loss. Every story and every situation is unique. There is nothing that is normal or usual about death from suicide. Even cluster events where there are multiple suicides with similar features and we can see the relationships between the deaths are uniquely traumatic for those who are left behind.

I don’t have the numbers for 2019 yet. The year is not yet finished and we often see an uptick in suicides around holidays. But I know the trends. We live in a community that is disproportionately affected by suicide loss. Our state has a high suicide rate and our county leads the state. It is not a distinction that we enjoy.

I am often challenged to speak of suicide prevention and I’ve invested a lot of time and energy learning what I can. I am trained as a suicide intervention specialist and I work with other professionals in our town to intervene when we have the opportunity. We have been successful on many occasions in assisting people who are thinking of suicide. This is in spite of a lack of resources in our community. It is challenging to arrange emergency care for those suffering from acute mental illnesses. There are often delays. We have been told that there are no beds in our hospital for those suffering from certain conditions. We have been told that someone has to wait weeks to be seen by a psychiatrist. We have worked to find other safe places for those who are suffering.

The vast majority of suicides in our community, however, come with little or no warning. Survivors wake the the morning with no idea the trauma they will face that day. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “If I’d only known. . . “

In the midst of all of this, however, I want to be clear that the reason I participate in Survivor Day goes beyond a sense of loss and grief in our community. The loss is real. The pain of grief is real. I have, however, found survivor events to be among the most hopeful gatherings in our community. Sure we share our stories of tragedy. And yes, we share our despair at the lack of resources. But there is no group of people more committed to prevention, education and support than survivors of suicide loss. When I am with survivors, I feel energy around positive efforts to prevent future suicides, remove the stigma attached to mental illness and suicide, advocate for additional resources and make real changes in our community. Despite what you might expect, survivors are not inwardly focused. They are at various states in a journey of recovery and recovery involves reaching out to others with compassion and care.

The holidays are tough for a lot of people. They are especially tough for those who have experienced a recent death of a loved one. Along with the memories of past holidays is a sense of what might have been had things been different. The loneliness of grief is more intense around the holidays. Everyone is saying “Happy Holidays!” and “Merry Christmas” at a moment when some survivors are feeling anything but happy and merry.

So we will gather again today as we do each year. We may be less than a dozen. We probably won’t be more than 20 even though there are more than a hundred people whose lives have been directly affected by suicide loss this year. For some it is just too soon to get out with others. For others, it is a day for quiet introspection and not social gathering. But for some of us, it is a day to recommit ourselves to caring for our sisters and brothers in our community, to doing whatever we are able to prevent death from suicide, to remember those who have been lost and to advocate for additional services and care for those in need.

I know there are some who are made uncomfortable by talk of suicide. With all due respect, we won’t be silent. If making another uncomfortable saves a life, it is well worth it.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!