In the Aftermath of a Suicide Death, Survivors Help Each Other Heal

Oct. 2, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

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A suicide death can impact as many as 300 people; awareness and prevention efforts are increasingly focused on those left behind after a death.

This report is part of our ongoing project Nebraska: State of Mental Health.

On a beautiful, windy Saturday morning at a park in Grand Island, hundreds of people gathered for the Out of the Darkness walk.

Many of them are suicide survivors – that means they’ve lost someone to suicide. Several big groups had matching t-shirts with photos of their loved one.

Robert Blue lost his partner, Merle R. Wood, to suicide, and later attempted suicide himself.

"I just feel so proud that I could be a part of this," Blue said about the walk. "If I can prevent any more suicides just by my presence, just by my words, I hope I can help other people."

The registration table handed out bead necklaces in different colors, each representing a connection to the suicide prevention community.

"The red bead is that I have lost a partner, Merle Wood from Colorado, to suicide," said Robert Blue, who brought a team from United Congregational Church to the walk. "And the green beads is because I have personally attempted suicide in the past."

The park was packed with people wearing a rainbow of necklaces: white for the loss of a child, gold for losing a parent, and so on.

Each one an example of the devastation a suicide loss brings to a family and a community.

"I felt pretty much alone, and being a member of the LGBTQ community I felt helpless, I felt lost," Blue said. "I thought well, I will never, I’m going to be alone for the rest of my life. I had real strong thoughts of suicide."

He’s not alone. Losing someone to suicide increases your own suicide risk by about 65%.

That’s why the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention puts on events like these walks all over the country. Nebraska Chapter Co-Chair Amy Reed says it’s not just a fundraiser – it’s a safe place for people to feel all of their emotions.

"You see crying, you see laughing, you see tears, you see hugs," Reed said. "All of that stuff is important. And this is a safe day to feel all that stuff out in the open."

This support system is critical for healing, but many people don’t get connected to resources until long after a death.

Dr. Dave Miers is a suicide researcher and the Mental Health Services Manager at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln.

"We know that families who don't have contact with a survivor after the loss of somebody to suicide, sometimes wait five to six years before they reach out for help," Miers said. "And if you have contact from another survivor, someone who's walked in your shoes, that drops down to about 39 days."

Miers helped bring a program to Nebraska that aims to connect with suicide survivors as quickly as possible.

It’s called the LOSS model – that stands for Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors. Each LOSS team has a mental health clinician and two suicide survivors.

Local law enforcement alerts the team to a suicide death, and they get in touch to offer support – usually within days and sometimes even within hours.

"Even after the fact having the team come out and talk to the family, and provide those resources, that gives the family hope, help and healing," Miers said. "And it lets them know that, gosh, you know, there are resources there. I'm not alone."

There are nine LOSS team programs across the state, including in Omaha, Chadron, and Norfolk. The team in Lincoln has followed up with 326 deaths in the 10 years since it started.

Renae Zimmer is co-founder of the Central Nebraska LOSS Team program. She says they’ve contacted about 45 families since launching in 2014.

"What we try to do is match, which if there is a loss of a suicide of a spouse, then we have members of our loss team that have lost a spouse," Zimmer said. "And I think more than anything we go in there with that expectation of not really talking a whole lot, we just really listen."

8-year-old Isaiah says he really misses his Tío Rocco, who died by suicide last year.

Rocco's sister Desiree wore a shirt in his honor that said "I am a sister to an angel with wings." His nephew Isaiah's shirt read "My tío is my guardian angel."

Rocco's family attended the first Out of the Darkness walk in Grand Island last year, just a few months after his death.

Zimmer lost her brother Ryan to suicide five years ago, and helps others manage the barrage of feelings.

"To know that they may feel overwhelmed by the intensity of their feeling, but all their feelings are normal," Zimmer said. "Everything that they're feeling is normal; anger, guilt, confusion, forgetfulness, are common responses."

The walk in Grand Island is all about those emotions. And these events can be especially important in rural states like Nebraska.

Amy Reed with AFSP Nebraska says they try to focus on the highest risk groups.

"A lot of people don't realize that agriculture suicide is one of the most at risk, next to military and first responders and the LGBT [community], agriculture is right up there with them," Reed said. "So getting into the smaller communities with farmers and whatnot is a constant goal of ours."

This event is a chance for people to tell the story of the person they lost. Paula Powell holds a poster covered in pictures of her son, Rocco, who died just last year.

"This is my son. And these are his two daughters that he that I have with me," Powell said. "So some photographs of him being the good dad that he normally is."

Her grandson, 8-year-old Isaiah, wears a t-shirt that says, “My tío is my guardian angel.”

"I just miss him really much I wish he wouldn't die," Isaiah said. "Because he he's always in my heart and I really miss him."

Powell says the wind in the trees is a reminder that Rocco is always nearby.

"I love you, mijo," she said, looking up at the swaying branches. "I love you. Rest in peace, baby doll."