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Survivors of suicide find solace

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Although her father’s death happened 30 years ago, Gilah Pomeranz, co-owner of Yellow Springs Hardware, says that the feeling of guilt has never left her.

“What makes suicide different from other forms of death, is the overwhelming feeling of guilt,” said Pomeranz, whose father died of suicide in 1988.  

Suicide support groups 

• Suicide Survivors Group: Every Thursday, 7 p.m., First Presbyterian Church, 314 Xenia Ave. 

• NAMI Connection Recovery support group for those living with mental illness: Second and fourth Wednesday of each month, Bryan Center art room, second floor, 6:30–8 p.m.

• NAMI Family Support Group for those who love someone with a mental illness: Second Thursday of each month, Bryan Center art room, second floor, 7–8:30 p.m.

“On an intellectual level, I’ve had help to understand that there was nothing I could have done, but on an emotional level, that guilt is still with me,” she said.

It is estimated that 85 percent of Americans know someone personally who has died of suicide, according to a 2012 study titled Suicide Bereavement and Complicated Grief. 

Those who have lost loved ones to suicide often experience grief that is magnified by feelings of guilt, confusion, rejection, shame, anger, and the effects of stigma and trauma. Survivors of suicide are also at a higher risk of developing major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as suicidal behaviors of their own, the study affirmed.  

Pomeranz credits two friends, both themselves survivors of suicide, for helping her get through the shock and devastation at the time of her father’s death.

“Only someone who has been in that situation can understand what that felt like,” she said, adding that since then, she has tried to be there to support other survivors in an effort to “pay it forward.”

Suicide is on the rise both nationally and statewide.

As more and more people, including villagers, are affected by suicide, support for survivors is quickly becoming an issue of critical importance. But what resources are there for survivors and what is being done to reach out to them?

Voices of suicide survivors 

Reverend Aaron Saari of the First Presbyterian Church in Yellow Springs is a suicide survivor and a co-facilitator of the Suicide Survivors Support Group in Yellow Springs. The group, which meets weekly on Thursday nights, is intended to be a safe place for survivors who have either lost a loved one to suicide or who have thought about or attempted suicide themselves. 

“Suicide is unlike any other manner of death,” Saari said, “Because it strikes at a very basic question; can we ever imagine ourselves being in a situation in which we would choose voluntarily to take our own lives?”

The difficulty and intangibility of that question, Saari says, is one reason that many people attach a stigma to suicide, often thinking of it as selfish or weak, which can create anger within survivors. The purpose of the Suicide Survivors Support Group is to provide a safe and confidential place for survivors to speak about those feelings. 

Saari has lost two close family members to suicide, including his older brother, who had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and who died in 2002. 

“That single event changed the entire course of my life,” Saari said, explaining that it led him to find religion, become a pastor, and write a book about the issue of voluntary death, titled “The Many Deaths of Judas Iscariot: A Meditation on Suicide.”

But Saari is a survivor in two ways, because ever since he was a teenager, he has dealt with his own thoughts of suicide. 

“While I’m a co-facilitator and I’m the one who organized this group, I’m a member of the group as well. I need the other survivors as much, if not more, than they need me,” he said. 

Still, Saari wanted to dispel the notion that suicide is an unjustifiable decision, quoting the Italian poet Caesar Pavese, who said, “No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide.”

“We can’t look at [suicide] as an aberration,” he said, “We can’t dismiss that by saying, ‘all these people are selfish, all these people are weak, all these people just lacked proper information.’ Each suicide is different.”

Saari said that no one who attempts or dies from suicide ever lacks a reason that is sufficient for them in that moment. But he distinguished between reasons that are permanent and reasons that simply feel that way. 

His brother, he said, was hearing voices again at the end of his life and had gained 80 lbs. on a regimen of strong medication. And while he still has unresolved feelings about his brother’s death, Saari has never blamed him for it.  

“I have never felt ashamed of my brother’s suicide. I have never once been angry at him. I believe that it was an act of agency. Frankly, I’m glad that he did it because he was in so much pain. But that’s not the same thing as a trans or gender-fluid child in a religious, conservative, Christian household committing suicide because they feel that it won’t ever get better, that they won’t ever get out. That, we can help,” he said, “For my brother, it was just going to get worse.” 

Tom Freeland and Theresa Chandler of Xenia are both regular members of the Suicide Survivors Support Group, and echoed Saari’s sentiments. 

“We get that a lot, that they were weak, or they were selfish in taking their own life, and that’s not the case,” Chandler said, “They’re just in a bad place, they’re in a dark place that they just don’t see any light.”

Chandler and Freeland lost their daughter to suicide two years ago, when she was just 14 years old. The couple began attending support group meetings a few weeks later. 

“When we first went, we were numb,” Freeland said, “Everything around us was moving in slow-motion. We were just in a haze. But since talking to Aaron and others, it’s just helped us manage it. We’re still in a haze, but it’s not as thick at times.”

In addition to guilt, survivors are often left feeling angry. 

“It’s hard because you love them so much, you don’t want to be angry at them, but part of you is,” Chandler said, “Part of you is angry that they didn’t reach out, that they didn’t call someone, that they didn’t ask for help at that point in their lives. ” 

After Bob Stolz, chair of the Greene County Suicide Prevention Coalition, lost his brother-in-law to suicide nine years ago, he struggled at first to grapple with “how unnecessary it was.” Then came the anger. 

“I was angry at him because I held the view, ‘How could you do that? Did you not know what you had? How could you be so selfish?’” Stolz recalled.

“The anger gets in the way of the grief,” he said.

For survivors of suicide, complex emotions, combined with a reticence to seek help due to the stigma of suicide, can keep them paralyzed in dealing with their pain.

Compared to other deaths that Stolz has experienced, the suicide in his family has been more difficult to grieve.

“Grief is never a welcome guest,” Stolz said, but at least “when someone dies of a more natural cause, you understand it.” Sudden, shocking deaths can be harder to process because there is less preparation for the survivors, he added.

But not only is a suicide a shocking death, it raises so many additional questions. Even with a suicide note — left in an estimated 25 to 30 percent of all suicides — unanswered questions can haunt a family for years, Stolz said.

“Even if there is a note, there are things that we will never know. No information will ever satisfy,” Stolz said.

Now working countywide to prevent suicide — and thus its devastating impact on families — Stolz is focused on keeping the issue at the forefront. After the latest highly-publicized celebrity suicide, he hopes we don’t “sweep the topic back under the rug.” 

“The whole goal of the group is to look at what we can do to stop this from happening to one more family,” Stolz said.

The LOSS Team

Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors, or LOSS, is a group of local volunteers who have volunteered to be on-call to assist police in cases of suicide. However, their job is not to care for the victim of the suicide, but for the survivors. 

The LOSS Team acts as a contact for survivors, reaching out to them immediately after a suicide and providing them with resources to guide them through the first year after their loved one’s death, according to Saari, who is also a LOSS volunteer. 

For survivors, this kind of intervention can be crucial to getting the help they need.

“Statistics have shown that survivors of suicide do not connect with counseling or support services until on average four years after the death,” said Chris Pinkelman, Associate Director of Clinical Services at TCN. 

TCN is the organization that coordinates the Greene County LOSS team. They also provide a wide range of support and rehabilitation programs to citizens of Greene County struggling with mental health or substance abuse problems. 

So much happens to survivors after a suicide that they may not recognize the trauma or the effects on their mental health until much later, according to Pinkelman. 

“The earlier [survivors] connect with counseling and support, the better off they will be,” he said. 

The LOSS team is composed of 10 volunteers from across Greene County — most of whom are themselves survivors — as well as a clinician who is qualified to care for survivors in crisis who could pose a danger to themselves or others. 

Typically, the team is notified about a suicide by the coroner or law enforcement and called to the scene. Once there, the team works to stabilize the survivors, listening to them and sharing their own survivor stories. 

They try to prepare the survivors for what will come next, from the emotional effects of suicide, to the logistics of informing relatives and finding a funeral home. Survivors are left with a packet of information that walks them through each step of the process, directing them to support services, and helping them feel like they are not alone. 

“[LOSS] came to our house the night it happened,” Chandler said, “And they were very comforting and very supportive and from the very beginning they said that through studies, the best way to get through grief is to find a grief group, to find a group setting where you feel comfortable and you can share your grief with those around you.”

Chandler and Freeland said that by the second month they had already attended a suicide survivors meeting in Beavercreek, which they learned about in a flier from the packet they were given by LOSS. 

“We figured we had to do something because we knew where we were headed, with the doors shut and the curtains closed and not going anywhere. It was just getting worse,” Freeland said. 

After the initial visit, LOSS will make follow-up calls to check on survivors and encourage them to seek help.

Pinkelman said that while the team is very focused on trying to help survivors, it has been underutilized.

“We’re just not getting notified,” he said, “And that’s dependent on us getting a call from the police or the coroner.”

According to Pinkelman, the LOSS team has reached out directly to six survivors in the last 12 months, distributing about 24 resource packets total. 

However, Pinkelman also said that Yellow Springs has been one of the better municipalities in the county at consistently contacting LOSS, which he attributes to Police Chief Brian Carlson and local LOSS volunteer Aaron Saari. 

“When [Carlson] came in, he did a lot of outreach. He met with us and was interested in all the resources that were available,” he said, adding, “Local law enforcement officers there are very familiar with us. They aren’t afraid to call us.”

*The writer is an Ohio University student and intern at the News.

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