Survivor Support Groups – are they really helping?

11 years ago, my only brother took his own life. About a year into my grief, after the casseroles & lasagna’s stopped coming, the random visits from friends who felt the need to hold my hand became scarce, the scents from perfume left on my clothes from forced hugs, had long since faded – I decided I needed a different kind of support. I needed to be around people that weren’t sick of hearing about my loss. I needed to talk about my brother, because I was so scared I would forget him, and even more, I yearned for a place other than home, that validated the trauma that I went through, and where I could meet others that truly understood.

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Members of the suicide survivor group and I attended the Out of the Darkness overnight walk – 2008.

I found a Suicide Survivors group near me, for people who have lost someone to suicide. It was just as you would expect it to be; everyone sits in a circle, there are a few trained moderators. Lots of boxes of tissue, a donation basket for the tea that you steep and fumble with but never drink, various pamphlets and literature you are never offered just for decoration. The moderator starts, almost in an exaggerated whisper, and reserved to a fault. I remember looking around the room, thirsty for my turn, but quickly found myself deeply immersed in others peoples stories. With every story of loss and heartache, I felt my own wave of emotions come rushing back – it was almost too much. Uncontrollable tears, shortened sobs as they searched for air from fear of the onslaught of painful feelings, others trying to comfort those that spoke, quietly shedding their own tears. I felt like I needed a reprieve, a moment of hope and light, but each was a story of loss, there was no words of hope in sight. So around we went, unzipping our hearts and letting our private pain spill onto the floor in the middle of this circle onto the cheap unraveling rug that seemed to be the focal point when we didn’t know where else to look. Each person was hesitantly commingling with each others grief hoping we could find a similar story, a similar look of sadness, or some new thought or opinion on why we had to lose our loved ones in such a traumatic way.

One day in the group, a woman came in who had lost her sister 10 years prior. I remember listening to her sadness, it felt so different than the rest of ours. Less frantic, more controlled. She was still sad, but she could breathe while crying. I know that sounds funny, because yes I know we all breathe, but in the beginning, it feels like you can’t, it’s scary. She was taking deep breaths, and I remember feeling jealous of them. I thought to myself, I hope my grief feels like this in 10 years, like a pre teen wishing for bigger boobs. After about a year of going to the group I started to get exhausted by the level of sadness and weight in each meeting, it started feeling like I was picking off scabs of work I had already done, and re-injuring myself. I needed light, I needed stories of hope, I needed to hear about what else people were doing with their sadness.

Fast forward to current day. My brother has been gone 11 years, 6 months and 29 days. Faces of Fortitude was started 14 months ago. In its inception it was meant to assist in my stage of grief, and very quickly grew into something larger than I ever imagined. It’s now become a movement, where people affected by suicide in any way, can apply to have their portrait taken and words shared with the world, regardless of how they are affected. I have shared over 100 Faces and counting, of people who have lost loved ones to suicide, people who have attempted to take their lives and survived, and also of the first responders of suicide deaths. I had finally found what I yearned for early on in my grief, a way for people affect to both share their narrative  and truth as well as words of hope and encouragement for what comes after our trauma.

I recently started seeing a trend, I have started getting messages from people relating to the words and stories because they were on the other side of the issue, and they were relating to other perspectives and stories. Like the 39 year old dad who messaged me, fighting major depression and suicidal ideations, who saw my post of a person who lost their dad, and all of the pain and anguish she had to process and go through even as an adult, made him realize what his daughter would go through, and decided to finally get help. The woman who lost a sibling to suicide, and commented on the photo of a young teen who struggled with the darkness and their own sadness, offering to be a big sister and mentor to the young girl, encouraging their talents and to live another day. It’s become clear to me, people not only need to share their own stories, but they need to hear the experiences of people on the other sides of suicide, in order to help them grow and heal.

About 6 months ago I decided it was time for me to revisit that same suicide survivors group – and the outcome wasn’t what I expected it to be. I went hoping to do what that woman did for me early on. I wanted to show them what over a decade of processing grief looked like, to be a beacon of hope for someone else. It started off just as I remember it for the most part. I entered and oddly there was no desk to check in as there was before. Strange but I didn’t give it much thought. Paper signs with “Survivor Group” handwritten and arrows lined the halls, I followed. I entered a room with two other people. Hesitant eye contact, tissues placed on the floor in the middle of the circle. As people trickled in, we exchanged awkward glances and hellos, all in a deafening whisper. The two moderators began to speak, and I couldn’t help but liken them to SNL characters. Exaggerated whispers, monotone, long pauses in between phrases, eyes filled with pity when they locked with  yours.

We began going around the room, people introducing themselves and sharing their stories. A few people were regulars and were known by first name. A few people had brought friends, and were still in very early stages of grief, the kind of tears that made your body shake and you didn’t know why. Some had lost brothers like me, and were rather fresh – 1-2 years into their grief. When my turn came, I told them I was what 11 years of grief looked like. That I wanted to do what someone once did for me. I told them briefly about my project and how it had been helping me process. One woman held back her tears and said how good it made her feel seeing someone who could talk about this kind of trauma and handle it with normal breaths. That is what I had hoped, and I felt happy I had made the decision to come.

The woman next to me was speaking, she had lost her son just 10 months before. She was inconsolable, and as I put my hand on her back, someone entered the room late. I like to consider myself a sensitive and an empath, and I can tell you right when he entered I knew something was wrong. I felt dread and I felt anger. I tried to keep my focus on the poor woman to my left, rubbing circles on her back helping her find her center as she composed herself. He was a middle aged, white male, work boots, carhartt jacket, sunburn on his face around the whites of where sunglasses once sat. Those sunglasses were now sitting on the back of his head. He tossed his keys and cell phone on the ground in front of his chair, sat down, made a sound of disgust, leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, sending darts with his eyes as he looked towards each of us.

The passive moderator looked at him and said in her monotone soft voice just above a whisper: “Hello thank you for joining us. *uncomfortable pause* You are the only person who hasn’t introduced themselves. Would you like to? You don’t have to, just if you feel comfortable of course.” He opened his arms and made a whatever shrug gesture and said “Sure, whatever, I don’t care!” to which we all exchanged looks and his bad energy vibes intensified for me. He said “My name is “Scott” (name changed for privacy). My wife killed herself about hmm lemme think, like 11 months ago, hard to keep track. I am doing great. More time for myself, more time to go fishing, do shit I wanna do. I am pretty carefree, belligerent some may say. I am trying to figure out why everyone is so fucking sad!”

I sat there enraged but also immediately felt in danger. This person had taken a safe space and immediately filled it with all the things those of us inside it were trying to rid ourselves of; judgement, shame, anger etc. The moderator basically fumbled with her reply, almost too quiet to even hear it, and was fairly dismissing with his behavior, using a lot of “I’m so sorry you feel that way” type replies. Another person in the circle was bold and started talking, saying that her tears were not ridiculous or unwarranted. Honestly I stopped listening at that moment because I was watching his face, become more and more enraged as she talked. He was preparing his rebuttal. And I didn’t want to hear it, I was convinced he was going to get violent. I raised my hand, interrupting the woman saying – “I am so sorry, I have to duck out early, I have another appointment” I thanked them all for their time, and practically ran out of the building. I sat in my car, shaking with fear and anger. WHAT was that? HOW did that happen? More importantly, WHY did that happen.

I spent the next week, mulling it over and spoke to a friend who worked in the industry and had mutual friends who worked at the place the meeting was held. She was appalled and promised to do some research for me. Turns out, this man, they believe was someone who had been calling into a local helpline, berating and harassing the volunteer support line workers to know end. He was allowed in the building. He wasn’t forced to check in with anyone, or record his email. He didn’t have to talk to anyone before entering the safe space. Furthermore I learned, that shortly after I left, he made a scene and had to be removed from the building.

Why aren’t people getting the help they need when these types of traumatic events happen to them. The people in this group no doubt were shaken by this event. But even more – Scott – this poor hurting human, his rage was out of control, all from his immense and painful grief. Those of us who know grief and its many masks, know this stage all too well. Why is there not help for him, family members reaching out, policies in place to make people feel safe from situations like this.

Then I realized, we all had the same experience. Why are we sticking all the people who have attempted in a room together, and all the people who have lost in a different room, and then giving separate classes to the first responders? There is something in a cross narrative that is tangible for me. Something we aren’t touching on to help each other. Our shared experiences help us feel less alone, and validated, but with suicide comes a very serious type of processing – tunnel vision. It’s hard to see past your grief because it’s so traumatic, likened to that of your body being in an airplane crash. So sometimes we need to be taken out of that line of sight, by hearing and seeing something that can possibly provide answers or insight to our own trauma: the other side of the coin. Family members who have lost sharing their pain with people who have attempted. First responders sharing their stories with people who have attempted, and so on, learning from each others specific kind of pain.

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So it’s time to create new types of meetings and support groups to match how society is growing and bringing mental illness more into the spotlight. A monthly group that has multimedia presentations with things that are happening in the news around suicide and mental illness, and people can discuss them. A few people speak, each sharing their stories of how they have been touched, all from different types of experiences with suicide. People bring in self help and mental health books they have read for a book exchange, there’s a therapist business card bucket, that you can put your therapists card in if you want to recommend them to someone else! Mental health and suicide prevention event dates on a flyer circulating for people to take home. A focus each meeting on one struggle that everyone across the board can related to: One week it’s GUILT, the next week its Self Confidence, etc. Artists who do grief pieces bring in their art to show, and explain how it helps them process. There will always be a licensed therapist and mental health professional present to help keep things on task and give supportive feedback. We draw up a blueprint of the first group and make it a downloadable PDF on the Faces of Fortitude website, so you can build a similar type meeting in your city or town. A group that has strict guidelines for the best practices and worksheets helping guide the meetings. So that people can feel safe, guided and organized.

Its 2019 – Suicide and Mental Illness is in the news daily, more people are bringing the topics out of whispers and into the light, where mature and informative discussions are happening. It’s time to update these outdated forms of support with the times. It’s time to hold ourselves accountable for that progress and not waste another moment – I am ready to start this process by encouraging a cross narrative between those who have been affected. My own process through grief and healing has grown exponentially since starting this project, and I have watched Faces I have worked with, heal as well. All because they are listening to each other, having dialogues, and taking things away from each others process. THAT is the golden ticket, and that is what we need to take healing from suicide and mental illness to the next level.

 

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