Isolation. Guilt. Blame. Anger. Grief.
Those are some of the emotions people feel after losing a loved one to suicide.
In 2013, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment reported that the state experienced a record high number and rate of suicides in 2012. The Colorado Office of Suicide Prevention reported that Colorado consistently ranks in the Top 10 states in the nation for suicide rates.
La Plata County is not immune, reporting 16 suicides in 2012, and dropping to nine in 2013. La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith reported that as of Tuesday, she ruled eight deaths as suicides so far this year. Statistics from the Colorado Office of Public Health show suicide as the seventh leading cause of death in the county.
But those are merely numbers.
Suicide is about people – those whose despair was so great that they took their own lives, those left behind whose grief is complicated and crippling, and the people in the community who are working to try to stop it.
‘What if ...’
“Suicide is doubly isolating. First, family members feel isolated by the loss of the child, secondly they are swirling with emotions of ‘what if,’ ‘if only’ and the guilt over the inability to prevent it and sometimes the words last spoken,” said Virginia Jones, a member of the Tres Rio Chapter of Compassionate Friends, which supports bereaved families who have lost a child to suicide. “Plus, there is a ‘shame’ aspect to suicide that makes it difficult to talk about or even go out in public.”
Those were the same kinds of emotions expressed by attendees at a recent meeting of Heartbeat Durango, the local group that supports anyone who has lost a loved one through suicide.
Like many support groups, members’ privacy is honored:
“Shambles.” “Shattered.” “The guilt is overwhelming.” “No matter how hard we try to make sense of it, we never will.” “I used to think a part of me died when she died, but really, a part of me stopped living when she died.”
One member talked about the words around suicide:
“I believe it’s the living who put emphasis on the word ‘choice.’ With the suicided, the emphasis is more a solution. They did not view their decision as a choice but a solution as their pain was so great.”
Because the members of Heartbeat have found that being with others who are feeling this unique kind of complicated grief helps the healing journey, they are sponsoring a local International Survivors of Suicide Day on Saturday at Fort Lewis College.
Local agencies and groups have been working to prevent suicide and provide access to mental-health care to decrease self-inflicted deaths in La Plata County.
For Jerry Brush and his wife, Kathy, the training to help get people who are suicidal the help they need was part of their service to their Southern Baptist congregation, where he is a pastor, and of his work as a teacher at Bayfield High School for 30 years.
“I’ve been fortunate to intervene with three suicidal students and prevent that,” he said.
He had permission to tell the story of Kizzi Prior, who graduated from BHS in the late 1980s.
“She had always been one to laugh and joke with me,” he said. “Then she became depressed, quiet, sullen. Another student came to me and said Kizzi and some other girls had a suicide pact.”
Brush went straight to the school counselor and principal. They called Marshal Jim Harrington, and together, they all sat down with the students and then their parents. Kizzi ended up in a 72-hour psychiatric-evaluation hold at Mercy Hospital.
“She asked me why I turned her in,” Brush said. “She said she wouldn’t be hurting now if I hadn’t turned her in.”
There isn’t generally a quick and easy solution to a suicidal person’s situation. Kizzi went through several more suicide attempts and in-patient care treatment before realizing that suicide would not solve what she was struggling to overcome.
Now married and living in Texas, she is a minister in her church, fosters her niece and, along with her husband, is a certified drug-rehab counselor.
Brush said he tells students often to let him or another adult know if someone has threatened to hurt themselves or someone else.
“I ask them, ‘If you don’t report it, and they follow through on it, how will you live with yourself?” he said.
Southern Ute Community Action Programs has trained more than 100 gatekeepers to assist suicidal people in finding the help they need. Martha Elbert is a gatekeeper.
“It raised my awareness and taught me when it’s appropriate to ask if someone is contemplating suicide,” she said. “I’m glad that I have asked. It helped just for them to know that I had realized their pain was that serious and that someone had noticed.”
The training also allowed her to switch out of the panic mode that someone was in trouble and into the mode of getting the person access to help.
“You’re asking people a very private thing,” she said. “They may need sympathy, but the top priority is to get them to be safe. It’s overcoming politeness because there’s more at stake here.”