Text Size

January 2006


by Al Vigil

The arts, the theater and our aesthetic world rely strongly on visual imagery. We recognize that, all too often, what we see is not always what we get. What is usually real can be covered over and presented in many different ways to our faces. Common statements of survivors of suicide are, "He was so happy the last few days!" "She was at peace!" "He wore a mask!" "She had it all together!"

They wore a mask! A mask that hid their pain, their depression and or their despair. Dr. Calvin Fredrick, wrote in Iris Bolton's book, "My Son....My Son...," that he believes that most of the viable candidates for suicide are hapless, hopeless, and helpless:

Hapless - Having little or or no luck.
Hopeless - Seeing no solution or management.
Helpless - Feeling ineffective and defenseless.

And these three feeling states can, and do have many signs for us to recognize. But we can miss them easily since we can't see past or through the masks of those loved ones we lost to suicide. Our daughter Mia, wore her mask very well. She had happily gone to dinner with a friend a couple of days before her death. She didn't appear depressed when she told Linda (her mother) that she was going to Italy. The last time we saw Mia she certainly seemed to be in control as she instructed us "-don't be mad at me forever -you know, when I go to Italy." She never went to Italy. Her mask kept us from knowing that she had in the depths of her mind, her suicide, a couple of days later.

Now I have trouble with the knowledge that 'all' people wear masks -different masks at different times for different reasons. I study the people I meet. I try to peer into the eyes and hearts of family and friends. I try constantly to remain sensitive to their masks.

At Survivor of Suicide meetings we ask people to let go of their masks. We ask them to share what they really feel about the grief that they have been thrown into. Then the masks truly come off as we explore torn hearts, wounded brains and damaged senses. Often their statements add new insights, -"I cry everyday." "I'm so angry. "I feel scared." "When will my life be normal again?"

If Mia would have spoken to us without her mask she might not have said, "Don't be mad at me forever." Instead she might have said the same things that suicide survivors say... "I cry every day." "I'm so angry." "I feel scared." "When will my life be normal again?" Mia just couldn't quite take off the mask. Because I love her and miss her, I have to believe she tried. Perhaps she feared her vulnerability was weakness. Now as we share that vulnerability in our groups, we as survivors, find strength and pain, -and even some relief from pain.
What if Mia had only let us see this part of herself ?

Siblings Speak Out
By Jacqueline Bruhn - The Compassionate Friends, VA

Surviving children understand parent's fear of another loss after the death of one child, but they feel they should be allowed to live a "normal life."
Some are concerned when their parents keep their grief bottled up inside and will not talk about it with them. Some parents want their children to grieve immediately. They will grieve when they are ready. Siblings resent people telling them that they must "be strong" for their parents. Many took this advice-only to "crash" years later.
Just as the relationship to the dead child was different between sibling and parent, they will grieve differently too. Many parents want their surviving children to grieve as they do.
Surviving children resent being compared constantly to their dead sibling, at home, in school, among relatives and friends. Again, they are very different. They feel the parents tend to put the dead child on a pedestal. They never did anything wrong, when the surviving sibling knows differently.
Bereaved parents put more emphasis on the child who is not here and sometimes forget the child who is here. Just because a sibling is not grieving openly doesn't mean that he/she isn't grieving. They could be doing it privately and at their own pace.
Bereaved siblings are different people after the death of the brother/sister just as their parents are. Their personalities may change, their values may also be altered. They view life as precious and are fearful that they may lose someone else. Children sometimes tend to be over protective of their parents.
Don't try to force siblings to attend a grief support meeting; they will go when they feel that they are ready, or when they need to. Surviving siblings have a strong need to know that they are also loved as much as their dead sibling. They may be getting the " message" that the dead child was loved more. "Would you grieve so deeply if it were me?" they might think.
If siblings refuse to bring up the subject of their dead sibling, many times it's because they don't want to cause the parents any more pain or to make them cry more than they already do. Siblings may be talking to friends about it instead.
Don't force siblings to go to the cemetery if they don't want to. Just as adults have varying needs on cemetery-going, so do siblings. Siblings just want parents to be there when they need them.

When you talk, talk with your children, don't just talk at or to them.


"LIFE AFTER LOSS" By Bob Deits ( Review by Al Vigil )

In Grief Support groups an often heard statement is, "A part of me has died; something inside of me is missing," and "I'll never be happy again." We've heard those statements time and time again, ...each time we share our story of loss and survival. I've always hoped for some simple 'road map or travelers guide' for those in grief.

Originally published in 1988, LIFE AFTER LOSS, was written by Reverend Bob Deits, pastoral minister with the United Methodist Church in Tuscon, Arizona. This book offers such a "map and guide." Recognizing the inevitable fact that "loss is a fact of Being Alive" the author leads you through a self-help study in 226 pages of positive and sensitive approach for successful recovery from painful loss.

The Bob Deits book, appropriately subtitled, A Personal Guide Dealing with Death, Divorce, Job Changes and Relocation. "Grief is hard work," Bob Deits writes,"...and I never appreciated what that meant until I immersed myself in other people's grief experiences." Grief is work and no one else can do it for you..but first you have to choose to live again. "Choosing to live again means taking charge of your grief." Bob Deits offers the following in his book:

- Give yourself permission to grieve
- Exercise regularly to relax
- Keep a journal of your journey through grief
- Rid yourself of fears, fantasies and reservations about crying
- Give yourself permission to live again
- Face a loss from the past
- Communicate with loved ones about your grief
This book closes with an interesting and important part of grief recovery and the role of nutrition. "The role of nutrition," Bob Deits writes, "in grief recovery does not get the attention it deserves. An adequate balance of foods is crucial in maintaining your health during the long and stressful time it takes to work through a major loss. "

LIFE AFTER LOSS, Published by Fisher Books, Tucson, AZ. (Soft Cover)

New Resource and Healing Guide Available

A new publication for survivors of suicide is now available free-of-charge from the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention : Surviving a Suicide Loss: A Resource and Healing Guide is designed to help survivors navigate the experience of losing a loved one to suicide. The guide includes practical information about coping with suicide loss, personal survivor stories, articles on bereavement, resource listings and an extensive bibliography. This resource guide was designed and printed with grants from the Paul R. Blattberg Memorial Fund; Lisa Sallow, family and friends, in loving memory of her son, Josh Sallow; and Beverly Wool, family and friends, in loving memory of her daughter, Deborah Wool.

To obtain this resource and healing guide, call 1-888-333-AFSP Ext. 10 or email This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

By Al & Linda Vigil

Everyone knows that when the seasons of life come to an end (and those seasons can come to an end at any age), the loss of a loved one to death is not always particularly easy, desirable and wanted, expected and accepted. Almost always the death requires grief work. Death can be particularly painful and morbid. Recovery, when it does take place, is through a painful path that carries the survivors through emotions with deep valleys and high mountains. Physical and mental balances take a beating and the correction into a 'normal' setting takes a lot of "grief work." Work is the key word here. The gift of being alive is that the work doesn't have to be done alone.

During the late 1980's this country experienced a swell of support groups that sociologists define as the "self-help movement." Alcoholics Anonymous is perhaps the oldest and best known of the self-help groups and remained the lone group for many years with its need for meeting locations spreading through the world. Among the newest, well organized, and politically powerful support groups MADD. (Mothers Against Drunk Drivers). Two well known grief groups are The Compassionate Friends and Survivors of Suicide. Today most large cities have self-help directories that list hundreds of groups in all areas of human suffering, from spousal abuse to health problems, and to various un-necessary losses.

Almost any medically or psychologically defined problem can and will be group supported somewhere; weekly or on a monthly basis at a set time and place. The time duration of meetings and frequency of them are determined by the need and availability of facilitator and participants. There is no clear definition of the length of time required so that problems brought to and discussed within the group can be resolved; so there are rarely defined lengths of time for group members to attend. Some people may attend one meeting and others could feel the need to attend for many months or longer. Although, we have found a few meetings that have set agenda and serve as a 'how to' course.

Most actual meetings last two hours with time allowance for milling around and friendly discussion before or after each session. Most groups are free of financial charge to the attenders, but since there are always some expenses (telephone, postage, printing) they pay for those expenses from cash gifts and 'pass the hat' donations.

Self-help groups usually are of two types: one type is great for 'temporary problems' such as helping through the grief process, a divorce, or something that will not require long-term maintenance or support. The second type is for 'long term' chronic problems, such as having a retarded child, a permanent health debilitating situation, or a long term substance addiction.

Any self-help support group in operation is most simply defined and designated to help those who have a personal problem that can be comforted and alleviated most by people who have felt and experienced the same pain. During the process of grieving, for example, the best healing is from understanding people who understand what you're going through because they have really been there. Although some groups are led or facilitated by mental health professionals, most groups are led and organized by 'survivors' or those 'in healing.'

A psychiatrist or a psychologist can be a facilitator but many times serves best as a resource within the group.

"Sharing is healing and I heal as I help!" - Quoted from a Mental Health Professional

It is not uncommon to find mental health professionals attending grief groups as survivors. Having the 'education' of knowing what losses are or should be about, does not make a person less needful of support from others who have been there. It is certainly doubtful that The Grieving Process as taught in Psy 101 classes can be nearly as well learned as in the Life Process 2006.

The Roche Report: Frontiers of Psychiatry states, "Without doubt self-help can be more beneficial than any other form of therapy when dealing with mourners of suicide victims. But to be effective, the process requires that mental health professionals attenuate their leadership roles. The survivors self-help group process has opened a new and exciting challenge for psychiatrists, as they begin to identify the part that they will play."

The meeting location for self-help groups can range to almost any available location. Common locations for meetings are from hospitals to funeral homes, from private homes to bank-meeting rooms, from city parks to recreational halls. Some groups do try to meet in a neutral place, specifically avoiding church affiliation. Self-help groups are a powerful resource for returning members to efficient life functioning.

Some survivors especially at the beginning of a loss of someone they loved are likely to be angry with God. This is a time that may be questioning their faith and all that they have learned about a greater power. Anger and guilt are expected reactions, so the need to be accommodating about meeting locations is paramount. Of course accessibility to location and the physical accommodations to attenders limitations are important.

In their book Silent Grief, Christopher Lukas & Henry Seiden write, "For the most part, survivor self-help groups function alike. Many, for instance, start out the evening with a simple potluck supper to which everyone contributes something. Talk is general, as people catch each other up on where they have been during the previous month. New members are introduced at this time."

"Then, at a typical working session," Lukas and Seiden continue, "which lasts for about two hours, members take turns telling about themselves. Going around the room in order, each person will introduce themself, tell who it was who died, when it happened, how he or she is feeling. For a while there is no response, with each survivor listening respectfully to the other's story. Then someone stops, perhaps caught up in tears or grief. Then another member of the group leader may say something. Sometimes it can be as simple as '-yeah. That's the way I felt,' or 'let me tell you what happened to me.' "

It is not uncommon for members at a meeting to find themselves shocked when they begin to see how much they have healed as they recognize someone that is at a place where they used to be. Members soon find that they have healed the most as they have helped others. "Sharing is healing," and "I heal as I help," are statements often heard at meetings by mental health professionals.

When survivors are also group leaders it is usually because they are altruistic people who have worked with their grief, with their loss and with their pain, and have a strong impulse to help others.

"While there is some argument about which kind of leadership is better, everyone agrees that the personal qualities of the leader are critical in making a self-help group experience effective and valuable. Some feel that professional background and training is a must and that it takes expertise and sensitivity to maintain a climate in which real help can be obtained," write the authors of Silent Grief. The falsehood of that statement certainly tries to destroy the actual reality that self-help groups are the most sensitive and helpful means to any and all persons undergoing traumatic and painful grief problems.
As Director of the Suicide Center in Dayton Ohio, Linda Lee Sattem has come to understand the critical importance of reaching suicide survivors as soon as possible after the death has occurred. "We find that suicide grieving does not take place in families, as is normally the case," she said. "The families shut down because of the suicide; they avoid the subject and refuse to talk about it." In a survivor support group you never hear, "Well its been some time now ...and you should be over it." Instead you'll probably hear, "I know what you're going through and what you're feeling is OK," or "your family sounds just like mine; you should see... ."

At each meeting open discussion is encouraged so that each person has a chance to share. Care is taken so that someone who is speaking is not rushed or interrupted. Of course, the statement is made, and it should be without question, that the confidentiality of what goes on and what is said at a meeting is strictly honored. Trust in sharing and in genuinness in listening is an integral part of the session.

There is general agreement among mental health professionals that the elements of self-help groups are a powerful resource for returning members to efficient life functioning. In all groups, new information, new perspectives, new insights can change the meaning of painful things and make the bearing of loss, pain, and personal tragedy easier.

Some of the special things that groups can do, that aren't usually available from the general public, can be explained in three broad phases: Review, Reality Testing, and Renewal.

Review : In the review phase the main task the group will do is to connect with all members and to listen and to let the survivors tell their story. Everyone in a group listens to feelings and accepts the over whelming need to ask "why" and " what now?" Part of the healing is understanding that sometimes there are no answers; there is only acceptance. There are no judgmental attitudes about what has happened or how the survivor is handling the situation. Survivors are told that there are only two things that the griever can do wrong : One is to hurt one's self and the second is to hurt someone else.

Reality Testing : In the second phase, reality-testing, the survivor is helped to acknowledge and experience the reality of the loss, for example, by using the name of the person who died and use of the clearly defining words "suicide" or "murder." Self-help groups also encourage the survivor to express specific feelings about death and review the circumstances surrounding the way the death happened. Many persons who attend a self-help meeting share that it is the first time that they have been able to tell as much of their story and express as much of their honest feelings.

Renewal : The third phase, that of renewal, can help the grieving person to develop a new relationship with the deceased (this can best be described as a relationship of memory). Saying goodbye, letting go and getting ready to re-invest in life and thus begin to explore the future again.

Grieving is forever. The sharp pain of loss does ebb away with time, but in most cases we will miss the loved one for the rest of our days. However, we are forever changed.

Can a survivor without any special training start a survivor support group? "Absolutely," says Edward Dunne, Ph.D., writing in Surviving Suicide, a publication of the American Association of Suicidology.

Stephanie Weber-Slepicka wrote about her self-help group: "Every person in the room wanted to understand. No one wanted to condemn. No one wanted to hate. Some believe that they do understand; they are now trying to accept. They are trying to live their lives in a different way. They have no choice."

"When there is a death in your family, Your Life Is Forever Changed. What was once will never be again. Every survivor finds his world turned upside down by a death. Craig Fisher, a survivor used to talk about a survivors assumptive world being shattered by suicide. We assume we'll enjoy retirement with our spouse. We assume we'll have mothers and fathers to grandparent our children. We assume our brother or sister will be around,"

Stephanie chose this quote by Walter Winchell to sum up friends (and support groups). "A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out."

Moving forward does not mean forgetting. It means healing.


Security code