March 29, 2014 marks the 7-year anniversary of when my world turned upside down. You see, my brother John – a married father of 2, respected entrepreneur at age 24 – died by suicide on a warm, sunny day back in 2007.
I had always known it’s basic human nature to strive to do the ‘right thing’ and make another’s burden lighter. But, I’ve learned that one of the worst feelings in the world is when you don’t know how to help. Sometimes our best intentions and desire to help just aren’t...enough.
I know that’s how I felt after John’s death. I knew how much I was hurting, and I certainly saw the raw emotion that was eating away at my parents. Yet, for months, all I could do was cry with them and do grocery runs to pick up the essentials – including tissues! Sure, we had friends and family that immediately came to the house when they heard the news. We had casseroles and fruit baskets covering every inch of counter top and refrigerator space. We had an amazing funeral director who prepared my brother’s body for viewing and was attentive to our every need. Our mailboxes were overflowing with sympathy cards, and the church was bursting at its seams during the service.
But then, in a matter of days, there were no more casseroles. The sympathy cards were replaced with the regular junk mail. And the warm embraces at the funeral service were replaced by whispers and avoidance when we saw people we knew around town. Reality set in.
There’s so much stigma that still surrounds suicide. The last seven years have taught me that those who were insensitive at the time probably meant well but were just misinformed about grief and suicide. I’m sure some people were afraid that suicide could happen in their family, to them or to a friend. Other people might have been upset because suicide had already changed their lives. I know now that most of them struggled with what to say. But to be quite honest, that silence was deafening.
That silence grew when my small community experienced two additional suicides over the next twelve months. Throughout that year, the burden grew so heavy that I just couldn’t bear to carry it myself anymore. I was determined to find someone who knew what this loss was like. My family and I read every book we could get our hands on. We received cards from people who had also suffered tragic, unexpected losses, but none of them had experienced a suicide death. It wasn’t until I met another sister who had also lost her little brother to suicide that I began to feel that weight lifting from my shoulders. Still, I wish I was able to find support – for myself and my family – sooner.
I’ve had the amazing opportunity to meet hundreds of other families from all over NY and the US during the last seven years, who know what this type of devastating loss is like – many of whose stories are like mine. Many of these families felt they had nowhere to turn. But – little by little – that storyline is changing.
Over the last few weeks, three NYSFDA members have reached out to me for guidance on how to help a family they served who had lost a loved one to suicide. Lester Grummons, Deli Rogers and Karen Devine all found themselves wanting to help and to do the “right thing”. Learning that there are several great resources available throughout NYS – including support groups, outreach programs, articles for talking to kids about suicide, healing conferences and other events - each of them were able to help ease the burden of grief for the families they served.
I only hope that over the next few months and years that the families I meet will tell me that it was their funeral director who told them about a local support group for survivors of suicide loss or provided them with information booklets on how to grieve a suicide death. As someone who once sat at that arrangement conference in a complete fog, I can honestly say that my burden would have been lighter if my family and I walked away with materials specifically developed for us – survivors of suicide loss.
The kind, supportive service we received from our family funeral director during the funeral services was great, but it didn’t eliminate the sleepless nights or blank stares at the wall when we didn’t know “what next.” I certainly wish I knew where to find support immediately following my brother's death.
There’s still much to do to spread the word about helpful resources for survivors of suicide loss here in New York State. But I’m so proud that our NYSFDA members are leading that movement.
To learn more on how to cope with suicide please visit th AFSP website.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Marianne wears many hats both at work and within her community. She serves as Assistant Director of Government Affairs at the NYS Funeral Directors Association and as director of the Family Assistance Commission. Marianne joined the Capital Region Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in 2008. She's served as the AFSP board's chairperson since 2009. Marianne coordinates the AFSP chapter’s survivor program and represents the chapter on the AFSP's National Development Committee.