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Support for those left behind by suicide

Preston Utley/Enterprise Maryann McIlveen inscribes her late son's name on a balloon at the kick-off of Heartbeat; a support group for people whose lives have been touched by suicide.
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EAGLE COUNTY ” When Edie Lengel lost her brother to suicide, a family friend offered some priceless advice.

“No matter how someone dies, you still love them just the same,” the friend advised.

As a community and as a culture, we generally know how to react when someone dies as a result of accident or disease. Suicide throws us all for a loop. Family and friends must grapple with both grief and guilt while others tiptoe around their pain, unsure of what to say or do. And in the midst of all their sorrow, the loved ones of suicide victims also feel isolated at a time when they most need the care and comfort that comes from sharing their grief.

“I never knew anyone who had committed suicide until it happened to us,” Lengel says. “People just don’t talk about it.”

A stalwart group of local residents is breaking the silence. Six months ago, with the assistance of the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, Eagle River Youth Coalition and Colorado West Mental Health Center, the small group decided to launch a local chapter of Heartbeat ” a support group for people who have lost a loved one to suicide. They meet monthly in Edwards and have sponsored their first community event ” a recent balloon launch to remember loved ones lost to suicide.

Jill Baron, a sheriff’s deputy who lost her brother-in-law to suicide, is one of the local Heartbeat chapter’s founders. “Suicide is such a sensitive topic,” she says. “With Heartbeat, the message we can give to each other is what we care.”

The grief that follows suicide is devastating. It can be tinged with anger and compounded by remorse.

Living with guilt is a common thread for people coping with the aftermath of suicide. Lengel talks of the weeks leading up to her brother’s death, knowing he was depressed and trying hard to help him. Baron says her brother-in law didn’t communicate any problems, leaving family members stunned by his suicide.

“It’s hard to accept the fact you couldn’t have prevented what happened … that it got to that point,” says MaryAnn McIlveen of Gypsum. “You always wonder what you could have done, or should have done.”

McIlveen’s 35-year-old son, David, committed suicide five years ago. She has learned that coping with her loss is a long-term struggle. “We try to think about all the good times, but we just always miss him,” McIlveen says.

Ann McNeil of Eagle lost her 22-year-old son, Luke, to suicide earlier this year. She knew her son suffered from debilitating depression and she tried to find him help.

“We found there was really no place in Eagle County you could go to (for a mental health hold) unless you wanted to take your kid to jail,” she explains. At one point Luke did agree to visit a mental health facility in Denver, but then rebelled from being admitted once he got there. McNeil will always wonder if admittance, or if the presence of a closer facility, would have saved her son.

“Luke had a disease. If we could have gotten him help, maybe he would have survived,” McNeil says. “But you can’t blame yourself. That moment happened to Luke.”

“It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, to tell my daughter about it,” says a local woman who asked to remain anonymous. Her ex-husband died by suicide more than a year ago, and she worries that her teenage daughter hasn’t come to terms with his death. The girl likes to believe that her father’s death was accidental.

“She feels guilt. One of these days she is going to feel anger, too.” She continues, “When if first happened, I was just so worried about helping my daughter. Because of that, I haven’t really helped myself.”

The woman also talked about the confusion that suicide leaves behind. “There were 60 people, from all over the country, who came to my ex-husband’s memorial service ” old friends from all over. They couldn’t believe he would do something like that. They all asked, ‘Why didn’t I know?'”

Heartbeat organizers recognize that feelings of responsibility, self doubt, failure, rejection, stigma, shame, anger, hostility and religious fear loom for loved ones of suicide victims. People may find themselves in a life-long search for answers that won’t ever be found.

What the group can do is help survivors navigate through a difficult grieving process.

By reaching out to others, Lengel says grieving families find solace. At her brother’s memorial service, Lengel said a woman she had casually known for years approached her. This woman’s husband had committed suicide and her willingness to talk and to share in that moment of sorrow deeply touched Lengel. In the weeks and months that followed, Lengel longed for that kind of support.

“I would have loved to have someone to talk to at midnight, when I needed to talk,” she said. With Heartbeat, she hopes other families have that kind of support. “It is a way of healing myself, by helping others,” Lengel says.

Sometimes families of accident victims can donate organs, McNeil says, and can find some relief from their grief knowing that the death gave other people have a chance to live.

“My son hung himself. It’s not like any good came out of it,” she says. “I believe that the community really needs to be more educated about suicide. If telling my story helps even one person, at least that’s something.”

Suicide education and prevention is a common cause for Heartbeat members. Barron said it’s a natural progression for the support group to move toward suicide education and prevention.

“Eagle County is a resort area. Everyone thinks it’s all skiing and hiking and all that,” notes McNeil. “But suicide needs to be talked about.”

And in the end, many families devastated by suicide know that they are the ones who need to talk ” both for themselves, and for others.

Baron sees it as something good coming from something really tragic.

“Otherwise, you just remain trapped in that terrible day,” she says.

This story first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.

– Major depressive illness

– Alcoholism, drug abuse

– Suicide talk, preparation

– Prior suicide attempts

– Isolation, living alone, loss of support

– Hopelessness

– Being an older, white male

– History of suicide in the family

– Work problems, unemployment

– Marital problems

– Stress, negative life events

– Anger, aggression, impulsive behavior

– Physical illness

Help is available by calling the national suicide hotline a 1-800-SUICIDE.


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