I thought I’d give an update for what has happened the last few weeks:
On April 23, I flew to Denver to attend the 52nd annual conference of the American Association of Suicidology (AAS). “Suicidology” is the scientific study of suicidal behavior, the causes of suicidalness and suicide prevention. I wanted to learn how to help those left behind by suicide and help those at risk of suicide. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S., so it is a major public health problem that is very complex. AAS’s slogan is “Suicide Prevention is Everyone’s Business.” I believe that.
The conference was very good, but also hard for me…because of the emotions of being a survivor of Ashton’s suicide. I am grateful for all those who are looking for ways to reduce others’ suffering. I may have heard this before, but I was especially struck by the reminder by one of the speakers (this may be a quote by an ancient physician, but I can’t find it on google): physicians should always ask their patients two questions…and then listen closely for the answer, both in what they say, what they don’t say and in their body language. “Where does it hurt? How can I help?” That is profound! And I don’t think it just applies to physicians; every one of us is surrounded by others who are hurting. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to feel, we can reach out and lighten another’s load.
This same speaker said that one of the common elements in suicides is a loss of hope. He compared it to having to put your hand in a fire and not having the hope of ever being able to take it out. The weakness to this analogy is that, in reality, after a time, the nerves in your hand would be burned and you wouldn’t feel anything…but what if that DIDN’T happen and you continued to experience that pain…and you thought you might continue to feel that pain forever? The speaker said that a suicidal person’s past experiences is what “loads the gun”…and the future (loss of hope) is what “pulls the trigger.” So…the answer to the second question physicians (and others) should always ask (“How can I help?”) is often to help lighten the pain. You don’t have to take away the pain; that may not be even possible. But if you can lighten the pain…even a little bit…you may save a life.
For those who have an interest in the field of suicidology, I strongly recommend this conference. There is too much for me to share here, but I wanted to give my readers a glimpse of what I learned. I found out about the conference from Dr. Douglas Gray, a psychiatrist and suicidologist at the University of Utah.
On the last day of the conference, they held the 31st Annual Healing After Suicide Loss Conference. Faye attended that with me. The keynote speaker was Dr. Jennifer Ashton, an OBGYN who is Chief Medical Correspondent for ABC news. Her ex-husband took his own life in January of 2017. She has written and spoken extensively on the topic of suicide. She did a great job. Faye and I later attended a support group with other parents whose children had died from suicide (there were other groups for spouses, clinicians (etc) of suicide victims). That was a little awkward, but healing. We shared contact information with two other physicians whose children died from suicide. We emailed each other with words of encouragement and support again last week.
We came home from the conference on April 27. Ashton’s 27th birthday was April 30th. I appreciate all those who remembered him on that day. Then we attended a support group with about 20 other suicide survivors on May 2. It was held at a Methodist church in Tucson. It is facilitated by two women who lost their children to suicide many years ago. They are clear that this is not “counseling,” nor are we there to give advice. We are there to listen to each other. That was an amazingly (surprisingly) therapeutic experience for me. These people understand! They “get” what is going on in my life…because it is very similar to what is going on in theirs! I plan to go as often as I can, both to heal and to help others heal. Unfortunately, the statistics show that it takes an average of 4.5 years for survivors of suicide to find and start attending one of these support groups. It has been over 5 years for us since Ashton died; I wish we had known about this sooner! I hope that others of you who are suicide survivors will attend one of these groups as soon as you can. If you are reluctant, try one meeting, see how you feel. If it’s not helpful, you can always stop going.
So…the last few weeks have been somewhat emotionally-demanding for me. However, I’m trying to “…lean into the stiff wind of opportunity, rather than simply hunker down and do nothing.” It’s difficult in the moment at times, but I feel like I am experiencing some of what has been called “post-traumatic growth” as a result. I appreciate those who have checked on me, who have asked genuinely, “How are you doing?” and then listened sincerely for my response. I hope to emulate your example as I strive to lighten others’ loads, as well. I invite my readers to join me in this quest.
Written by Carter