Families left behind by suicide find solace in sharing stories with each other
People who commit suicide make a choice.
It’s a choice often made from a state of mind befuddled by unfathomable pain, anger, alcohol, drugs, depression or any number of mental illnesses.
Still, it’s a choice.
Survivors of suicide – the families and loved ones left behind – also have a choice. They can be consumed by their grief, the endless questioning “why” and the self-imposed guilt of not recognizing that a loved one was hurting, “or they can choose to learn from the experience, move on and keep the spirit of their loved one in their hearts,” says Marion Waterston, president of the board and a group leader of the Albuquerque affiliate of Survivors of Suicide.
The local self-help group, observing its 35th anniversary this year, provides a venue for grief-stricken people touched by suicide “to share their stories, provide support for one another and help people pick up the pieces after losing a loved one and having their world turned upside down,” Waterston says.
“When people come into the group for the first time, they feel tremendously isolated. They usually don’t know anybody else who has gone through the experience, and the group rallies and tells them they are not alone,” she says. Group support allows the survivors to go through the different stages of grieving and recovery and finally arrive at the point where they can move on.
SOS leaders occasionally bring in speakers who are mental health professionals to talk with the survivors, “not that mental health professionals have all the answers,” says Waterston.
It’s something that she knows all too well. Her husband, psychiatrist Richard Wellman, hanged himself in his New York office in 1973. Waterston found his body while their young son and daughter waited outside in the car. Wellman had suffered from depression since his World War II service in the Navy. “He was self-medicating and not under the care of a physician,” she said.
In the wake of that tragedy, a professional colleague of her husband’s asked Waterston to start a support group for people who had lost a spouse, regardless of the circumstances. That group, established about 1975, became an early model for other crisis support groups, she said.
Suicide again impacted her life in 1990, when her 19-year-old son, Mark Waterston, a freshman at Boston University, hanged himself in a wooded area near a golf course. He suffered with depression and chronic pain from a back injury, for which he took pain pills that ultimately led to drug abuse. Despite receiving medical and psychological help, he still took his own life.
Waterston moved to Albuquerque in 1995 to be closer to her daughter, Jennifer Waterston, who was doing graduate work at the University of New Mexico, and subsequently got involved as a leader with a local affiliate of the national organization, Survivors of Suicide. There are now two SOS groups in the metro area.
The facilitators of the newer SOS group, Al and Linda Vigil, lost their 18-year-old daughter, Mia, in 1984. After what her father described as “a disastrous relationship” with a boyfriend, Mia jumped to her death from the San Diego-Coronado Bridge.
In retrospect, says Al Vigil, warning signs were missed during the last three months of Mia’s life. “She’d been depressed, gave away prized possessions, told friends she was going away and shut down her social life.”
To cope with the death, the couple attended SOS support group meetings. “Everybody in the room shared their story, but my wife never said a word there for six months,” says Vigil. “She found healing after talking to another mother who lost her only child on Mother’s Day. That opened up my wife to sharing Mia’s story.”
The Vigils later began facilitating meetings and then started a new SOS group. After retirement they returned to Albuquerque in 2005, where both were from.
Their daughter’s suicide wasn’t the only one to rock the family; two other relatives took their lives. It was after the second, in 2008, that they decided to become active with Albuquerque SOS. They now facilitate a second group in response to the growing need.
In addition, the Vigils publish an online newsletter, “Sharing and Healing” (www.sharingnhealing.org), and they conduct presentations on suicide prevention and intervention, and the role of bullying in the suicides of young people.
Albuquerque Public Schools teacher Desiree Woodland has been spearheading a program designed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness to educate upper elementary, middle and high school students about mental illnesses and the relationship to suicide.
Nearly 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Institutes for Mental Health.
Woodland and her husband, Gary, lost their 24-year-old son, Ryan, in 2006 to a self-inflicted gunshot in their Albuquerque home. Only nine months earlier, Ryan had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, though he’d likely been struggling with it for far longer, Woodland says.
The grieving parents soon found their way to SOS. “It gave me a place to talk about the most horrible experience a parent can go through,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone else whose child had died in this way and I was desperate to find someone I could ask, how in the world can you make it through something like this.”
Suicide cuts across all ethnic, racial, gender, religious, age and socio-economic boundaries, Woodland stresses. “It’s an equal opportunity tragedy.”