|Keicha & Julie|
Don't suffer as a suicide survivor alone
Fri, 11/04/2011 - 11:33am
In May, 2010, I lost my 34-year-old sister to suicide, instantaneously and involuntarily becoming part of a group that until then, I hadn't known existed. Inclusion in the group is undesired, yet the number of people who join each year is in the hundreds of thousands. On that awful day a year and half ago, I became a suicide survivor. No clear definition exists for who might be considered a suicide survivor. In a 2011 study by Alan L. Berman, Ph.D., survivors of suicide were defined as "those believed to be intimately and directly affected by a suicide."
Each day in the United States, approximately 94 people take their own lives, leaving behind family, friends and loved ones to struggle with loss, grief, confusion and many questions. Conservative estimates state that six to 10 people are intimately affected by each suicide. The devastation felt by those left behind after a suicide is huge and, for most, life-altering. According to the American Psychiatric Association, "the level of stress resulting from the suicide of a loved one is ranked as catastrophic-equivalent to that of a concentration camp experience."
For months after my sister died, I felt alone and confused. Many people seemed to be uncomfortable with my grieving. Perhaps they were confused over how to respond to my grief, or didn't know what to say about the nature of my sister's death. Instead of sympathy, some responded with silence. From my perspective, I struggled with how to describe the trauma I felt. In her book "Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide," psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison says, "Suicide carries in its aftermath a level of confusion and devastation that is, for the most part, beyond description."
Survivors already struggling with complex reactions including, guilt, anger, or abandonment face the added challenge of dealing with the unfortunate stigma that still surrounds suicide. For many, this leaves them feeling that their loved one's death is somehow shameful.
According to the most recent statistics available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Utah ranks 17th in the nation for the number of suicides annually. Research shows that more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have an underlying, although not always diagnosed, psychiatric illness at the time of their death, most often depression.
As a suicide survivor, I've chosen not to suffer alone, in silence, feeling ashamed about something I had no control over. Instead, I will speak out, advocating for comprehensive, statewide suicide prevention education and initiatives. Additionally, I will reach out to let other survivors know they're not alone. Although every one of our stories is unique, we all share a common bond. Each one of us has lost someone we cared about deeply, and our lives have been forever altered because of it.
The holiday season can be particularly difficult for survivors. To help, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's International Survivors of Suicide Day will be held on Nov. 19 in more than 250 cities around the world, including Salt Lake City. The program is also available online. If you're a survivor, I hope you'll join me in taking part in this day of healing and sharing. For more information, visit www.afsp.org.Christiansen is a volunteer field advocate for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
* Used by permission of my daughter, Keicha Christiansen.
The photos below are just a few of the family photos that are mostly of my daughters. They were all very close, and they tried to get together as often as they could even though Keicha lived in Utah, and Julie and Amy lived in Colorado.
Keicha & Julie
|Amy & Julie|
|Good times & laughter at Mom's|
Julie, Amy, Keicha
|Out on the town|
Amy, Julie, Keicha
Sisters function as safety nets in a chaotic world simply by being there for each other.
~ Carol Saline**
When the bond formed and shared by sisters is broken through death, there is a hole in the hearts that are left behind that is never filled. When the loss of a sister comes from suicide, it is truly one of life's greatest tragedies.
My family and I continue to try and heal since the death of our beloved Julie. As part of our healing, we hope to put an end to the silence that surrounds loss by suicide.
We hope to see others who have lost a loved one to suicide get the support that they need.
We hope to see more suicide prevention education programs.
We hope to see more funding for those with mental illness, and more support for their families as they struggle with knowing how to support their loved one who has a mental illness.
Not long after the photo below was taken, I noticed that Julie is the one in the photo who is strong and steady. We are all leaning into her for support. Even then, it seemed ironic that she provided all the stability for the pose we decided to strike. In life, she also displayed great strength and fortitude. She struggled valiantly for many years with depression and the demons that so often accompany this devastating illness.
|Kicking Up Our Heels|
Mom (Sally), Amy, Keicha, Julie
As Julie's mother, I join her sister Keicha in sharing our story of survival. Much must yet be done to change the perceptions of shame and silence that surround suicide. We add our voices to those of others who also joined, through no choice of their own, this group that has such great stigma attached to it.
I do this to honor my beautiful daughter, Julie Ann Christiansen, who was more, so much more, than her final act. I hope her legacy will be one of love, hope, and healing.
*Article written by Keicha Christiansen and published in the Standard Examiner