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We Are Surviving.

“Sadly missed along life's way, quietly remembered every day... No longer in our life to share, but in our hearts, you're always there.” -author unknown

36 years ago this month, eight women came together after the first ever "Fox River Valley Conference on Suicide” held at what was then Aurora College. After this day and a half conference, Ernie Brasher stood up in the back of the room while the co-leaders were drawing the conference to a close and asked the now infamous question: “You have said all throughout this conference that a support group for survivors of suicide (loss) is helpful for the grieving process. Where and when does this group meet?” She stood, poised with a pen in one hand and a tablet in another waiting to write the correct information.

Dumbfounded and on-the-spot, I stood at the microphone and said, “There is no such group in our area.” Ernie did not sit down. Needing to end the silence, I said that anyone interested in such a group could meet on the campus in a certain building the next week, on a Monday.

Of the 8 who attended and eventually became branded (by me) as the Founding Mothers (Or, by Ernie as The Original Eight), I arrived with a clipboard, an opening reading, a closing reading, a pen, and a sign in sheet. Someone else came with a coffee pot and coffee and cups. Yet another person brought cookies. The rest, as they say, is history.

The October meeting is always special and poignant to me as it marks the passing of another year of group meetings for survivors of loss. We all come together because of the quote at the top of this page. We come to “be with people who understand our struggle and our hurt” as is said in the opening. New people continue to file in every month..

The numbers of those dying by suicide is increasing and has increased dramatically over these last few years. A single death affects so many, many people. The shock, the struggle to survive, and the struggle to make sense of it all drives people to seek others who “get it.” You come looking for answers and leave feeling a part of a new family.

Those further along in their grief continue to come to process as well as to help others. Our Christmas meeting is often larger than others because people come back to light a candle and remember. The internal struggle we continue to feel eventually is softer. The “missing” and “goneness” becomes so starkly painful that, at times, we feel as if we cannot draw one more breath. But…we do. Loving, crying, missing…it’s all part of our “new” deal. 

My friends “before” are mostly my friends “now.” I, too, lost some along the way. The kinship I feel with a new survivor is unbroken. So many times over these many years I think of those loss survivors and their stories; many of the earlier ones are dead now themselves. Amazingly and wonderfully, only 1 (Connie Luettich) of the Original Eight has died.

They are still out there – those other 6 smart, empathic, amazing women. They keep an eye on me and on the group; believe me, for the most part, they know what’s going on. They check in with me. I can tell you their stories, or the brief synopsis I know.

Recently, Ernie (yes, that very same one from the original conference), emailed me to let me know that in a recent column of mine she’d read, she learned that my mom wasn’t found for 2 days and that Sept. 5 is not the original day she died. Still more pieces of the puzzle to put together.

“More than anything, I have learned that we are all frail people, vulnerable and wounded it is just that some of us are more clever at concealing it than others! “- Sheila Cassidy.

Today the line is, “It’s ok to not be ok.” Many times I’ve heard a survivor say that they didn’t want to bring people down so they stifled their tears. That’s sad to me; pushing the grief and tears into a corner can eventually make us physically sick. If we are moved to tears, then let them flow. Our job as survivors is to simply survive and…then…as Iris Bolton said, “to thrive once again.”

When our loved one dies by suicide, we are cast into an abyss we didn’t even know existed. When we cry, we give others permission to cry. As a people, our country is weirdly uncomfortable with death and it’s accompaniment, grief. But I’m given to understand that, in the end, we all die. If this is something we know to be true, wouldn’t it be better to display grief as we display love? To talk about death? To speak of our loved one?

Many survivors come together at the annual SPS Here for Life Walk to launch a balloon bearing their loved ones name. We all stand together and listen to each and every name read. Our monthly meetings are a continuation of that same process. While actual physical balloons aren’t there, the silent gathering and then the support and intentional listening to the stories are a reminder to one and all that “they” are not forgotten.

Some of us bear tattoos as physical symbols of our love for them. Some of us wear a piece of their clothing or wear something in their favorite color. The symbols are meaningful. This show of love and symbolism is not limited to those who had loved ones die by suicide; these outward symbols are displayed by many people who had loved ones die by many different causes. The difference in our group is the fact that we have to face and admit that our loved ones died by their own hand. There is no one or nothing to blame except them.

We can’t curse cancer or heart attacks and be justified in blaming “that” thing. Or can we? Can we point to depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or any variety of mental conditions that makes a bit more sense to us? I believe that we can. Was it really “them” or did something “come over them”?

We stumble with the why’s…We stumble together, however….sharing, caring, loving, and believing in a group process that lets us into the light and holds out a hand and says, “I’m here. Take my hand and walk beside me… We are surviving… We will continue to survive… We are survivors…

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