Group aims for healing after suicide

Woman was spurred to create Clark County effort by deaths of her father, son

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

What: A self-help group offering support, friendship and understanding for anyone affected by suicide.

When: First meeting is 2 p.m. Saturday May 7, and every first Saturday after that. Trained facilitator.

Where: 5440 N.E. 121st Ave.

Information: Judith Stringer, 503-888-0236.

On the Web: http://www.sbsnw.org.

In the wake of a suicide or other trauma, try Trauma Intervention Programs of Portland/Vancouver, Inc. * 360-690-9047. Answered 24 hours a day.

Shock is often the most immediate reaction, along with physical and emotional numbness.

Depression takes the form of disturbed sleep, fatigue, inability to concentrate, change in appetite and a feeling of meaninglessness.

Anger -- directed toward oneself, other family members, a therapist or the deceased -- is also typical.

There may also be relief, if the suicide follows a prolonged crisis or decline.

Guilt and the difficult question of why might linger for a long time.

THE HEALING PROCESS

Maintaining contact with others and asking for help is important. Friends and relatives may feel uncomfortable; take the initiative in talking about your feelings and asking them for help. It will help them, too.

Remember that everybody experiences loss and pain differently. Children can be just as grief-stricken as adults, but less able to share it.

Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays may be stressful reminders. Plan ahead to meet your own emotional needs.

You may need to feel guilty for a while -- before accepting that you're only human and aren't to blame.

It's important not only to survive but to enjoy life -- without feeling that enjoyment is disloyal to the deceased.

Comfort, support and community are crucial. Isolation can be crippling while support groups are validating and healing.

Adapted from "Survivors of Suicide" newsletter of King/Pierce/Thurston County Support Groups

Is suicide on the increase now? Statistics haven't caught up with current events yet, but the common-sense conclusion appears to be: yes.

According to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control, published in the April 14 edition of The American Journal of Public Health, suicides increase during times of economic stress and decline during times of general prosperity.

The study, covering the years 1928 to 2007, found a strong correlation between business cycles and suicides among people of prime working age. Its findings include:

The overall suicide rate rose during recessions and depressions. That was true during the Great Depression (1929-1933), the end of the New Deal era (1937-1938), the oil crisis of the 1970s and the double-dip recession of the early 1980s.

The suicide rate fell during times of economic growth, like World War II (1939-1945) and the long expansion of the 1990s.

The suicide rate was at its lowest point ever in the year 2000 -- at the end of a decade of economic expansion.

The biggest jump in the suicide rate ever recorded -- a four-year increase from 18 to 22.1 per 100,000 adults, or 22.8 percent -- was during the Great Depression.

Source: "Impact of Business Cycles on U.S. Suicide Rates," American Journal of Public Health

If serious talk about death is awkward for most of us, serious talk about suicide can be agony.

What: A self-help group offering support, friendship and understanding for anyone affected by suicide.

When: First meeting is 2 p.m. Saturday May 7, and every first Saturday after that. Trained facilitator.

Where: 5440 N.E. 121st Ave.

Information: Judith Stringer, 503-888-0236.

On the Web: http://www.sbsnw.org.

In the wake of a suicide or other trauma, try Trauma Intervention Programs of Portland/Vancouver, Inc. * 360-690-9047. Answered 24 hours a day.

Shock is often the most immediate reaction, along with physical and emotional numbness.

Depression takes the form of disturbed sleep, fatigue, inability to concentrate, change in appetite and a feeling of meaninglessness.

Anger — directed toward oneself, other family members, a therapist or the deceased — is also typical.

There may also be relief, if the suicide follows a prolonged crisis or decline.

Guilt and the difficult question of why might linger for a long time.

THE HEALING PROCESS

Maintaining contact with others and asking for help is important. Friends and relatives may feel uncomfortable; take the initiative in talking about your feelings and asking them for help. It will help them, too.

Remember that everybody experiences loss and pain differently. Children can be just as grief-stricken as adults, but less able to share it.

Anniversaries, birthdays and holidays may be stressful reminders. Plan ahead to meet your own emotional needs.

You may need to feel guilty for a while — before accepting that you’re only human and aren’t to blame.

It’s important not only to survive but to enjoy life — without feeling that enjoyment is disloyal to the deceased.

Comfort, support and community are crucial. Isolation can be crippling while support groups are validating and healing.

Adapted from “Survivors of Suicide” newsletter of King/Pierce/Thurston County Support Groups

Is suicide on the increase now? Statistics haven’t caught up with current events yet, but the common-sense conclusion appears to be: yes.

According to a new study by the Centers for Disease Control, published in the April 14 edition of The American Journal of Public Health, suicides increase during times of economic stress and decline during times of general prosperity.

The study, covering the years 1928 to 2007, found a strong correlation between business cycles and suicides among people of prime working age. Its findings include:

The overall suicide rate rose during recessions and depressions. That was true during the Great Depression (1929-1933), the end of the New Deal era (1937-1938), the oil crisis of the 1970s and the double-dip recession of the early 1980s.

The suicide rate fell during times of economic growth, like World War II (1939-1945) and the long expansion of the 1990s.

The suicide rate was at its lowest point ever in the year 2000 — at the end of a decade of economic expansion.

The biggest jump in the suicide rate ever recorded — a four-year increase from 18 to 22.1 per 100,000 adults, or 22.8 percent — was during the Great Depression.

Source: “Impact of Business Cycles on U.S. Suicide Rates,” American Journal of Public Health

“In our culture, there is such a fear of death,” said Judith Stringer. “People don’t know what to say about a normal death, let alone a death by suicide.”

Stringer knows what that isolation feels like. When she was 7 years old, her father took his own life — and Stringer and her younger siblings were not allowed to talk about it. That fraught, hurting, unhealed place in her heart haunted Stringer for decades.

So when her 38-year-old son committed suicide five years ago, Stringer, 64, knew she had to seek help. The resulting discussions and shared tears, even the art projects and other healing activities, went a long way toward healing her new and old wounds, she said.

To keep helping herself and others to heal, Stringer is starting a new Clark County branch of Suicide Bereavement Support, a grass-roots group with meetings already ongoing in Portland and Gresham. The old Vancouver group ground to a halt a couple years ago, Stringer said, so she is stepping into a leadership role.

The first meeting is set for 2 p.m. Saturday in the community room of the Fair Oaks Mobile Estates, 5404 N.E. 121st Ave.

“There is so much misunderstanding and judgment and shame around suicide,” Stringer said. “I just want to get as much information out as possible and help people connect.”

Although suicide rates correlate with society’s overall economic health and prosperity (see sidebar on Page C6), Stringer emphasized that suicide is driven by deeply personal circumstances. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have depression, other mental disorders and/or a substance abuse disorder.

Navy man

Stringer’s father was a Navy man stationed in San Diego. But he was away a lot, she said — mentally as well as physically. He dragged around with him a family history of abuse, alcoholism and depression, Stringer said, and was terribly depressed himself.

“I don’t think he ever healed his own childhood issues,” she said.

Even at age 7, Stringer said, she was aware of deepening darkness inside her dad. She was the eldest of his five children, she said, and used to follow him around adoringly.

His suicide was somewhat mysterious, she said, and it stayed that way — officially off limits. “It was a family secret,” she said. “I didn’t grieve his death.”

Which led to a lifetime of unhealed hurt. “When you don’t know what to do with something huge, you hide it in a little box. But it affects your whole self and your health. You’ve got to find ways to heal,” Stringer said.

Eventually, when she was in her 40s, Stringer worked with a massage therapist who sensed her father’s death was seriously affecting her life. He’s the one who suggested that she needed to deal and heal. Decades after her father’s death, Stringer visited his grave in San Diego and was able to reach some closure.

Sensitive soul

The death of her son was another matter. Denis was “brilliant, artistic, sensitive,” she said, and he struggled with rapidly cycling moods all his life. By age 5, Stringer already was taking him for mental health counseling. But there was no diagnosis of bipolar disorder until he was 34 years old.

By then he was on his own, she said — out of the house and out of contact with his family, working in the hotel industry and taking guitar lessons in music mecca Austin, Texas.

“Music was his primary love. It’s what gave him life,” she said.

After his death, Stringer said, the family pulled together and created a “tree of life” quilt in Denis’ honor and memory. It includes his baby hand- and footprints, pictures from his life and icons of his favorite activities.

“It was a wonderfully healing thing to do,” said Stringer — who refused to settle this time for the isolation that crippled so much of her earlier life.

She still has a hard time getting through a discussion of her son without leaking tears. But having the discussions is crucial, she believes. She said she’s grateful for the peer support and counseling she’s received and wants to help others heal, too.

“Talking about it, having witnesses who are caring and kind and empathetic really validates your own experience — so it doesn’t get stuck,” she said. “People who are recovering from a suicide feel so many feelings and they are so overwhelmed, they’re like a deer in the headlights. I’m hoping to connect with those people and help them to know all their feelings are normal.”

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