Living After Suicide Loss: A Spotlight Interview with Iris Bolton and Elaine Alpert

April 5, 2017 – Iris Bolton, considered the godmother of suicide postvention, is Director Emeritus of The Link Counseling Center in Sandy Springs and Marietta, Georgia, and the author of a new book, “Voices of Healing and Hope: Conversations on Grief after Suicide.” Elaine Alpert has been a dynamic group facilitator for over 25 years, and created MindPeace Method™, an experiential program designed to empower people by drawing strength from challenging life circumstances.

So just to start on a general note: you’re both involved in suicide postvention. Could you explain to our readers exactly what we mean by postvention?

IRIS:  Well, there are three areas in the field of suicidology: one is prevention, one is intervention, and one is postvention, or aftercare. After there has been a suicide, people struggle with the grief and the loss and the trauma of it all. It’s from the beginning of the crisis, to the shock, to how you absorb this event and find peace and acceptance and go on with your life.

ELAINE:  It’s intended for loss survivors to find their way back to finding some peace of mind and being able to make clear choices and eventually reclaim the joy in their lives.

IRIS:  There is a whole field of aftercare. How do we help people from the moment it happens to finding, as Elaine said, that joy in their life again?

Right.  And grief after a suicide loss is often more complicated, isn’t it, than other types of grief?

IRIS:  Because it has so many other elements to it. It has the issue of the surprise to it, sometimes. The trauma of the suicide, somebody seemingly choosing to die when the rest of us are trying to stay alive, you know?  It’s not the right order of things, so it feels different, though deaths from other causes are traumatic, as well.

ELAINE:  There’s an element of personal involvement in it. We’re left with nonstop questions: why did they do this? Why did they want to leave me?

IRIS:  What did I do to cause such a thing? You feel it’s very personal.

ELAINE:  Absolutely. And then we’re living with the shame and stigma around suicide that we don’t experience with many other deaths, like when a loved one with cancer dies. But cancer used to carry stigma too.

IRIS:  I’ve used that analogy so many years. Anybody who had cancer, they were so embarrassed. They didn’t want to tell anybody. It was a hush-hush secret. I think it was education that changed that.  So I keep saying, what do we need to do in postvention to change the shame and the stigma about having a suicide in your family?  And I think it is changing, but it is very slow.

There’s something hopeful about that, because, as you said, people used to be ashamed and afraid to talk about cancer, and now, of course, no one would think twice about it.

IRIS:  Exactly, and how did that happen?

ELAINE:  I think it has to do with the kinds of conversations we’re having. That’s one reason we need places where suicide loss survivors can come together and think, “Oh, yes, that’s me. I feel that way, too.”

How did you two meet? And how did you both get involved with suicide prevention and postvention, if you don’t mind talking about it?

IRIS:  Well, I’ll start, because my experience happened earlier. Back in 1977, my husband and I had four sons. One of them, Mitch, had a girlfriend who broke up with him. He wasn’t into drugs or alcohol or any of that, but was just struggling with life and probably had a clinical depression that I missed. We came home one Saturday to find that he had killed himself. Of course, back then, if you think of 1977, nobody talked about this. But quietly, in church, people would whisper after we made it public, because rumors were going around and we thought, “No, we have to tell the truth.”

So then people started coming out of the woodwork sharing with us their stories of having had a suicide in their family. I was in therapy, and after about a year-and-a-half, I realized I had to do more. Simultaneously, a minister called me and said, “Would you co-lead a support group with me on grief, parents who have lost children?” And I said, “I’m not sure I’m even going to live yet!” So he called me back after three months and I said, “Well, I’ll try.” Of course, it helped me more than anybody. As I began to do that group with this minister, I realized there were so many people who had a suicide loss, and there was a difference in the healing process and in the experience. So I started a support group just for survivors of suicide at the Link Counseling Center, because that’s where I was the director at the time. And the Link supported me in doing that and it just grew and grew.  It was one of the very first support groups in the country.

Oh, wow. That’s amazing.

It was kind of like a collective unconscious: it was happening here and it was happening in California, and some of the people who really began the American Association of Suicidology were a part of that. And then I was elected to the Board of Directors there and we started focusing on suicide and the aftermath.

And what about you, Elaine?  How did you meet Iris?

ELAINE:  Well, we met because I lost my son Rand to suicide in 2004. I live in Atlanta, and had about a dozen people immediately tell me, “Do you know Iris Bolton?  You need to meet her.”  So our family went to the Link Counseling Center where she’d been director for 35 years. And I clearly got the message that she was about to pass us on to a therapist at the Link. But when I got up to leave the session, she tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’m going to refer you to a qualified therapist. We have work to do together. You, I want to see again.”

That’s wonderful.

ELAINE:  We became really good friends and then Iris started inviting me to speak at conferences. I had been in graduate school at the time that my son died, and of course I quit, and thought I would never, ever go back to school. I couldn’t imagine going back into a training room to work intimately with people. I worried that somebody in the group would hear that my son died by suicide and would say, “Well, how can you lead us if you couldn’t even help your own son?”

That’s a lot of weight to carry on your shoulders.

ELAINE:  It took a while to work through the shame. And then, five years after he died, I went back to graduate school to study depression, anxiety, PTSD, and neuroscience. Eventually I began working with Iris as co-producer of the Voices DVD. Then Iris and I presented together at national suicide prevention conferences.

So now, Iris, you have your new book, “Voices of Healing and Hope: Conversations on Grief after Suicide,” which comes with a DVD of the people whose stories are featured in it, and one of those people is Elaine.

IRIS:  It has 34 people, 35 including me, a really diverse group, sharing their stories. People can relate to it and say, “Oh, my gosh.  I’m not alone. I’m not the only one.” We asked them four questions: what happened to you; what was the hardest part; what helped you the most; and where are you today? And every single one of them is doing so much better. They’re giving back. They transformed that pain into helping other people, most of them. They’re either facilitators in support groups, writing their own stories, helping other people, or going to AFSP and AAS and all the other organizations, and supporting them. There are three components to this project: first, the book and DVD that take people from when the trauma happens, to walking them through what other people have done to heal, and giving them hope. The third component is a series of online companion courses, designed by Elaine, which utilize and include a copy of the book & DVD. They teach people a set of specific tools to help them address 8 key issues I write about: Why Suicide, Guilt, Shame/Stigma, Anger, Emotional & Physical Pain, Fear, Depression and Faith Questions.

ELAINE:  The book is called “Healing and Hope,” because you read it and think, “Okay, I can do this too. I can heal too, just like these people did.”

Click below for a complimentary chapter, access to the book, and a free video training led by loss survivor Elaine Alpert, M.Ed., co-producer of the DVD and creator of online companion courses to the book.
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