One Starfish at a Time

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March 8 – For the past year and a half, I’ve served as Coordinator for the AFSP Survivor Outreach Program in my community, which connects trained, long-term suicide loss survivors with those who have just lost someone. During a recent interview with a potential Survivor Outreach Program volunteer, I was asked, “How do we know if a visit was successful? What is it we’re trying to accomplish?”

It was a good question, and different from the usual, “What am I supposed to do during a visit?” Honestly, I wish she had asked the usual question because that one is so much easier to answer! The stated purpose of the Survivor Outreach Program is to let survivors know they are not alone and offer “resources to help loss survivors cope, connect, and heal in time.” It’s an apt description, but how do we know when we have accomplished that?

In the immediate aftermath of a suicide, survivors are often more connected to their loved one’s death than they are to their own life. Thoughts, questions, and sometimes even their dreams are focused around the death. “Why did he or she do this?” “Could I have done something to save him or her?” “How am I supposed to keep my life going without them?” “How do I tell the children?”

These questions — and unwelcome memories —  don’t come in an orderly fashion or adhere to a convenient schedule. When we are ambushed by grief, the experience can be unforgiving, brutal, and paralyzing.

Helping survivors means giving them an opportunity to reconnect to life. Sometimes that means doing so through their grief, because that is the only means the survivor has to connect at that early stage. Desmond Tutu once said, “Let people tell their story, tell of their pain. And let others listen. We discovered that in telling, that people begin to experience a healing.”

Survivor Outreach Program volunteers are here to listen, as well be an example that healing can occur, given time.

“William” died at home with his wife and adult child in the other room. The visit request was made just a few short weeks after his death. When we arrived to the home, “Cathy” welcomed us with a warm smile and firm handshake. After several minutes of small talk she shared with us, two complete strangers, the intimate details of her husband’s death, as well as her own feelings of despair. As she finished telling her story, she remarked, “That’s the first time I have been able to talk about his life and death. It was weird. I didn’t think I could remember the good parts of him anymore, but today I did. Thank you for that.” Just a few weeks later, Cathy and her son joined us for their first Survivor Day event.

Sometimes, healing can unexpectedly occur for the volunteer, as well as the survivor. Mo and Brandy visited with the family of a teenage boy, “Johnny,” who died by suicide. As the family shared the specifics of their experience, Brandy began to notice something familiar about their story, though she couldn’t immediately put her finger on it. Then, suddenly, Johnny’s mother made the connection. She asked Brandy about her son, who had also died by suicide. She remembered a time when her son, Johnny, was being picked on and teased by his classmates. One of the students to stand up for Johnny had been Brandy’s son, who had gone out of his way to say hi and include Johnny in his life. This was a beautiful moment of healing for both parents. Brandy later said what a pleasant surprise it was to be reminded of more things about her son that will always make her proud to be his mother.

When I think of the vast needs of suicide survivors and the work of the Survivor Outreach Program teams, I am reminded of the story of “The Star Thrower” by Loren Eiseley.  After a devastating storm leaves thousands of starfish helplessly stranded on the beach, a young boy starts tossing them one-by-one back into the water. A confused yet curious observer asks why he bothers, since there are so many starfish, and he will never be able to save them all. As the young boy tosses another one into the water, he looks back at the observer and says, “It matters to that one.”

The Survivor Outreach Program is AFSP’s Starfish Program. Other programs focus on groups of people, sometimes large groups. Volunteers with the Survivor Outreach Program have a unique opportunity to help “that one” person or “that one” family in a personal way. Volunteers with this program are not only survivors of suicide loss with at least two years since their loss, they are those who have gone on to find meaning and purpose in their lives. They remember what it was like to be “that one” and now use their own experience to help other people move forward.

To find out more about becoming a volunteer for the Survivor Outreach Program, contact your local AFSP chapter. If, on the other hand, your experience is more like that of the starfish stranded in the sand, the Survivor Outreach Program can be a great step towards reconnecting to your life. Visit requests can be made at this link.