Living Our Story: AFSP's Long-Term Survivors of Suicide Loss Summit 2022
August 2, 2022 – 4 min read
Last week, I attended the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Long-Term Survivors of Suicide Loss Summit, along with a fellow National Capital Area Chapter volunteer Nathaly Bonilla and more than 200 other attendees from across the country.
This is the only conference of its kind, geared for long-term loss survivors who have found healthy ways to integrate the experience of losing a loved one to suicide into their lives. The conference featured workshops, expert-led discussions and social activities exploring how grief evolves over time.
Held in Cleveland over three days, the conference featured a keynote speech by Zak Williams, an actor, entrepreneur and mental health advocate, and the eldest son of the actor and comedian Robin Williams, who died by suicide in 2014.
“Yesterday would have been my father’s 71st birthday, and there’s no place I would rather be than here with you,” Williams told the crowd gathered in the Hilton Cleveland Downtown’s aptly named Hope Ballroom.
This was the second time AFSP has held such a convening for long-term suicide loss survivors (defined as those who experienced their loss typically more than five years ago), “but it won’t be the last,” promised AFSP CEO Bob Gebbia, who stressed the need for a “safe space for long-term survivors to be together and connect.”
Thirty-five years ago, when AFSP was founded, said Gebbia, suicide loss survivors were “alone in their grief. That has changed because of you.”
Indeed, the experience of grieving a suicide loss can be isolating, said Williams, noting how difficult it can be to relate one’s experience of grief to others. “I realized that I needed to connect to other people on a daily basis.”
Connection was a major theme of the gathering. As Brandon English, AFSP’s director of loss and healing programs, said in his opening remarks, “Those who brought us here brought us together.”
Those words were echoed by attendee Steve Shannon of Michigan, who lost his son Patrick to suicide. “We are part of an exclusive club that no one wants to be part of. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from; you find instant compassion and instant connection here. We understand what can’t be put into words.”
Another theme that emerged from the conference was the increased empathy that many attendees said they have experienced in the wake of their suicide loss. “I knew about suicide, but I don’t know if I knew what empathy meant before my daughter’s death,” said a man from Wisconsin who lost his 13-year-old daughter to suicide. “Now, if someone tells me that they are having a bad day, I stop and listen.”
The ability to see beyond yourself is a key to healing, said Williams in his speech. “Discover your service,” he urged attendees. “Figure out what propels you, what you stand for, and be of service to others. Service to others is how I have found happiness.”
Suicide prevention advocacy is a natural way for long-term survivors of suicide loss to be of service to others. “We cannot save the loved ones we lost to suicide, but we can save other people’s lives,” one attendee said.
“We have seen a reduction in the level of suicide, and that’s a new development in the past two decades," Dr. Christine Moutier, AFSP’s chief medical officer, reported. She added that 988, the new suicide prevention lifeline, got 30 times the amount of federal funding that was sought, “and that is the result of our advocacy efforts, of you raising your voices to policy makers.”
But as important as advocacy and service to others are, self-care and healthy living are also key to surviving suicide loss, said numerous speakers. “Self-care isn’t selfish,” said Williams. “It’s about loving yourself.”
The conference featured numerous ways to learn about and practice self-care, from yoga and mediation sessions to an art therapy class.
“I used to be a quilter and when my son died by suicide, I thought that part of me was gone,” said one participant in the art therapy class. “Now I realize that the creative part of me is still here. I found a part of myself that I thought was gone.”
Another form of self-care, and a key theme from the conference, is the power of storytelling. “Your story is your superpower,” said suicide loss survivor Steve Moore, J.D., who led an introduction to advocacy session.
Sharing your story has a profound impact on the listener, said Moore, whether that listener is your legislator, your employer or any other member of your community. “They will forget some statistics, but not your story.”
That message resonated with attendee Chris Thomas.
“At first, I couldn’t publicly acknowledge that my daughter died by suicide. AFSP helped bring me out of my shell,” Thomas said. “I want to normalize the conversation in the African American community and conquer the stigma. I want to be able to share things so that others don’t have to go through what my family went through.”
Paraphrasing the musical Hamilton, Moore urged attendees to “keep the flame of your loved one alive – tell their story.”
Geoffrey Melada is a volunteer with the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the communications director for Treatment Advocacy Center, a leading nonprofit that advocates for the elimination of barriers to effective treatment for individuals with severe mental illness.