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Volunteering for Suicide Prevention: From Grief to Hope to Action

1 Sep 2020 — 5 min read

BY Mary Weiler

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COVID-19 Reinforces A Renewed Call to Make Suicide Prevention a National Priority

All of our volunteers play an important role in creating a culture that’s smart about mental health, and in our mission to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. Volunteering is more important than ever during this uncertain time. To learn more about how you can volunteer, click here to find your local AFSP chapter.

In 2005, at the age of 33, my daughter Jennifer Ann took her own life. This shining star graduated with honors, achieved accolades as an accomplished musician, and was also an avid environmentalist, a loving and attentive daughter and sister, and an advocate for the poor and disadvantaged – yet she struggled with depression and anxiety for over a decade.

After her death, I relived her last days over and over again, blaming myself, and asking a thousand questions that all began the same way: “Why?” I kept asking myself why I hadn’t driven down to be with her after she called me just two days before she died. I struggled to try to make sense of what happened, trying to put the pieces together again and again, recreating her last days or weeks.

Grief stinks, it really does! I tried to avoid it by staying very busy and working too hard. I was also trying to take care of my husband and the seven children left behind, attempting to create an illusion that my life had not completely fallen apart. But since my life had indeed fallen apart, I realized the illusion wouldn’t hold up forever. As author Anne Lamott wrote: “You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: softness and illumination.”

The Phone Call

In June of 2006, another of my daughters, Sarah, scoured the internet to see what support was available for our family. She found a link to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Community Walks. She then called AFSP’s Vice President, Mike Lamma.  She told him that our family wanted to do more for suicide prevention by helping to arrange the first Out of the Darkness Community Walk to take place in Fargo, North Dakota.  Mike said, “Thank you for calling me. We can make that happen!” The first North Dakota Community Walk was held on September 26, 2006 with over 400 registered walkers. We raised over $24,000 dollars for suicide prevention. It was a huge “SHOUT OUT” to our family that we must continue working with AFSP to raise much-needed funds to help fight this leading cause of death and bring suicide prevention and postvention programs to our community.

Fifteen Years and Counting! 2005 – 2020

In 2006, I felt I needed to develop a larger community strategy to bring AFSP prevention & education presentations and programs to my local community. My goal was to pilot my presentations in the community, and then duplicate them in other communities across the state. I researched the state data, assessed the needs in each community, then recruited twelve outstanding individuals to become the first members of the statewide North Dakota Chapter Board of Directors. The AFSP – ND Chapter was chartered on May 7th, 2007, and the first suicide loss survivor group, and International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day in our community, were held in May 2008.

What Has Changed? 

Then: 2005 – 2010

After the loss of our daughter, we were fortunate to have support from many of our friends, extended family and our church.  I did find that the shame and fear that can surround suicide and mental illness in the general population was still very strong. There was very little evidence of funded research, and no advocacy or public policy efforts specific to suicide prevention. Health care professionals were certainly informed about suicide, but many I spoke to told me they had very little, if any, training on the medical/mental complications of suicide and how to help those who were struggling or who had survived an attempt. In addition, in my opinion, they simply did not know how to support suicide loss survivors. As a survivor of suicide loss, myself, I had experienced a feeling of being abandoned or disregarded by the mental health community.

Now: 2010 -2020

So much has changed since then! Our AFSP chapter volunteers in communities across the country are now providing information, enhancing skills, and providing survivor support and access to care. They are also raising awareness and understanding in person and on social media, reducing barriers to help, and advocating to change polices at the state and local level.  In 2019, ten Out of the Darkness Walks were held throughout my state alone. It is difficult to accurately measure how our work has given hope to people after a crisis, but there are many stories of how our work has provided comfort and even saved lives. At the state level, we now have 152 Volunteer Field Advocates in North Dakota working hard on behalf of AFSP. We still have work to do, including learning more about the historical trauma of our local Native American population, as well as factors relevant to other demographics, educating the media, and implementing Project 2025, our bold goal to reduce the national suicide rate 20% by 2025. I’m proud to say that thanks to all of the volunteers in our community, we were awarded AFSP’s 2019 Chapter of the Year Award.

What Has Volunteering with AFSP Meant to Me?

I have learned that the road to healing is not easy, but few worthwhile things in our lives are easy. I remind myself from time to time that healing really is not nearly as difficult as the task I have already met, which were the hour of my daughter’s death and the weeks and months immediately following.

My commitment as a volunteer for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has been one of the most meaningful directions my life has taken. I believe my loss has given me the sensitivity, compassion and empathy it takes to understand the depth of the pain in others. I think losing someone to suicide brings a certain humility and vulnerability which teaches us to live gently with our family and communities, and opens up a whole new world of possibilities to love one another. I will forever be grateful to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for helping me to find those possibilities.

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