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When Hope Shows Up: Adapting International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day During the Pandemic

29 Sep 2020 — 4 min read

BY Melissa Lunardini, Kimberly McKewon

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American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Invests $4.9M in Scientific Research to Prevent Leading Cause of Death

It has been a whirlwind year, hasn’t it? For many of us, this year has been full of uncertainty, transitions, hardships, and even grief. We have been asked to change our routines, change the way we interact with family and friends, change the way we work or go to school – in short, change much of the way we interact with the world around us. Some of us are undergoing all of this change with limited support. This year hasn’t been easy for a lot of people. In reflecting back on the last many months of the pandemic, there is one powerful word that keeps emerging: adaptation.  

We have adapted to so much this year. And by that, we mean we’ve overcome, we’ve worked through things, and we’ve learned to be flexible. Some days are harder than others. But the ability to adapt is connected to hope. When we adapt during the darkest and hardest of days – days that are full of change and uncertainty, days when we get bad news, days when we want to give up and days when we’re feeling alone – there is hope. This year has shown us that when we adapt in even the smallest of ways, the effect can be powerful.

As volunteers with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s San Diego chapter, the pandemic has meant we have had to adapt all of our in-person events to virtual ones. Of course, on all our minds has been the question of how we would adapt one of the most important events of the year: International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Also known as Survivor Day, the event always falls on the Saturday before American Thanksgiving. Survivor Day events take place in communities all over the world, and are a chance for suicide loss survivors to come together for a day of healing and hope, and find connection with others. Each year, an AFSP-produced documentary is shown at the many events held worldwide. Each film offers a message of growth, resilience and connection.

The event is important to people in our community, that last year we decided to host an additional event in the spring, a “Special Screening of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day Films.” We had gotten such positive feedback for it that we were planning on doing the same this May. But when the pandemic hit, we were faced with the decision to either cancel, or try our hand at a virtual event.

When we first thought about hosting a virtual event, we had many questions and concerns. We worried whether participants would still feel safe in sharing their experiences, we worried whether they would still feel a sense of connection and community, we worried about accessibility and technology. But mostly we wondered, even if we successfully adapted it to a virtual event, would it still bring people hope?

We decided to tackle these concerns one by one. We connected with our registered participants ahead of time with introductory emails laying out the details of the event; we provided helpful tips on how to use our virtual platform; we sent the link 24 hours before the event to registered participants in order to keep a safe environment; we invited our participants to keep their cameras on in order to “see” one another (if they felt comfortable doing so) to foster a sense of connection; and we facilitated a warm and powerful closing exercise in which we honored our loved ones.

We found that one of the positive things that came from this shift was that people could join us from anywhere around the world. An additional consideration is that events like these, involving such personal, painful experiences for people, can evoke an emotional response – and for many, we realized that being able to join from their home environment helped provide a sense of comfort and familiarity. Some people, particularly if it’s their first event of this kind, find it emotionally challenging to take the steps to go somewhere physically. Unexpectedly, some of the things we worried about proved to have hidden value.

This year’s International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day event, held on Saturday, November 21, will still be about family and friends of those who have died by suicide, coming together to heal and support one another. The day will still be filled with messages of hope, and stories of healing. There will still be the sharing of laughter, tears, and sorrow. Participants will still have an opportunity to gain understanding, and connect with others who have faced a similar loss. There will still be ways for people to share their stories, and remember and honor the people they have lost. This year, for Survivor Day, we adapt from physically being together to virtually being together. We plan on showing up for YOU and for HOPE.

We share what our worries had been because if you’re reading this, we want you to see that we, too, have days where things feel overwhelming and we ask ourselves, “What the heck are we doing?” In those moments of self-doubt, worry, anxiety, and uncertainty, we take a deep breath, devise a plan to tackle our concerns, and remember that when WE show up, YOU show up, and that is when HOPE shows up. Hope shows up even when it’s hard.

Even in a pandemic, no one has to be alone. We hope you’ll join us.

Learn more about International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day (Saturday, November 21) and find a local event near you.

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