Anguish to Activism

From Anguish to Activism: Transcending a Suicide Loss

By Linda L. Flatt
January 2000

There are two new titles that I’ve acquired in the last few years. In a recent Las Vegas Review Journal article, I was labeled an activist. When I first saw that in print, I felt that it was pretty extreme –I certainly don’t feel like an activist. Actually, I prefer the term advocate. I am an advocate for the prevention of suicide, and I am working to improve suicide prevention efforts in my community. In the fall of 1997, I became a Community Organizer for Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network (SPAN), a grassroots organization dedicated to the development of a proven, effective national strategy for suicide prevention. Recently, I helped establish the new Nevada chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and participated in the first survivor conference to be held in Nevada – AFSP’s Survivors for Suicide Prevention Conference on November 20, 1999.

So, I guess you could say that I’m an activist. But, before I became an activist, I became a survivor of suicide. That was a title I had never heard and certainly never wanted. On June 29, 1993, my tall, handsome son Paul took some chemicals from the lab where he worked. When he mixed the chemicals, they created cyanide gas. He inhaled those fumes and intentionally ended his life – at the age of 25.

Suddenly, I found myself on a dark and treacherous road with no light and no road map. I had no frame of reference in my life for surviving my child, much less his suicide death. For the first few weeks, I was in a thick, anesthetizing fog. When that lifted, I experienced overwhelming waves of anger – anger at Paul, anger at myself for the parenting mistakes I had made, anger at the counselors who had seen Paul over the years – and not fixed him, anger at God for allowing this incomprehensible experience to happen in my life. And I was also angry with all of the other moms who could still watch their sons grow to adulthood, get married, and have children. I shook my fist a lot during this season of anger.

Slowly, crushing guilt became tangled in the anger. I felt like a total failure as a mom – that I was somehow responsible for not equipping my son to make good choices. It seemed my fault that he made this final poor choice to end his life rather than change his self-destructive behavior. I spent hours trying to rework my reality in my mind – trying to find answers to questions that had no answers – as though the answers would somehow change the outcome. Like many survivors, “If only I had”, “If only I hadn’t”, and “Why?” were my constant thought companions.

The incredible emotional pain of the loss of my son was also ever-present. Recurrent tears, heaviness in my chest, frequent sighing, and the inability to sleep became commonplace. Although the structure and routine of my office was somewhat comforting, I found it difficult to concentrate or focus on tasks – at work or at home. It was as though my brain was rebelling against this experience. Or, possibly this was my brain’s way of forcing me to be gentle with myself in my grief. Whichever, the fog did not lift completely for over a year. During that time, I found it difficult to think about anything except Paul and his suicide. Everything around me was a reminder of my loss.

I can remember waking up on the first year anniversary of the suicide and expecting everything to be back to “normal”. Didn’t happen! The second year after Paul’s death was somewhat easier than the first, and the third year was tolerable – but I soon became aware that suicide bereavement was a part of who I was. It was up to me to decide how I would incorporate that experience into my life.

As an active participant in my own healing process, I read everything I could get my hands on about the grieving process as it relates to suicide. Soon, I realized that I had gathered too much valuable material to keep to myself. Three years after Paul died, I started a survivor bereavement support group at my church. Sharing my pain with others who are also broken-hearted by a suicide death –and watching the victories come from the struggles in the group – have been the gifts that Iris Bolton promised me in her book, My Son, My Son… Iris’s book was the first ray of light on my healing journey, and as time passes, I watch other group members share the light and love they receive in our group. I call that the “Iris Bolton gift exchange”!

In September 1997, I went to LaRita Archibald’s survivor’s conference in Colorado Springs. I attended Frank Campbell’s wonderful keynote address and all of the workshops –and gathered even more great information about healing after a suicide. During the conference I heard murmurs about suicide prevention, and I deliberately covered my ears. I didn’t want to go there – I had neither the time nor the energy for prevention work. The first day I managed to evade the SPAN missionaries, but on the second day I had lunch with a survivor who worked for the Colorado State Department of Health. She noticed my name badge and remarked in a much-too-loud voice, “You’re from Nevada!” She proceeded to tell me about Senator Reid’s involvement with SR 84, Nevada’s high suicide rate (the highest in the U.S.), and the work that SPAN was doing to develop a national strategy for suicide prevention. “Except for Senator Reid, we don’t have a survivor voice in Nevada”, she said. To shorten the story, I called the founders of SPAN in Atlanta as soon as I got home. I quickly caught a spark of their energy, added it to my own energy that was slowly beginning to return, and, before I knew it, I was an “activist”.

In March of last year I was involved in the exciting process of presenting a state suicide prevention resolution to the Nevada State Legislature in Carson City. That resolution was adopted in that legislative session, and money was appropriated to expand a statewide toll free suicide hot line. In May 1999, the Nevada chapter of AFSP was established in Las Vegas. Our board is dedicated to raising public awareness of the significant suicide problem in our state –and improving suicide prevention education in our community. My prayer is that the collaborative work of SPAN and AFSP will make a significant difference in the way the people of Nevada deal with suicide survivors and suicide prevention.

For over six years I have traveled from the healing path to the survivor support path – and on to the prevention advocacy path. It is a path I am now comfortable with, because I have worked through my feelings of guilt and responsibility for my son’s death. I can embrace the fact that many suicides are preventable, and I now believe that there is very important work to be done. Out of my experience I have discovered that one voice – my voice –can make a difference. One message will be heard – if it is clear, persistent, and directed to the right people. I also know that MANY clear, persistent voices can carry the message farther–and make more of a difference. Let us all heed the U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action and become activists for the prevention of suicide!!

The above article was reprinted from “Lifesavers” ( Vol 12, No. 1 – Winter 2000 ) – the quarterly newsletter from AFSP  – American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.