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Archive for Sunday, June 27, 2004

Survivors battle suicide’s stigma

Group offers place for those who share common pain

June 27, 2004

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Carol Latham's 15-year-old son, Christopher, killed himself last year.

"It happened September 12th," Latham said. "He'd just gotten his learner's permit, and he knew I wouldn't be home until later, so he took the car we had for him."

She paused. This is not an easy story to tell.

"What happened was, he spun out on some gravel and wrecked the car about a quarter-mile from where we live," she said. "After that, he walked home, wrote us a note, said he was sorry that he'd wrecked the car. Then he went outside and shot himself."

Latham let a few seconds pass.

"I found him," she said.

For Latham, talking about Christopher's death is a way to take on the stigma and isolation that comes after a loved one's suicide. She's had enough of both.

"People are ashamed of suicide," she said. "They think it means you weren't a good parent or a good wife; that something bad must have been going on. Well, I am not ashamed of my son. He was a happy, level-headed kid who made a bad decision."

Latham, 49, is a member of Healing After Suicide, a Lawrence support group for suicide survivors that meets from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. every other Tuesday at Headquarters Counseling Center, 211 E. Eighth St.

The group's meeting Tuesday will be a potluck supper aimed at reaching out to survivors who may not know about Healing After Suicide.

"We're hoping that people -- individuals, family members, friends or co-workers -- who share this common and painful experience will be able to come together in an informal way," said Marcia Epstein, Headquarters director.

"They don't necessarily have to come to talk. It's just a chance to get together with other people who've gone through the same experience," she said. "There will be kids there. The men can grill if they want. It's just about getting together."

Kim Kirk, left, and Carol Latham, both had sons who killed
themselves. The two women are now active in a support group for
suicide survivors. Kirk and Latham each got tattoos in memory of
their sons. Kirk's is visible on her upper chest.

Kim Kirk, left, and Carol Latham, both had sons who killed themselves. The two women are now active in a support group for suicide survivors. Kirk and Latham each got tattoos in memory of their sons. Kirk's is visible on her upper chest.

Epstein will be there. Her mother died by suicide a year ago.

To limit the gathering to survivors, the supper's location is not being announced.

"If people call Headquarters (841-2345), we'll let them know where it is," Epstein said. "It'll be in one of the parks in Lawrence."

The numbers

Last year, 10 suicides were reported in Douglas County, which is in keeping with the national average of 10.8 suicides per 100,000 population.

Statistics also show:

  • Males are more likely to die by suicide. But females are more likely to attempt suicide.
  • More than half of all suicides involve handguns.
  • Suicides outnumber homicides.
  • Kansas recorded 346 suicides in 2002, the latest year for which statewide data is available.

But numbers do not tell the whole story, Epstein said.

"We need to remember that every one of these numbers represents a person who, at the time, had so much going on in their life that they chose to die," she said. "And in making that choice, they left behind family, friends and co-workers who are deeply affected by their deaths."

By talking openly about suicide, Epstein and Latham hope to prevent other self-inflicted deaths.

"I want to do everything I can to let young people know there is nothing they can do that is so bad that they can't talk about it to their parents or somebody," Latham said. "If Christopher had called a friend when he got home, he may not have done it. And if I had been there (when he returned), I would have been upset, but I would have told him that I cared a lot more about him than I did about that car."

Latham said she was convinced her son received a head injury in the accident that clouded his thinking.

"Devastating"

Recovering from a loved one's death is never easy, but it's especially difficult for suicide survivors.

For more information on the Healing After Suicide support group, or if you have questions about suicide, call Headquarters at 841-2345.

"It's devastating; that's the first word that comes to mind," said Kim Kirk, a nurse at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. "You're numb, paralyzed."

Kirk's 14-year-old son, Tyler, killed himself in January 2003.

"It was a self-inflicted gunshot," she said. "He'd been diagnosed as having bipolar disorder."

With Epstein and Latham, Kirk helped start Healing After Suicide because she and her husband, Gary, knew they needed to talk about Tyler's death.

"People don't understand what you're going through," said Kirk, 46. "I had very well-meaning people give me a hugs and then after we talked, they'd say, 'Oh, you shouldn't feel that way,' which only adds to all the guilt you're already dealing with.

"That's what I mean, they don't understand. You need to be with people who've been there."

Kirk said she did not mean to sound critical.

"I've been on both sides of this," she said. "When we lived in New York our neighbor's son killed himself. I remember being afraid to see her because I didn't know what to say.

"And then I met her at a conference two years later, and she was still shaking and crying. I remember thinking, 'Why is she like this? It's been two years.' I know why, now."

In the wake of their sons' deaths, Kirk and Latham each got memorial tattoos. Latham's are on her shoulder and ankle. Kirk's is on her upper chest.

"It's my personal memorial to my son," Kirk said. "He's buried in New York, so this is a daily reminder for me."

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