Every year on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, people in Lawrence join thousands across the world in gathering to talk about their friends and family members who died by suicide.
They call it International Survivors of Suicide Day, and more join their ranks each year. Twenty-five Lawrence residents met Saturday at First United Methodist Church to share their stories of loss and help spread the word about the realities of suicide and mental illness. A panel of survivors, including City Commissioner Hugh Carter, who lost son Rees to suicide, led a discussion on how to cope with the unique grief that follows these deaths.
Marcia Epstein, director of Headquarters Counseling Center, organized the event and said Douglas County’s suicide rate was high for Kansas, which itself reports more suicides than the national average. The county saw its suicide rate double in 2010 and counted at least 29 deaths between 2010 and 2011. At least one person commits suicide in Kansas every day.
The survivors are often left with upsetting questions that can’t easily be answered. To help the bereaved cope with those and other difficulties, Headquarters hosts a support group that meets every other Tuesday. For many, these groups are the only places to share a common experience in a society where suicide is still widely misunderstood and difficult to discuss.
Shelly Hampton moved to Lawrence to find support after her 15-year-old son, Blake, suddenly killed himself in 2001. Hampton said he was a happy, healthy teenager who drank too much alcohol one night and made a mistake.
“It’s one of those things people don’t want to talk about,” she said. “But it’s such a long-lasting hurt that you need people to turn to for support.”
Troubled by grief, feelings of guilt and questions, Hampton said she didn’t find much support where she was living in Pratt, west of Wichita, and counseling was not available to her. But she found what she was looking for at Headquarters.
“I just felt like this was a place where I fit,” she said. “People never get answers to the ‘why’ question. When I quit asking that question, it really helped.”
Some at Saturday’s meeting, like Hampton, had lost young children to sudden, unexplained suicides. Others had seen spouses and family members go through years of mental illnesses before an untimely death. Whatever the cause, most agreed that anger, blame and wondering what they might have done differently rarely helped.
The message those participants wanted to spread was that suicide needs to be openly discussed before tragedy happens, as well as after. Mental illness, they said, should be treated just like physical illnesses, such as cancer or heart disease, and not stigmatized. Many regretted that their loved ones never found lasting treatments for the chronic depressions that ultimately ended their lives.
No one at the meeting had easy answers. Rose Foster, a panelist who has been involved in the Headquarters support group for seven years, became a therapist after her husband, Gordon, took his own life in 2004.
Foster said she had met few people who could make sense of these losses on their own.
“We don’t have a blueprint for that,” she said. “We need that extra support. It’s an outlet in life where you can be real with other people and be honest.”
For more information, visit headquarterscounselingcenter.org.