Volunteers sought to help ease the pain for suicide survivors

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Bobbi Rich with her son Paul were featured on an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Lifekeeper Memory Quilt. Valley News/Courtesy photo

When Jill Miller lost her sister Missy to suicide, she felt alone as people avoided talking to her about it. September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and there are many local agencies and nonprofits working to de-stigmatize the subject so more dialogue can lead to less deaths. Families that have been affected by suicide often feel that others won’t understand and therefore keep their loved one’s cause of death a secret. This can be a heavy burden to bear and doesn’t allow a person to grieve as openly as those who lost someone due to an accident or disease.

“Suicide is such a taboo topic, and the grief is complicated. Sadly, many suicide loss survivors feel the same way,” Miller said.

Brenda Scott, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Mt. San Jacinto chapter, is part of the Riverside County Suicide Prevention Coalition, which was adopted by the Riverside County Board of Supervisors on Sept. 1, 2020. In its coordinated, long-term, collaborative approach to reducing suicide fatalities and building resilient communities in Riverside County, it is partnering with Trauma Intervention Program of Southwest Riverside County (TIP) to build a team of volunteers who have experienced suicide loss to deploy in the aftermath of a suicide fatality. Scott and Miller are co-chairs of the Coalition’s Postvention Focus subcommittee.

“Their volunteers can be trained on an additional way of being able to support suicide survivors,” Scott said. “They would be part of a Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) that can provide emotional support and resources to grieving family members and friends throughout the county.”

Diana A. Brown Gutierrez, co-lead of the Riverside County Suicide Prevention Coalition, said, “TIP has been a tremendous service to people in need for many years. The LOSS Team will allow people who have experienced a suicide loss in their own life to provide critical emotional support and care to those who have just experienced a suicide loss.”

Magda Stewart, CEO of TIP of Southwest Riverside County, said the organization is always looking for new volunteers ready to respond to traumatic events in their community. Part of the national nonprofit, TIP of Southwest Riverside County covers the cities of Lake Elsinore, Wildomar, Murrieta, Temecula, Canyon Lake, Menifee, Perris, Hemet, San Jacinto, and Moreno Valley along with surrounding unincorporated areas.

Miller, who has lived in San Jacinto for more than 30 years, was working in hospice care at the time of her sister’s suicide in 2005. She is now Clinic Supervisor at the Riverside County Mental Health Clinic in Hemet.

“My pain has been used to help others through my work with Healing Conversations with AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention) and my work on the county coalition. My goal is to help others dealing with this complex loss feel less alone and know they can and will get through it,” Miller said. “Additionally, I am a licensed mental health provider. Every single day I get to honor my sister by helping others. Somehow, I know she is proud of me and sad that she left so much pain behind for those who loved her.”

At the time Bobbi Rich lost her 21-year-old son Paul to suicide, she said it came as a shock to everyone who knew him.

“He did not display any mental illness problems. He was always this happy-go-lucky guy who made people laugh and feel loved,” she said.

In 2011, about eight years after losing her son, Rich attended her first International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day in Palm Desert.

“It changed my life,” she said. “To be around other loss survivors helped me to feel connected in my grief. I attended my first AFSP Out of the Darkness Walk the following year.”

From there, Rich continued to get involved with helping others by sharing her own story. Once, a woman who had lost her brother six months prior began to cry and Rich apologized for saying something that was making her sad to which the woman replied, “Oh no – you have not made me sad at all – you have just given me hope – hope that I now know I will not feel this way for the rest of my life.”

It wasn’t long after that Rich, of La Quinta, joined the board of directors for the Inland Empire/Desert Cities Chapter of AFSP, which allows her to give hope to others that have none.

“Doing this truly gives me purpose and helps me keep Paul in my heart forever,” Rich said. “I know he has a hand in this; they don’t mean to leave us sad.”

Rich is also coordinator for the Healing Conversations Program as well as the Lifekeeper Memory Quilt program organizer. Healing Conversations lets loss survivors request a telephone or in-person conversation with a longer loss survivor based on the loss type, such as child, sibling, spouse.

“We offer materials and support group info if we have it,” Miller said. “We mostly offer an ear and hope and healing ideas – what helped us.”

Each square in a Lifekeeper Memory Quilt tells the story of someone who took their life. The squares are stitched together, and the quilts are publicly displayed at local and national events to remind us that no survivor of suicide loss stands alone. Miller said they are displayed at AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Walks to Prevent Suicide and International Survivor Day, held in November. This year’s Out of the Darkness Inland Empire Virtual Walk is scheduled for Oct. 16.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and listed on the National Institute of Mental Health website, in 2019 suicide was the 10th leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,500 people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 44. But it’s not just young people who have suicidal thoughts and attempts.

The Coalition’s Upstream subcommittee is working to provide resources to seniors – a demographic that experienced 31% of suicide deaths in the county between 2007 and 2017, according to county data. A survey to help the Coalition better understand the current needs of older adults can be accessed at surveymonkey.com/r/DWG8JZH.

Looking ahead to Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, Rich said, “Please don’t take mental health for granted. We need to get rid of the stigma and take care of each other.”

For more information on TIP, www.tipswrc.org or (951) 698-2453; NAMI, www.namimtsanjacinto.org or (951) 765-1850; AFSP, www.afsp.org; Riverside County Suicide Prevention Coalition, MJacks@ruhealth.org.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255), text NAMI to 741-741 (Crisis Text Line), or call 911 immediately. For local support in Riverside County, call (951) 686-HELP (4357).

 

Warning signs of suicide
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.
What to do if someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide:
• Do not leave the person alone
• Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
• Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) – 24/7, 365 days a year
• Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
Provided by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Health)