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‘One of the biggest benefits … is knowing I’m not alone’

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Morning in Toronto. Barb Hildebrand gets up, feeds the dog, has coffee and sits down to another full day of talking about suicide and mental illness online. Many who lose someone to suicide want to turn the experience into something meaningful. Barb lost her husband, Rob, over Christmas in 2000. Eleven years later, she created the Facebook page Suicide Shatters and turned it into the rare space where attempt survivors, loss survivors and those with mental illness mingle. On Feb. 27, she reached 10,000 members.

What began as a few random posts has taken over her life and become her passion. She spends her days interacting with members, monitoring comments and hunting down hotline contacts all over the world for people in crisis. Warm and assertive, she’s created a community despite any tensions between loss and attempt survivors. “It breaks my heart that people feel the need to have this huge divide when actually, both loss and attempt survivors have much more in common than they would like to think,” she wrote in an e-mail. “Both have had the painful experience of suicide enter their lives. Both are experiencing tremendous pain.”

Barb isn’t a therapist, and she’s aware that when she reaches out to suicide prevention groups or Facebook about their responses to suicidal people online, she doesn’t have a string of degrees after her name. She’s self-taught on this issue and says her credentials are her degree in “L.I.F.E.” We asked her to write today’s post, and we reached out to attempt survivor members of Suicide Shatters. When asked if we could share their names and comments, several said not just “yes” but “absolutely”:

“It helps knowing I’m not the only one who struggles this way. This page is one of the few places I can discuss my thoughts and not be shunned for them.” _ Randi Idel De Carlo

“One of the biggest benefits of being a part of this page is knowing I’m not alone. I’ve always said there is a sad comfort in knowing that other people experience similar feelings and actions as me. I say a ‘sad comfort’ because I wish no one felt as bad as I have felt. It’s just a horrible way to ‘live.’ A second benefit for me is a simple one. Some days when I felt down, I would log into FB and see encouraging posts from Suicide Shatters. Sometimes those posts were enough to remind me that things can get better.” _ Shan Dianne

“I feel as though there is still a huge gap for us, because the stigma is so great. People dealing with mental illness in general are still fighting tremendous stigma. Those who consider suicide, and attempt it, are even lower on that ladder of shame. We only attempt because we want attention. We are selfish. We should just get over whatever issues drove us to the attempt in the first place. We weren’t really serious or we wouldn’t be here right now.  These comments are hurtful and inappropriate. Most attempt survivors are battling a form of some mental illness such as depression or bipolar disorder, or any myriad of other diagnoses, and deserve support and understanding. The only way to accomplish this, and to erase the stigma that prevents so many from seeking help, is education. We can’t change everyone’s way of thinking, but we can educate those who are willing to listen.” _ Lori Fanning

“Being part of this site gives me the courage fueled by my passion to want to save lives. If only there was a place for us who attempted suicide. For us who are living with constant thoughts of suicide, where we could talk without being judged. We need resources for our families and friends. A special website that would explain how to handle crises BEFORE they happen or DURING. A link with survivors’ stories who healed.” _ Celine Sheard

“I have found other human beings with feelings and emotions that have felt and may still feel the way I do. When I was contemplating and attempting suicide, I felt completely alone, like I was the only person who could ever feel so low and emotionally drained that my problems only had one solution. This page shows that I was not alone in my troubles and that I could talk or find help when I feel down. I would love to see more Facebook pages, blogs or websites that can offer valid information as to why suicide happens, what to do if you or a loved one you may know has thought or attempted it and sites where survivors and victims’ families can go for understanding and compassion.” _ Ryan Burdett

“The benefit of being on Suicide Shatters is a sense of community with people who know my struggle and share in a desire for healing. I think an online support group would be very helpful. One where we can chat in real time.” _ Amy Lundeen

“Would like to have a place to talk about it, and know that others have been through it and have also survived. It’s a subject deeply hidden, as who would you trust to talk about it with? But I think other attempt survivors could help one another. Probably would be a great support system and a place to go to explore and learn about others’ experiences.” _ Linda Caskey

“I think that education is extremely important on both sides of suicide and suicidal attempts. I also know that being held accountable to others, a community if you will, did help me in the past when I felt myself falling.” _ Katey Marie

“I would like to see a forum that is free that is open to survivors and also a place to report someone we think may be planning an attempt.” _ Joan Popolo 

Here’s Barb:

I’m extremely honoured to have been asked to do a guest post. I am so glad to see that AAS has started this blog for attempt survivors and those with suicidal thoughts, as there are too few resources and avenues presently. I personally feel that we are very fortunate to have attempt survivors still with us. They need to be acknowledged, recognized, welcomed, appreciated and heard. They need to be supported.

I myself am a loss survivor and lost my husband, Rob, to suicide in December 2000. I spent many years dealing with the aftermath and found myself compelled to share my experience in hopes of connecting with others touched by suicide and helping them to heal and recover. I began in 2010 with a blog chronicling my story and then began doing many posts on suicide and mental illness on my personal Facebook profile. It culminated on Sept. 7, 2011 with me starting Suicide Shatters. I have many attempt survivors as members, and I am thankful for them and what they bring.

It was my intention to have Suicide Shatters be a community for both loss survivors and attempt survivors, as well as those living with mental illness. I knew all had much to learn from one another, and in many instances, all three groups of people have much in common. I wanted a safe place for all where we could share without judgement. Where all could support one another. I had joined many private group Facebook pages and liked many suicide prevention and mental health pages, and I could see there was a gap or a “tension” between loss survivors and attempt survivors. My goal has been to bridge that gap, and I’m very pleased and proud that the members on Suicide Shatters come together beautifully.

I learned so much from Rob with his many attempts and used what I learned to try and get him the help he so desperately needed. He was diagnosed bipolar only after his first attempt on Dec. 6, 2000 and was gone by Dec. 25, 2000, so there was not much time to get any sort of treatment plan in place. The absolute lack of follow-up care made me realize how many fall through the cracks of the mental health care system. I live in Canada and although health care is covered, there is much lacking in coordinating follow-up care after a suicide attempt, and we’re losing far too many to suicide because of it. There are so many challenges in the system to getting a proper diagnosis and treatment, and it can take far too long for treatment to begin to make a difference.

Many of the suicide prevention Facebook pages are comprised mostly of loss survivors. I would occasionally see an attempt survivor come forward to share their story, some even saying that should their illness no longer respond to treatment, they would still consider suicide an option. The loss survivors, being in extreme pain and grief, and often anger, would respond in ways that I, as a loss survivor, was ashamed and appalled at. They would go on the attack, and the attempt survivor would sometimes stand their ground, but it was a very hurtful, detrimental and completely unnecessary experience. I knew that the loss survivors were, in many instances, unable to step out of their pain and grief long enough to appreciate that an attempt survivor, someone who had experienced much of what their loved one experienced, was sharing information that could be of true benefit to them. Some even told the attempt survivor that they had no business being on a suicide prevention page meant to save lives. I knew then that I must include both loss and attempt survivors in a healthy environment, conducive to learning from one another in a respectful and caring way.

I know that what Rob shared with me gave me only an inkling of the extreme pain and inner turmoil he was experiencing. He would describe in great detail what was taking place before, during and after his numerous attempts. I listened carefully, even though I was quite shocked at what I was hearing, because I knew it was the only way to help him.
Loss survivors need to learn to see things from a suicidal person’s perspective if they have any hope of beginning to understand what their loved one was experiencing. By learning what takes place when someone is suicidal, we better understand and know the signs so we can know what to do and when to take action.

I know without a doubt that the pain and turmoil Rob was experiencing was far more overwhelming and excruciating than any pain I had after losing him. I was immediately able to understand why he took his life, and I knew I had done all that I could do, and that allowed me to sidestep the terrible guilt so many loss survivors have. I am grateful for that, and it was by acknowledging Rob’s pain and realizing he was mentally unwell that I was able to have compassion instead of anger at him. He was sick, just like any other illness, only it was his bipolar and depression that claimed him, a mental illness. Not having anger at him was beneficial to me as a loss survivor beginning a new journey I’d never been on or prepared for.

Attempt survivors can learn much from loss survivors as well. They learn that even though their suicidal minds had convinced them no one cared or loved them, it was the furthest thing from the truth in most cases. They see how devastated loss survivors are, how they are left with so many unanswered questions and must learn to cope with never having those answers. I know in some cases this can add to guilt for the attempt survivors, which is the last thing I want to add to their burden, but my hope is that they learn how much they are truly loved and cared about, and how much they would be missed.

Do you ever manage to take vacations, away from the site?

Only once since creating the page. I have occasionally been away for a few days at a time, but I do my best to schedule posts while I’m gone. I did go away for 10 days in 2011 and asked a fellow loss survivor who also has a closed group page to keep an eye on my page, giving her temporary admin status. Everything went very smoothly, and I had left a message to my page members a few days prior to my vacation, so they were aware. I left that comment pinned to the top of the page.

How much can you really get to know the members? How attached do you get?

Quite honestly, some really stand out. If I’ve been involved with somebody for months and have numerous back-and-forth messages, they’ll get back to me and say, “Oh my god, you encouraged me. I’m now seeing a therapist. I can’t thank you enough.” I get quite a few wonderful updates like that. I may not remember every single one, but I can quickly read back over their messages and that brings it all back for me.

How do you protect yourself, working with issues like this?

Occasionally, someone I’ve been interacting with takes their life. It’s pretty shocking, very upsetting and tremendously sad. It makes me very emotional. and sometimes I step away and take some time off to deal with my shock and grief and ground myself again. In two instances, they were men who had lost their sons to suicide, had started foundations and were highly active. When I heard both had taken their lives within a year of losing their sons, it was heartbreaking. I know loss survivors are at higher risk themselves for suicide,  but somehow you don’t expect it because they’re so busy and so active in making their child’s life matter. Many deal with their grief by keeping busy, but I’m also very aware that being constantly exposed to others’ grief, pain and loss when you are still deep in your own grief can come at a high emotional cost. I wouldn’t have been able to do this two or three years after my loss, but 10 years later, enough healing and recovery allowed me to be able to help others. I’m in an emotionally different place than new attempt survivors or grievers are in, and I can tell my story without having any pain, a sign of recovery.

My page members are not just a number to me. I created a poster for World Suicide Prevention Day dedicated to attempt survivors. I had heartbreaking responses: “No one’s ever done this before!” Treat them like people! Treat them as you would want to be treated! That’s the big, big issue, and I don’t know how to fix it. I told one attempt survivor member who said he felt guilty going on a loss survivor page, it’s not evil. Forgive yourself. And let go of that, because you’re just carrying a big 500-pound stone on your back.

What have you learned about feeling suicidal, and what do you think you will never know?

My husband told me he would always think of our son’s face, and it would stop him. But in the end he was in such excruciating pain that he couldn’t see anything else. He was consumed by his pain and thought the only way to resolve that was to end his life. Knowing that allowed me to immediately let go of what so many feel, the anger and resentment. I knew his mind was not working like it used to. He could not possibly make good life-saving decisions. His suicidal mind had convinced him this was the only way to fix things. How can you have anger for someone like that? I can’t. I just hope he’s at peace. I can’t harbor any ill will toward him because he wasn’t mentally well. Truly understanding that his mentally unwell mind was in control is what helped me cope, but not all loss survivors are able to accept that. They get consumed with their own pain, loss and grief, and it can block them from seeing things from a suicidal person’s perspective. Anger is a very common reaction, and some loss survivors are angry for years. The anger can become all-consuming as well and stops any chance for healing and recovery to begin.

You see this statement, “I know how you feel.” Well, no, you don’t. You can’t know how someone else feels. I can’t know Rob’s last thoughts, but I can imagine them because of our extensive conversations. He said the suicidal thoughts were continuously racing through his mind. I remember looking at him while listening and realizing this was not the person I’d loved and known for 29 years. I remember looking in his eyes and thinking, “I don’t know this person! This is not the man I married!” The sheer look of terror and fear in his eyes, combined with pain, reminded me of a caged and trapped animal. It broke my heart. I knew he was in deep, deep trouble, and I knew enough to step back from my own emotions and be calm and let him talk. I knew little about suicide at this time, but I innately knew to listen without telling him what to do or overreacting. Looking back on it all now, I realize that was a gift that he shared with me, to help me understand what a suicidal person is experiencing.

If I try to educate loss survivors about anything, and I know it’s very difficult, it’s to try to put yourself in that suicidal person’s shoes. Have empathy instead of judgement. Try to imagine what you would do under those conditions. This is often a slow buildup. They have tried everything they know to do and have lost all hope. If you put yourself in their shoes, I don’t see how anybody could not have compassion rather than anger.

When I’m not on my page monitoring, an occasional distraught or suicidal comment gets posted.  Some members will reply saying, “Think of how bad you would make your family feel!” I hide or delete it and message them, if I can, to explain that’s not a helpful thing to say to a suicidal person, as guilt is never a good motivator. I don’t think my pain is 1 percent of what Rob’s pain was, and yet you’ll often hear loss survivors say it transfers the pain from the suicidal person to those left behind. I don’t care for that message, because I’m coping with a mentally well mind, and those who are suicidal most often are not. It’s not about you, it’s about them. Learn. Educate yourself. Learn how to get them the help they need before suicide happens and learn how to help in a non-harmful, calm and supportive way.

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18 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. As an attempt survivor, I do appreciate so much what you’re doing here. There are very few places I feel comfortable talking about this. People don’t want to hear it. I’ve been dealing with this for some 30 years and am still not out of the woods, though I am better. It’s good to know there is someone I can talk to. Bless you.

    Reply

    • Hi Joan, I’m so glad to see your comment and appreciate that you took the time to share that. I’m glad AAS has created this wonderful and safe place for you and all attempt survivors and those with suicidal thoughts as well. Thank you for stepping up and out and allowing your initial comment included in the blog post to be shared. Continued recovery and am so glad you’re here sharing with us. ~ Barb/Suicide Shatters

      Reply

      • I agree with everything said on this page. It is a place to go to talk about your feelings and your suicidal thoughts or past attempts. I am a survior and will continue to be one. I have to thank Barb and her page on facebook for being there when i was in crisis and was a person that was listening to what i was saying. Again thanks Barb for all that you do will continue to do

    • I’m so glad you’re still here, Joan…my first attempt was at age 12…I am now 50…I am doing good now…in therapy…it took me 25+ years to find a therapist that RELATES TO ME and is not afraid to stop me and “see” where I’m going!!!! Jehovah’s love and blessings to you <3

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  2. Knowing Im not alone…Getting awareness out there…main thing…this saves lives..2 thumbs up …3 if I had another…:)( Bless you!!!

    Reply

    • Hello Thre! So nice of you to leave a comment here on the blog as well as on my page. Glad to have your input and I’ll put up 2 thumbs and 2 toes if it helps. :)

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  3. I loved reading what Barb wrote because of her compassion and her understanding that even as a “survivor” of my father’s suicide that I understand that my healthy mind cannot fully grasp the pain his not healthy mind was in and had been in for many years. I try not to think of his pain as transferring to me or anyone else because it didnt. We all have our own pain and it is unique to us and our experiences. I dont want to perpetuate the wrong impression that a healthy mind can truly understand a mentally ill mind. We can educate ourselves but we cant really know how another person feels and what it is like to live in that mind full of pain and hopelessness 24hrs a day for years for many people. On my good days I can get in touch with how grateful I am that my Dad is not suffering anymore. On my not good days I just try to remember that this pain will improve– not disappear–but get more bearable over time. For my Dad his pain is finally over which I love for both of us.

    Reply

    • Hello Karen, thanks so much for your kind comment. I’m so sorry you lost your father and like me, are a loss survivor. It’s a very life altering loss, but somehow if we can step back from our own pain and grief, realize that a suicidal person is experiencing true overwhelm and has in most instances completely lost hope for things ever improving or changing, it does allow a different and more compassionate perspective.

      As we’ve both said, there is truly no way to ever know someone else’s feelings and emotions. Even when they share them with us, it’s not the same as being the one to feel that way. My admiration for those who struggle with suicidal thoughts and the many severe challenges of mental illness is immense. They endure such despair and so many do it for such a long time battling a system that often doesn’t support them well, trying many different medications and therapies, all in the hope of helping them not feel the way they do. If diagnosis and treatment were an exact science, so many more could be helped in a timely manner, but it is not. They’re making huge strides, but each person’s illnesses are unique and often overlapping issues, that it takes time – something those struggling with suicidal thoughts do not always have enough of.

      I’m glad to read that on your good days you allow gratitude in knowing your Dad is not suffering. It’s something I felt immediately when I lost Rob. A shift takes place in our emotions/feelings when gratitude enters. Doesn’t mean we don’t love them and miss them, but allows compassion and understanding in. I wish you many more “good” days and I can personally say there is no longer any pain and hasn’t been for many years when I think of Rob or tell his story. I share that with you to let you know it is possible and to give you hope that one day you may be free of the pain as well. Time alone does not heal loss, but what we do with that time, the steps/actions we take can most certainly allow us to heal, recover and have a healthy life again. Wishing you continued healing and recovery. ~ Barb/Suicide Shatters

      Reply

    • What a kind and loving way to put it!!! I lost my David to suicide going on 9 years ago…I know he was in pain…he was my high school sweetheart…came back to our hometown after being away for years…didn’t think anyone or anything would get in our way this time…his illness did…we tried to have him get help…I look forward to seeing him again when it is time for this world to pass away and the one our Heavenly Father always meant to be comes…and then the Resurrection will begin.
      I thank you so much for sharing for feeling about your dad…I am MI, a suicide survivor…but the way you put it helps me to deal better with David’s taking his life… <3

      Reply

  4. I wanted to comment because Barb is not only doing a great service, she is doing it in a way that is appropriate therapeutically. When in doubt she checks with professionals for guidance. When something does slip by she corrects or deletes the material as appropriate. She is right to say she is not a behavioral health professional but I know how closely she monitors content AND comments for relevance, suitability and pertinence to both truth and healing. She is the perfect example of the peer advocate, in part because she utilizes professionals to inform her knowledge base and actions. My confidence regarding her site is such that I have encouraged several clients to LIKE the site and feel free to comment or be part of the discussion on suicide. I salute Barb and all she does. She will never even begin to guess how many thousands she has played a part in helping heal and find a different answer for their pain than anger or grief.

    Reply

    • Hi Steve, thanks for popping by and leaving a comment, greatly appreciated. I am self taught and read everything I can get my hands on from professionals in the suicide prevention and mental health communities. Sometimes there is a difference of opinions even within those trained communities, so I take what resonates for me, explore it until I get to a place to have formed my own opinion. I go from personal experience and as far as I’m concerned, there is nothing more powerful than sharing our personal stories as a way to educate, raise awareness and help others on similar journeys.

      I spend a great deal of time advocating, when I see something harmful or incorrect. I do contact whether it be an email, phone call or a comment left. All I can do is my best to make others aware that the messages they put out around suicide and mental illness are not always safe and responsible. I make sure to keep up to date on current guidelines and share those when advocating. Any conversation around suicide or mental illness is most often a good thing as it helps dispel stigma, but when it’s done in a harmful or hurtful way, I feel it’s best to point out ways to get the information out in a non-harmful and correct way.

      Appreciate your vote of confidence and your friendship as well. ~ Barb/Suicide Shatters

      Reply

  5. Pseudo-attempt survivor here – great post, and your page sounds excellent, but I’m not sure that “guilt is never a good motivator”. Guilt over making family/friends really sad is the only compelling reason to stay alive that I have. I realize this isn’t an optimal situation, but this motivator works for me, and I’m sure guilt is keeping many other people alive too. No offense intended, of course.

    Reply

    • Hello KKPG, appreciate you taking the time to share your opinion, no offence taken at all and appreciate anyone who takes the time to leave a comment and interact . While I’m very glad that the guilt of how it would make your loved ones feel if you were to take your life worked for you and kept you alive, all my training and knowledge indicates guilt is not a good motivator. In fact, many resources indicate clearly not to use it. I have encountered opposition before on this not using guilt as a motivator with members as well. I tell them what I share with you here, that if it’s working for them, continue to use that, but I also do what I can to educate them that it isn’t always helpful and they need to realize that as well if helping someone else.

      Many who are suicidal are often feeling extreme guilt. Many resources I use and recommend indicate never to provoke guilt as it can add to the already overwhelming guilt many are experiencing. I always take my cue from the suicidal person. I cannot assume anything and do my best to listen to what they share with me. Often they are feeling guilty due to something that has happened, real or perceived, with their family or friends. By me using guilt that their death will cause their family/friends to experience great pain, grief and loss, may have little motivation for them or could escalate their feelings of upset with their family and friends depending on history with those people. I do not want to say anything that could make the suicidal person feel any worse than they already do and they’re most often extremely sensitive when suicidal to begin with.

      One of the best resources I share is from HelpGuide.org “How to Help Someone Who is Suicidal” http://www.helpguide.org/mental/suicide_prevention.htm . This resource has a section on what TO say and what NOT to say to a suicidal person. I’ve included an excerpt: “But don’t:
      Argue with the suicidal person. Avoid saying things like: “You have so much to live for,” “Your suicide will hurt your family,” or “Look on the bright side.”

      It’s important to connect with the part of them that wants to live and do nothing to support the part that wants to die. Learning what has helped them in the past to feel better and to encourage them to focus on that is what I try to do. Helping them remember what inspires and ignites them about life is important as well. I always encourage them not to harm themselves, that they’ve reached out for help for a reason and then give them a local resource for professional support. In many cases, just being able to talk about it helps diffuse the need to take action. It allows them enough time to reduce their stress by talking to someone, gives them a resource in their local area to get help from and also allows a different perspective to be considered. I always ask them to get back to me to let me know how they are doing as well.

      Glad you’re alive and able to share your story with us all too, continued recovery to you. ~ Barb/Suicide Shatters

      Reply

      • I see – that makes sense; keep up the good work then.

  6. Hello Traciej66, I wasn’t able to reply to your comment on here, so am doing a separate entry and hope you will see it. I appreciate you taking the time to leave a comment here and as I’ve expressed many times, I’m thankful and grateful we crossed paths. My heart goes out to all who are experiencing suicidal thoughts as I can only empathize knowing what my late husband Rob went through, how all consuming and overwhelming suicidal thoughts can be. Your mind is doing its best to convince you there is no other way, but you reached out to me and I was thankful I could be there for you and that you got the help you needed and deserved, and continue to get.

    I acknowledge you for taking the action to reach out, had you not, you may well not be here with us. Your struggles are not over yet, but you are persevering until you find a way to live life without the constant battle over these thoughts. For that you need to be acknowledged and I so hope you not only acknowledge yourself for that, but feel truly proud of all you do and continue to do to keep yourself alive. Glad to call you a friend Tracie. ~ Barb/SuicideShatters

    Reply

    • Barb
      Thank you for all the encourgement you have given me and the courage to face the difficutly was as a suicide atempt and the thoughts going through ones head. I am truly grateful that you have been there several times and when i was in a crisis and give me som advice and where to go to get the help that i got. Again this page is wonderful and you are truely special person to be there for us.

      Tracie

      Reply

  7. I just want to thank you Barb for doing all you do so that I can share and try to help others…if I ever can save, or help someone else understand enough to help save one person…well…it will help make up for the one I couldn’t…

    Reply

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