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
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.