Stories of suicide are often shrouded in secrecy and shame.
A father-in-law buried in the middle of the night. A father’s suicide kept from his son for 10 years.
“It is one of the leading causes of death in Missouri, but is one of the least talked about,” said Del McMillen, organizer of the mid-Missouri branch of the Suicide Bereavement Support Group.
Suicide claimed the lives of 736 Missourians in 2001, according to the Missouri Department of Mental Health.
On Saturday, McMillen’s group and similar organizations in 96 cities across the country will come together via satellites, telephone and the World Wide Web as part of an annual suicide teleconference.
The event is designed to break through the isolation that friends and family members feel after a loved one has died by suicide.
“What often gets overlooked in a suicide are the on average seven to 10 people who are left behind,” said Dennis Minzes, who started a similar group in Kansas City after his son, Christopher, committed suicide at 30. “We work to help these people define a new normal for themselves.”
These groups help survivors of loved ones’ suicides stay afloat by giving them a place to share their stories.
At the Suicide Bereavement Support Group’s first meeting in 2002, McMillen expected a low turnout because of the stigma of suicide.
“We would have been happy if only five people came,” she said.
Twenty showed up. And the numbers have continued to grow.
At the meetings, some talk of the suicide. Some talk of their anger, their feelings of isolation. Some say nothing at all.
So often people are plagued by thoughts that they should have seen it coming, McMillen said.
“We must work to not define ourselves by who we’ve lost,” she said.
Midwesterners are more likely to commit suicide than those in costal regions, with Missouri ranking 23rd in the number of yearly suicides, said Joe Parks, director of the state Department of Mental Health.
He attributes that statistic to cultural differences.
“There is a belief in the Midwest in a high level of self-reliance, and people are ashamed by feeling weak,” Parks said. “Self-reliance is a good thing until it becomes isolation instead of strength.”
Joanne Harpel, director of survivor initiatives at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said she hopes the teleconference will help people realize that they are part of a community.
The telecast will allow survivors to question a panel of six experts about managing their own grief and how to help others deal with their loss.
Last year, doctors, nurses and social workers joined the families of suicide victims to watch the event.
“It’s a powerful feeling to look around the room and see other survivors and know that there are rooms filled up in cities around the country,” Harpel said.