Saturday, November 19, 2016

I Lost My Son, Dylan, In The Murder-Suicide at Columbine

Guest Blog by Sue Klebold

Sue with Dylan
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day is the one day a year when people affected by suicide loss gather around the world at events in their local communities to find comfort and gain understanding as they share stories of healing and hope. We have learned that stories of lived experience are one of the best ways to fight the discrimination and prejudice often associated with people living with of mental health conditions and suicidal thoughts, behavior and loss. People sharing stories of moving from despair to hope and recovery help inspire others to get involved in the movement.

Saturday, November 19, 2016, is International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, and thus, we are highlighting a loss survivor’s story and her search for meaning after loss.

Sue Klebold lost her son, Dylan, on April 20, 1999. He was one of the two shooters in the Columbine Tragedy. Her grief and recovery has been a long process. She became connected to the Carson J Spencer Foundation as she started to learn more about suicide and suicide prevention. Today, she is part of the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Loss & Healing Council, and a valued volunteer of the Carson J Spencer Foundation. This is her story:
I lost my son, Dylan, in a murder-suicide.  He and his friend murdered 12 students and a teacher, and injured more than 20 others before taking their own lives. He was very smart, funny and well-organized.  He had a great sense of humor and made me laugh.  
He loved trying new foods and new experiences.  I will always miss him. 
Dylan taught me what it feels like to be completely proud of a child, and to understand how blind we can be to someone’s inner suffering.  
I have honored his memory and the memory of those he killed by writing a book, A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy, and donating the proceeds to brain health and suicide prevention organizations.  Because of Dylan, I try to make things better for others. 
My grieving process was complicated because of the murders involved.  Years of grief were convoluted by lawsuits, public condemnation, and personal health problems.  The loving support of friends and family helped, along with therapy, reading about suicide, journaling, drawing, exercise, and connecting with other survivors of suicide loss.
I derived meaning by learning about the suicidal mind.  I began to accept that his judgment was impaired at the time of his death, and this helped me cope with the reality of his destructive behavior.  
I hope he would be proud that I honor his memory by trying to improve mental health care for others.  I want him to know that nothing he did could ever make me love him less than I do. 
Recovery is a process.  At first, we are victimized by what has happened to us.  We feel devastated, confused, grief stricken, and helpless.  As time goes by, we slowly move from feeling like a victim to feeling more like a survivor.  We don’t know how we made it, but we want to help others who have more recent losses or who are struggling.  We find that by trying to serve others, we slowly gain strength and balance.  Eventually, we may become advocates, driven to make a difference in a larger sphere of influence.  We see that we never have to stop loving or missing the person we lost, and we remember them with joy, honor, and gratitude.    

The effects of a suicide loss are long lasting and far reaching.  Many survivors seek to make meaning out of their loss and celebrate the life of their loved one. There are many wonderful organizations that provide life-saving suicide prevention programming.  Carson J Spencer Foundation seeks to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority.  Through a variety of prevention programs, Carson J Spencer Foundation is changing the face of suicide loss. Whether you partner with our organization, or another, we encourage you to get involved. Giving a gift, in memory of a loved one lost, helps to create the meaning that so many seek.
On December 6th, Colorado will celebrate a statewide day of giving – Colorado Gives Day.  On December 6th, your gifts go further, thanks to a $1,000,000 incentive fund created by Community First Foundation and FirstBank.  To schedule a Colorado Gives Day gift to the Carson J Spencer Foundation, please visit here.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

How to Support Someone Who is Grieving

Photo by Alexsandar Radanovic
By Emily Alvarez

When someone close to you experiences extreme loss, you want to help. Words often fail at this time and we’re left faltering for the right thing to do or say. When flustered, it can be frustrating to find the “perfect” way to support or respond. One can be so scared of doing the wrong thing, they end up doing nothing. While doing nothing is an option, it’s not a very good one.

While there’s no one perfect way to respond or support someone, here are six tips on how to support someone who is grieving.

1. Their loss is not about you.

Grief belongs to the griever. If you’re taking a supporting role to someone who is grieving, it’s important to remember that their grief is not about you. Most suggestions, advice, and “help” that are given don’t actually help the griever. It tells them that they should be feeling differently than they do. Grief is different for everyone, so you can’t expect one person’s experience to match another.

2. Stick with the present and the truth.

While it might be easy, try to avoid making statements about the past or future. Try to stay away from generalized statements about their situation. There is no way you could know if someone is in a “better place” or “finished their work here.” These platitudes don’t make anyone but the giver feel better. Reminding the griever that their past life was good isn’t a great trade for their current pain. These are the statements that work: “this sucks”, “I love you”, “I’m here.”

Photo by Fellowship of the Rich
3. You can't fix this.

Your friend’s loss can’t be fixed, solved, or repaired. This pain can’t be made better. Skip saying anything that tries to fix this unfixable thing and you’ll be fine. Your first instinct is to try to fix things, but unfortunately, you just can’t. Be supportive without trying to fix.

4. Anticipate, don't ask.

If you say, “call me if you need anything,” your friend won’t call. Not because they don’t need help, but because figuring out what their needs might be is beyond their ability. Make tangible promises like, “I will be there on Monday at 5:00 pm to make you dinner” or “I’ll walk your dog every morning on my way to work.” Don’t wait for them to ask for help, anticipate that they will need your help. On the flipside, don’t do anything irreversible. Don’t surprise your friend by doing the laundry or cleaning the house without asking. You might be cleaning the last piece they have of their loved one. Do simple tasks that, while necessary, can make a difference.

5. Become a buffer.

Photo by Tim Marshall
When someone is grieving, having people constantly coming up to them or wanting to give support can be overwhelming. What should be a personal and private time can feel too open. Becoming a buffer between others and your friend can take a load off their plate. Be the go-between and relay information to the outside world or organize the well-wishers. Buffers are really helpful.

6. Love.

Above everything else, love. Be there. Be a friend. Show up. Say and do something. Be willing to stand beside the giant gaping hole that opened in your friend’s life without out turning away. Listen. Be willing to not have all the answers. Be willing to get the answers they need. Be present. Show your love.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Brothers Lost: How I Found Meaning After Tragedy

By Emily Alvarez

Dennis Gillan
Stories of lived experience can be used to fight the stigma of mental illness and suicide and to help get people involved in the movement. These journeys humanize the suicide prevention movement and help other people seek help. This series on lived experience is a great chance to highlight a loss survivor’s story and the search for meaning after loss.

Dennis Gillan is a mental health advocate and inspirational speaker as well as a friend to our organization. He lost both of his brothers to suicide eleven years apart. This November, we want to focus on lived experience and share stories of finding meaning from loss and despair. This is his story:
I lost my older brother Mark in 1983 and my younger brother Matthew in 1994 (insert curse words here!).  Mark could fix almost anything.  Neighbors would drop off electronics and he would repair them.  I really wish he could have hung in there to see the computer revolution come along. 
Matthew was the punk little brother we all loved.  He was seven years younger than me and only 13 when our older brother died.  Mark was 21 when he died and Matthew was 23….too young.  Mark and I had our sibling rivalry going and were often tangled up in some sort of mess, while Matt was the one I could transfer all of my knowledge to---and there was really not much to transfer, but we shared a love for sports especially lacrosse.  I used to put him in the goal and shoot on him---no wonder he became a goalie for the team. 
Mark on the back porch
With my older brother, Mark, I was at college over 8 hours away and I came home, did the funeral, and headed back and pretended nothing happened.  
Bad move. 
I kept all the emotions in and drank heavily…horrible combination. And the fact that we were not talking about it may have cost us Matthew.  The entire family should have sought out some form of therapy to help us cope with this loss, but we just went on.  
When Matthew died I was married and still drinking a fair bit.  That all stopped with his loss and I have been sober for 22 years.  And after Matthew’s death I sought out counselling through an EAP and that made a big difference.  Sobriety and counseling is what I preach today when dealing with any loss. 
I have done a couple of things to help me make meaning from this loss. I worked on the 800-273-TALK line while in Batavia, IL under the tutelage of Stephanie Weber. This was very helpful for me and for the people calling in.  Someone who knows what a loss due to suicide feels like is the perfect person to answer the phones!  
Matthew in third grade.
I am now involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention here in South Carolina and this alliance has enabled me to lobby at a federal and state level for better access and more money for mental health and this has been really enjoyable.  We are making headway and hopefully this will help us make a dent in the number of completed suicides. 
One is too many----over 42,000 is ridiculous and we ought to be ashamed at this number as a country!  
The final and most impactful way I take meaning from this loss is to take my story on the road and share it with anyone who will listen!  The talk is great, but it is the conversations afterward that often blow me away.  Everybody is going through something…..we just need to talk about it more! 
After years of sitting on my hands and doing absolutely nothing, I started to talk about my brothers and my experience of trying to get back on my feet.  Every time I speak about them I feel like I honor them and the last school I visited had over 800 kids show up for this talk!  It helps me to remember them by sharing this story in the hopes that no one else will go through what I went through----twice. 
Mark and Matthew on the porch
Mark and Matthew would be most proud of what happens when I walk off stage and the real conversations about mental health start!  I’m not an expert on mental health issues, but I am a pretty good conversation starter and when I get done showing people that I am vulnerable, the temperature drops in the room and people start to share their stories. And when this starts to happen, the healing starts to happen too for all of us! 
My advice to give someone who has recently lost someone to suicide is to hang in there, sober up, and go see a professional.  There is no stigma in asking for help and there is strength in vulnerability.  Everything you will feel will be normal and it will range from intense anger to deep sorrow and everything in between.

The effects of a suicide loss are long-lasting and far-reaching. Many survivors look for ways to make meaning out of their loss and celebrate the life of their loved one. There are many wonderful organizations that provide life-saving suicide prevention programming. The Carson J Spencer Foundation elevates the conversation to make suicide prevention a health and safety priority. Through a variety of prevention programs, Carson J Spencer Foundation is changing the face of suicide loss. Whether you partner with our organization, or another, we encourage you to get involved. Giving a gift, in memory of a loved one lost, can help create the meaning that so many seek. For more information, please visit