Was there really a time not so long ago when parents who lost a child to suicide were blamed, silent and ashamed? This was one of the surprising things I learned from Ginny Sparrow.
Ginny is a survivor of suicide, which is a term that can be confusing at first. Survivors of suicide have lost a family member or friend to suicide, and I’m told there can be tension between them and survivors of suicide attempts. But Ginny and I met at a national task force meeting on attempt survivors last month, and she quickly put me at ease. She’s direct, outspoken and cheerful, and she has plenty of experience trying to bring the issue of suicide out of the shadows for everyone.
Ginny asked if we could chat by e-mail (“KIDS! I’ve got two needy little girls!!!”) and here are her responses to a list of questions:
Who are you, and how did you get drawn into this?
In 1993, my mother died by suicide. I was informed at work over the phone, and my boss at the time immediately, literally, put Iris Bolton’s book “My Son, My Son” in my hands. I read it cover to cover on the plane ride home two hours later. It really saved me. She ended up being my support group leader a month later, and told me at that meeting, “Ginny, you and I are going to work together one day.” Ten years later, we were! She hired me to assist her at The Link Counseling Center and it was the best job I’ve ever had. Fulfilling, energizing, who knew suicide could be so enjoyable! Ha ha!
I was surprised to hear that people used to whisper about being a survivor of suicide. Why would that be?
The word stigma. I remember in the ’80s it was shameful to be gay, or even to have a gay family member! Can you imagine? Surviving a loved one’s suicide is as stigmatizing as surviving an attempt in our society. Why? Ignorance. Ignorance about mental health, ignorance about the prevalence of suicidal thoughts in our society because we don’t talk about it enough. Cancer used to be called the C word. Sadly, when I was diagnosed with cancer, my family acted a little ashamed, as they did when a family member came out of the closet, too. If they’d known suicide was around the corner, I’m sure they would have been a lot more accepting of the first two stigmatizing things in our family! It’s considered rude, I guess, to bring up depressing topics, so we leave things simmering. It’s unhealthy and part of the problem.
And how did people go about changing that and becoming more vocal about the issue?
Iris Bolton, Iris Bolton, Iris Bolton. In the ’70s, her 20-year-old son took his life, and boy, was the parent the guilty party back then. Instead of hiding her head, she took her role as director of The Link Counseling Center to begin a Survivor of Suicide support group in Atlanta, Georgia, and wrote her now famous memoir, “My Son, My Son,” which is still one of the best books for survivors, of any loss really, out there. She got a masters degree in suicidology from Emory University and became a public speaker on a topic not spoken about. She went to schools and told them they HAVE to talk about a suicide in their community. She went to news stations and told them they HAVE to quit romanticizing and sensationalizing suicide. Cluster suicides can sometimes be prevented if the first is handled correctly. She ended up speaking on national television a lot, and paid to travel around the world doing informational presentations as well as healing ceremonies. From her groundbreaking work, other organizations grew and grew, and now we have powerful agencies like the American Association of Suicidology in the forefront of the survivor and prevention fields.
What drew you into speaking out, and how has it gone so far?
Iris Bolton was my support group leader, and she personally trained me to lead support groups and speak at prevention and postvention meetings in our community of Atlanta, Georgia. Telling my story in group over and over helped so much (I always likened it to AA meetings) and gradually I found “my voice,” as Iris called it, to speak publicly. On an impulse, I submitted an essay to Surviving Suicide, a publication of the American Association of Sucidology. It was published, they asked me to write more, and seven years later Michelle Linn-Gust, AAS president, promoted me to editor. I’m really honored to hold the position, I feel like it’s a gift having survivors submit to me, bravely sharing their stories publicly. It’s a responsibility I don’t take lightly, and I respect the survivors so much for their courage to contact me.
What is the range of responses when you talk about this, and ideally, how would you like people to respond?
I’ve learned to be super careful! And to know my audience! Remarkably, groups of mental health professionals have the most alarming response. I could tell numerous stories of how sharing my mother’s suicide story elicits uncomfortable reactions from those you’d think would be the best armed to deal with it. It’s also a conversation stopper at a dinner party, a “Change the subject, please” topic in many one-on-one conversations. I’ve learned to really temper my story with education. If it comes up, and the truth needs to be told, I often say things like “Yes, I did lose my mother in my 20s. You know, she was mentally ill for a long time, and her illness was never diagnosed as she hid it well and never sought real help. She finally took her own life at age 49. I’ve had a lot of therapy around it, and have ended doing a lot of work in suicide prevention _ I feel it honors her memory. I don’t think about her in her last moments anymore _ I have tons of great memories!” As you can see, I try to finish it up with a tad of inspiration! It removes a little of that awkward gawking I receive.
I really don’t care how people respond. It says more about them than it does my mother’s decision, so I just allow people to feel however they want. It doesn’t insult me anymore when they act appalled. They just don’t know, and that’s OK.
People have said that there can be tension, if not anger, between survivors of suicide and attempt survivors. Have you seen that, or do you have any examples?
Yes! And it really bothers me. I feel attempters have so much to give in the prevention field; I’m curious why they don’t have a bigger voice. Do professionals look at an attempter as a failure on their part? What do survivors feel about attempters? I have one story that really was insightful. My very first survivor support group meeting was a month after my mother’s death. I was a blubbering mess, and petrified of speaking, hoping I could sit in the back unnoticed. At the beginning of group, Iris Bolton announced that a young lady who had survived her own attempt recently wished to speak with us. The girl spoke for maybe 40 minutes, and I was mesmerized. I felt I finally understand how my mother felt in the last minutes of her life. The girl spoke of how yes, she was sort of doing it as a “take that” to the world, but mostly she felt so horribly useless and was tired of being a burden on her parents. So she cut her wrists, but some force of nature intervened; she never lost consciousness, and all she felt was numbing in her arms, then she was nearly paralyzed in her arms. Panicked, she called 911, in fear of living and being disabled. Months later, she was still numb in most of her fingers and wasn’t sure if she’d ever regain use of them. Now, she really felt a burden on her parents. But she wanted to speak out to help people understand suicide is not the way out. She wanted her story to be a warning to others.
After she left, Iris asked the group how we felt. The parents in the group looked ready to explode. They were so angry at this girl, they could hardly contain themselves. They wanted to yell at her, they wanted her to know exactly how much pain she had caused. I had the opposite reaction, I wanted to hug her and thank her for giving me a window into my mother’s world. But I seemed to be the only one in a group of 40-plus people who felt that way, so I kept my mouth shut. It was my first meeting, after all! Since then, I’ve noticed survivors’ reactions to attempters, they almost shun them. So odd to me, you’d have to ask them for an explanation. It’s just painful, I suppose.
Now you are on a task force for attempt survivors. How has your own attitude toward attempt survivors changed? And what brought about that change?
My attitude’s the same as it always has been _ that they hold valuable information to help survivors understand, and to help the world be more sensitive to hurting people.
What are the issues that may be the toughest to address if the two groups are to get along or work together?
That weird un-acceptance survivors have. I doubt any of them would admit it, but it’s obvious to me the chill in the room when someone confides they have attempted. At the AAS Conference in 2011, a brave woman stood up on Survivors Day and shared her experience at attempting and spoke of her book “Struck By Living” and gave it to the speaker at the time. When the session was over, I sought the author out to talk to her about interviewing her and reviewing her book for Surviving Suicide. I thought others might want to chat with her, so I rushed to find her, but there she was alone in her chair, packing up her bag to go present a workshop on her story. All alone. I found it so odd. I felt the impulsion to hug her and salute her for her bravery. I wanted to attend her workshop but was committed to cover another one for AAS. I always wondered how that workshop went, if any survivors attended, if any professionals attended. It would be worth looking into.
And how would you like to see them work together?
I’m not entirely sure they can work together. But I think there’s information to be shared that can save lives. I think if survivors realized how unselfish an attempter feels at the moment, it would help. And I think if attempters could see the aftermath of a suicide, they could use that to inspire them to go on.
What else would you like to add?
I would love attempters to gain the voice in our society that survivors have. Survivors have a walk similar to the breast cancer walk, called Out of the Darkness. I don’t think attempters need their own walk; it seems like attempters could benefit so much from co-walking with survivors. Perhaps one day they will! Perhaps they already are, and we haven’t noticed.
After Ginny replied, I asked for a little more about who she is outside this issue:
Well … Ginny Sparrow is a huge foster child advocate in her free time! I kept the first baby they gave me three years ago, so my husband says, “No more” because I can’t give them up! I also have a talented 8-year-old biological child who keeps me busy and an adorable shelter dog who is the love of our lives! That be it for me! Keeps life full here in sunny San Diego. When I have any time or money left, I buy books and lose sleep with them. Books are my constant companion.