Tag Archives: survivors

The Survivors of Suicide

NaseknanThis week is National Suicide Prevention Week. It is heartbreaking to think that suicide is that pervasive of a problem in our society to warrant such a week. And yet it is. Suicide takes the lives of over 30,000 Americans every year. There are twice as many deaths from suicide as there are from HIV/AIDS. It is the third leading cause of death for 15-24 year old Americans. And there are more than 800,000 attempted suicides every year.

Those are the statistics.

And then there are the stories.

Perhaps the worst thing about suicide is the pain it causes to those left behind. These people are known as the survivors. And telling our stories can help us to heal from the trauma of this experience.

When Gia Allemand, the reality television star, took her own life last month, the topic of suicide became a part of a national discussion. Gia’s distraught mother spoke with Dr. Phil about her feelings, which echo those of many survivors.

Sometimes there are warning signs. And then sometimes the incident seems to come from out of nowhere. That’s how it was when I found out that my friend Ophir had died. I remember getting a phone call from our mutual friend Curt. He was in a state of disbelief as he had just gotten the news. It took a few phone calls to figure out exactly what had happened. Ophir had committed suicide.

I knew Ophir as an extremely talented and creative composer. We worked together on several music projects. We had a close friendship and a great respect for each other. Ophir helped me bring my songs to life. When Ophir had a hernia operation, I had him stay at my home while he recovered.

I was aware that Ophir used drugs. I spoke with him about it many times, offering him alternatives, and suggestions for a more healthy way of life. But he did not want to hear it. He did not want to talk about it. He always functioned perfectly well when we were working, and he assured me that he did not have a problem. When I heard that Ophir had died, I assumed it was an accidental overdose. But there was no accident about Ophir’s death. He planned it. He put a rifle in his mouth and shot himself.

Like most people do in this situation, I started asking myself all kinds of questions. What could I have done to prevent this? Why didn’t I see this was coming? What was so terrible that he had to do this? I felt awful, not only for myself, but for his family, everyone who loved him. Suicide is such a violent act. It is terribly hurtful to everyone left behind with so many unanswerable questions. I don’t know what brought Ophir to his decision. I do know and recognize that although our relationship has changed, he is still very much a part of my life. I have the songs we wrote together on my websites. He taught me so much about music and the creative process. When certain songs come on the radio I am reminded of him, and his amazing energy, sweet smile, and sly sense of humor. His words still influence me. His music still moves me.

I know the agreement Ophir and I had was complete even before his death. There was no unfinished business between us. We learned from each other, both creatively and personally. At his funeral I met many others who felt the same way.

This was the second time that I had been affected by suicide. When I was around eleven years old, shortly after my parents’ divorce, my mother’s brother took his own life. He was a Vietnam veteran, and he became hooked on drugs while he was in the war. When he got home, he couldn’t handle normal life after seeing everything he saw in combat. His drug problem got worse, he would have hallucinations, and he overdosed to escape the pain.

I saw how this shattered my mother and grandmother. He also left behind a wife and baby daughter. It was tragic. As a child I could sense how awful this was for everyone. And now as an adult I can see how my uncle’s life mattered. Even in the short time he was with us, he brought joy to his mother and love to his family. He struggled with life, and he chose to die. But while he was here he lived, and he had the opportunities and experiences that allowed him to learn and grow. He may not have made the best choices, but they were his choices. In situations like this you have to get past the blame, and the guilt, and know that there is nothing you could have done to change the outcome. For whatever reason, this person took his own life. It is not rational, or logical, or right. But it is irreversible. And we learned by going through all of this together as a family.

Chaim Nissel, PsyD is the Director of Yeshiva University’s Counseling Center in New York City, and an expert with the American Association of Suicidology. He has this to say about coping with the loss of a loved one from suicide:

The death of a loved one by suicide has all the trappings of conventional grief plus a host of other intense, difficult, and confusing emotions. These include feelings of guilt and responsibility, anger and blame and often a disconnect with the individual who killed himself. When we lose a loved one to cancer or AIDS, we accept the reality, feel the loss, grieve, yet we don’t blame ourselves. Following a suicide, it is hard to accept the reality that the individual chose death. We feel responsible and wonder “if I had only…..” he’d be alive today. We would rather blame ourselves because it is difficult to place the responsibility where it belongs, on the individual who killed himself.

One who experiences the death of a loved one to suicide is fittingly called a “survivor.” They must now learn to cope and survive their loss. Most survivors experience anger, guilt and emotional turmoil. There is often anger at the deceased for taking their own life, it is seen as selfish, because their pain ends, but the survivor’s pain begins. Guilt over what they could have and should have done to prevent it (although if the loved one wanted to die, they would have despite your interventions). We like to think that we can control events, but when another person is in such emotional pain that they want to die, the choice to kill themselves remains their choice, despite everything that you can and did offer them.

There is still tremendous stigma and shame associated with suicide and when the fact that one died by suicide is hidden or denied, it becomes so much more difficult to come to terms with it. When we try to “cover” or pretend the death was accidental, it takes its toll on the survivors and will impact them the rest of their lives.

To help us find closure, Dr. Nissel has this advice:

  • Talk about it! Find supportive people in your life who you can share your feelings with.
  • Focus on the person’s life, and the good memories you have of the person. Know that you will never truly know why he killed himself.
  • Recognize that the person’s pain is over, now it’s time to start healing your own pain.
  • Have answers prepared for when people ask questions. This will help reduce your anxiety and emotional reactions. You can say “He took his own life” or “died by suicide” or even “he suffered a long illness.” If someone is persistent, blaming or insensitive, you can say “it is too difficult to talk about right now” and end the conversation.
  • Know that you are not responsible for your loved one’s death, in any way. Only the individual who killed himself is responsible.
  • Know that the likelihood is that the person was in such pain, for so long and now the suffering is over. 90% of those who die by suicide suffered from some form of mental illness, most commonly an affective disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder.
  • Seek resources such as professional counseling, support groups, and books.
  • Being exposed to a suicide makes you somewhat more susceptible to suicidal thinking. If you are having thoughts of killing yourself, get help immediately by contacting a local psychologist or psychiatrist. If you feel you may act on these suicidal impulses, call 911 or go to your local emergency room.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org) helps survivors of suicide. Actress Michelle Ray Smith, who played “Ava” on the daytime drama “Guiding Light,” talked about her father’s suicide in an interview with Soap Opera Digest magazine a few years back. She said that participating in AFSP’s “Out of the Darkness” event, an overnight 20 mile walk, helped her connect with people who had been through the same thing. “For the first time since he died – it’s been three years in September – I feel at peace.”

Talking with people, sharing our stories, is one way that we can help each other to heal.

For more information about how to find closure go to http://www.closurebook.com

The Great Wait: Survival Secrets of the 33 Miners Trapped in Chile

The miners call it Hell. The only thing missing is the fire and brimstone. Half-a-mile underground in northern Chile, 33 men are trapped in a cramped shelter where the temperature is a constant 85 degrees. Journalists across the planet have descended on the Atacama desert to report on the so-called Miracle of the San Jose Mine. The countdown clock is ticking on a rescue effort that could take two to four months.

In the annals of survival, "Los 33" (as they are now known) will surely take their place along with legendary survivors of the Andes plane crash in 1972, some of whom are now en route to the Chilean mine to lend support. The 16 Andes survivors endured 72 freezing days on a glacier before they were rescued. The Chilean 33 were entombed on August 5th and are on pace to surpass that number along with the previous record (China) for survival in a mine disaster (25 days).

For all the danger ahead, these men have already survived the worst — the terrifying 17 days underground before they made contact with the outside world. It won’t be easy or comfortable, but Los 33 will eventually emerge from the dank darkness and newspaper headlines will declare a "Christmas Miracle."

In reality, the saga is closely following classic patterns of human behavior under extreme pressure. Yes, there is a risk of another cave-in. Yes, the exact ending of this drama — especially the timing — remains uncertain. But going forward, the story isn’t really about life and death. It’s about endurance, resilience, the power of hope … and weight loss.

1. The biggest challenge ahead is sanity.

So far, the greatest threats to the miner’s physical survival have been solved. A drill hole connects them to the world above. This four-inch hole is a kind of fragile umbilical cord — as the Chilean health minister calls it — for sending oxygen, food, water, medicine, communications (even a marriage proposal) and — apparently most important to the miners — tooth brushes and beer. Everything from the sublime to the mundane is making its way down the bore hole. Thirty-three miniature Bibles have been dispatched along with small soccer balls, nicotine patches (smokers can’t light matches for fear of explosions), dominoes and playing cards (for the "casino" in the shelter). Anti-depression medicines are also ready to be pushed below in five foot long capsules nicknamed "doves."

Beyond supplies, everyone who knows anything about long term confinement is en route to northern Chile (or consulting with local officials). Experts from NASA are on their way to offer advice on nutrition and psychology for people – like astronauts — in cramped spaces for long periods. Chile’s submarine commanders have also weighed in with ideas about living for long periods in dark, crowded conditions.

And those legendary survivors of the Andes plane crash are traveling from Uruguay. "When they get out and they hug each other above ground, they’ll see how little two or three months is in a lifetime," Jose Luis Inciarte, one of the Andes survivors, told reporters.

2. Hope is the most important survival tool.

At the moment, five miners are "in very bad emotional shape," according to Dr. Jaime Mañalich, Chile’s health minister. They’re socially isolated and refused to participate in taping a group video. It should come as no surprise that five miners — 15 percent of the group — aren’t in the mood to perform in a video tour of their dungeon. That’s a predictable and manageable percentage, comparable to other disasters.

Anti-depression and anxiety drugs may be able to help those miners but hope will be the most important survival tool for the rest. At the US air force survival school in Spokane, Washington, they teach the so-called Rule of Three. You can live three minutes with oxygen; three days without water; three weeks without food. But you’ll only last three seconds without hope.

Right now, we can assume the miners have plenty of hope. They know 16 million fellow Chileans are rooting for them. They have spoken via microphone with their country’s president, Sebastian Pinera, who promised they would be rescued. They know that help is on the way. And some, if not all, believe that God is looking out for them.

Of all the challenges on the outside, managing the miners’ psychology will be as important as drilling the rescue shaft. Inevitably, there will be disappointments. Machinery will break. Mistakes will be made. But the miners must trust that they’re getting accurate information. They must set achievable goals. They must never feel abandoned. And above all, they must feel confident that they will eventually see the light above and their families and friends again.

3. Underground, it’s not Lord of the Flies.

In their first video, the shirtless miners look scraggly, emaciated and almost ghostly. It’s natural to wonder: Will their civility disintegrate? Will order eventually dissolve?

From experience in other disasters, social collapse is extremely unlikely. Yes, there will be tension, frustration and factions. But these men have already demonstrated discipline and ability to work together effectively.

"We have organized everything very well down here," says Mario Sepúlveda, a 39 year old miner who is the main presenter of the video tour.

"Here is where we meet every day, here is where we plan, where we pray," he goes on. "Here is the meeting room where all of the decisions are made with the involvement of the 33 that are here."

Shift foreman Luis Urzúa is technically in charge. In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, Urzúa 321– a soccer coach — strictly rationed supplies (two spoons of tuna, a mouthful of milk, a biscuit, and a canned peach every 48 hours) and stretched two days of food into two weeks.

Another miner — trained as a paramedic — has stepped into the role as the group’s medical officer.

So far, the group appears to be functioning efficiently and collaboratively. In the military, this is called unit cohesion. Especially in extreme situations, the team knows it must stick together to succeed and survive.

4. The greatest challenge may be above ground.

There will be plenty of twists and turns ahead for the miners. But now, it’s all about waiting and — for some — losing weight. Nine of the 33 are reportedly too heavy to fit into the planned rescue shaft and will need to slim down (if they haven’t already because of the deprivation).

When all 33 are eventually raised to the surface, they will face a new survival challenge: How to go on with their lives.

The media onslaught will create instant national heroes and accompanying riches. TV producers are surely focusing on shift foreman Urzúa and Sepulveda, the presenter of the video. Book publishers must be eyeing Victor Segovia, described in the video as "our great writer, our friend … who has been writing down everything we have gone through since the day the event happened."

Segovia smiles faintly and gives the thumbs up sign. "I want to send my regards to my family, especially my wife and daughter, I love them very much," he says.

"Don’t worry," he goes on. "Everything is going is to be fine."

For some, everything will indeed be fine. For others, the experience will be scarring. For every single one, the ordeal will be life-changing.

The family of Edison Pena, a 34-year-old miner, understands the possibilities and opportunities. With relatives sending letters and gifts to loved ones through the bore hole, Pena’s family attached a photo of Elvis Presley to a note of encouragement.

"Hang in there," they wrote, "because soon you’re going to be more famous than Elvis."

# # #

For more on surviving and thriving in the face of any kind of adversity, please visit the new and improved Survivors Club.


Follow Ben Sherwood on Twitter: www.twitter.com/survivorsclub

PHOTO (cc): Flickr / RichardLowkes

Why Remember?

September of this year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. There is no agreed upon moment, however, when the Holocaust began. Some date it to Hitler’s coming to power in 1933. Others mark the onset to Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, in November of 1938. Since the Holocaust was undeniably a component of World War II, however, it seems fair to say that next month also marks the anniversary of its inception.

It is clear why we note the beginning of World War II. We won. The forces of good beat the axis of evil, and the "best generation" came home victorious. Less obvious is why it’s important to mark the anniversary of the Holocaust. Why continue to look back at one of humankind’s bleakest moments? There were no winners and far too few heroes. Isn’t it enough that some of us have read Anne Frank’s diary or seen Schindler’s List? I think not. In the course of writing and teaching about the Holocaust, I have discovered that the Holocaust is rich in lessons to sustain our humanity. 

The Holocaust is a cautionary tale about leaders and cowards, heroes and victims. In examining it, we delve into the darkest parts of ourselves and reflect upon how we might have acted, what we could have done, had we been present. Would we have taken a job in the Nazi Party if we were unemployed? Would we have followed orders at work in order to get promoted? Would we have risked our own lives, or those of family members, in order to hide or protect others? Would we have spoken up in the face of injustice? The Holocaust provides an opportunity for each of us to consider how we would or should act the next time we see others robbed of their fundamental rights.

The Holocaust is also an enlightening tale about political systems and a horror story about the abuses of power. Adolf Hitler took office in a democracy which, at its core, was similar to the one in which we feel so safe today. In the blink of an eye, he converted his government into a totalitarian regime, in which all oaths were pledged to him. Overnight, Hitler began eviscerating the rights of the communists, the homosexuals, the disabled, the gypsies, the Catholics, and of course, the Jews. What does this tell us about the ability of a democracy to protect the rights of vulnerable minorities? Lest we forget that our own democracy, not so long ago, tolerated slavery. It also endorsed euthanasia for the disabled and forbade women from voting. Those educated in the abuses of power that took place leading up to and during the Holocaust will be better equipped to vigilantly protect the democratic values we so treasure today in our own country.

In our country, education is cherished. It is viewed as a ticket to success and key to a civilized, informed society. Authors, politicians, and educators espouse the importance of American youth studying hard, in part to compete with industrious students around the world. Yet at the same time, we must keep in mind that the Hall of Shame from the Holocaust was filled with doctors, engineers, and lawyers. Without judgment and compassion, without an awareness of the dangers of following orders without reflection, we are just one election, evil leader, or disastrous economic cycle away from another Weimar Republic of the early 1930’s. We must teach our children to be thoughtful, proactive citizens. In learning about the Holocaust, students can see where a past generation failed and what role they will play in the tragedies of their own generation.

Today, in Sudan’s Darfur region, another ethnic cleansing is taking place. The Janjaweed militia, supported by the Sudanese government, is systematically murdering the region’s black tribes. Outside Darfur, in other parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and South America, strife and violence are rampant. Both World War I and World War II taught us that under the stresses of war, prejudices are often heightened.

In 1915, not long after the start of World War I, authorities in the Muslim Ottoman Empire turned against the Armenians, a Christian minority that had lived for generations within the region. The world politely turned away as a million or more Armenians were massacred over the next eight years. Our country, along with many others, again looked the other way, over and over again, as Hitler’s campaign ramped up in the 1930’s. In 1936, at the summer Olympics in Berlin, for example, not only did the United States agree to attend the games, but coaches from this country pulled two Jewish runners from the relay team at the eleventh hour, at least in part so as not to offend Hitler. In 1939, intellectuals in our country and throughout Europe passively looked on as Jewish professors were unceremoniously fired from the University of Frankfurt, the most liberal university in Germany. And again, that same year, over 900 Jewish men, women, and children aboard the ship the St. Louis, after desperately fleeing Nazi Europe and arriving on the shores of Cuba, were denied entry not only in that country but also in the United States, and forced to turn back. Each of these events emboldened Hitler. He had good reason to believe that the world’s leaders would not object to his gross violation of human rights. Yes, some individuals spoke up. And sometimes, when they did, lives were spared. But mostly we were a world of bystanders, paving the way for many more bystanders over the six ensuing years of the Holocaust. Studying the Holocaust helps each of us to comprehend the downside of being a bystander, or of acting at the eleventh hour, rather than at the first opportunity. It makes us better prepared to be good, humane citizens in today’s world.

The Holocaust occurred not so long ago and in a land not so far away. As the seventy-year anniversary approaches, we are in a race against time. When young people today hear a Holocaust survivor speak, they are bearing witness to that which their own children are never likely to experience the same way. And as the voices of the Holocaust survivors quiet, those of the ones who insist that the Holocaust never happened will grow louder and, perhaps, more persuasive. To continue to mark its existence, to study its implications, is to honor its victims and better protect humankind in the future. As we vow that such a tragedy will not occur again, we must remember that there is an awful lot of suffering taking place in the world this very moment.

©2009 Leslie Gilbert-Lurie, author of Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir

Author Bio
Leslie Gilbert-Lurie
, author of Bending Toward the Sun: A Mother and Daughter Memoir, is a writer, lawyer, teacher, child advocate, and a member and past President of the Los Angeles County Board of Education.

Gilbert-Lurie also is a founding board member and immediate past President of the Alliance for Children’s Rights, a non-profit legal rights organization for indigent children, chair of the education committee for the Los Angeles Music Center, and a board member of several schools including Sierra Canyon and New Visions Foundation. Finally, she has just completed serving as a member of the mayor’s task force charged with developing a new cultural plan for the City of Los Angeles.

Previously, Leslie spent close to a decade as an executive at NBC, where, at various times, she oversaw NBC Productions, Comedy, wrote television episodes, and co-founded a new NBC in-house production company, Lurie-Horwits productions. As a lawyer, Leslie worked briefly at the law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg and Tunney and served as a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Law Clerk. She is a graduate of UCLA and UCLA School of Law.

Leslie lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter and step-son.

For more information please visit http://www.bendingtowardthesun.com/


Celebrating Cinco de Mayo and the underdog

Exactly 147 years ago today, the Mexican army won the Battle of Puebla against the larger and better-equipped French army, which had previously been undefeated for 50 years. Cinco de Mayo is an opportunity to celebrate Mexican pride, and we can also celebrate the underdog who triumphs against all odds.

Each of us, in our own way, has played the role of the underdog. Each of us has overcome tremendous obstacles to reach the point where we are today, and many of us still bear the scars from the battles of the past. If we were fortunate, we had at least one person in the crowd who was rooting for us throughout the battle and cheering our ultimate victory. If we were unfortunate, we fought alone. But either way, we have all had a victory over an opponent who was larger and better equipped than we were.

So if you have a margarita today with a burrito or other fantastic Mexican food (Michelle Obama’s favorite food, by the way), raise a toast to yourself as well as to Mexico. You’ve earned it! And if you are currently facing your own Goliath right now, remember Ross Perot’s optimistic spin on the situation: “Life is never more fun than when you’re the underdog competing against the giants.”

Feliz Cinco de Mayo!

To read a related story about celebrating life, click on any of the following:
Top 10 list of things Americans doing to find happiness in recession
Over 42 million people witness Free Hugs Campaign
Happy surprises: unclaimed money means you might be rich

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