HOW 35 + YEARS AS A SURVIVOR OF SUICIDE TRANSFORMED ME – by Doreen Cammarata
Fall of 1986 was a time that most New Yorkers were filled with pride as the Mets won the world series. For me it was a tumultuous time filled with uncertainty and extreme shock. On September 24th my mom, age 46, died by suicide. I can still recall the details of that day and how my life was forever changed. Equally vivid were the individuals who supported me, embrace me and influenced me to become the woman I am today.
As I reflect upon the decades that have passed, I contemplate what I have learned from the many challenges I have endured. I focus on how I adapt and heal throughout it all. Most significantly, I look at the strategies that I utilize and practice through the depths of my grief and examine what has empowered me as I emerged from the darkness that was bestowed upon me.
It was my senior year of high school. I returned to school the week following my mom’s death. Almost immediately I began to work with a school counselor that was trained in crisis intervention. The hours she spent with me didn’t focus on which college would be the best to attend the following year, but rather how I was going to survive each day and take care of my basic needs. Initially our work together provided me with a safe place to share about my mom’s life as well as her death. Our counseling time grew from its supportive nature to one that educated me on coping techniques that would assist me to transcend my grief.
The compassion and empathy that this counselor demonstrated made a vast difference in my life. In today’s world she would be considered the “on staff Mental Health Practitioner”, providing endless resources, education and direction to help individuals grow from their grief. This experience was so impactful to me that it influenced me early on to train and become a guidance counselor.
Identifying grief responses is the primary steps necessary to accomplish as one works through their loss. It was extremely important for me to know that I would likely experience some feelings of shock, denial, sadness, guilt and anger. Similarly, that the intensity and duration of these feelings would be compounded by the fact that my loss was sudden and unanticipated. I was unaware of why it was recommended for me to wait two months to participate in a group counseling setting and why this was relevant. Premature participation to group counseling can be overwhelming and can make this type of intervention appear negative when in fact it can be very helpful.
Like myself, many Survivors of Suicide will have strong feelings of guilt, shame and anger. These can be felt towards themselves or their loved one. In the early months following my mom’s death I worked very hard in counseling to find a place for these feelings and what would be the healthiest ways for me to express them. Over time it became clear to me that I did not have to answer the How and Why questions that at times were asked from practical strangers who were just seeking information. In my work as a LMHC these themes of expression from my clients have reinforced how critical this is for survivors to conceptualize.
VALIDATE & NORMALIZE
In understanding and learning the distinct differences in what my grief from my sudden loss has meant, I came to realize that what I was feeling was normal. I understood that my grief was going to be more intense and long lasting and that I would re-grieve my loss throughout my life span. Each time I reach a developmental milestone in my life I will grieve my mom’s death in a different way. The word acceptance takes on a new meaning and I do not judge my expression of my grief as a setback, rather I acknowledge the power that this loss has had in my life.
Emerging as a young adolescent facing graduations to relocations then as a young woman contemplating long term relationships, marriage and motherhood to most recently being a middle-aged woman in menopause raising three young men; I have encountered normal ups and down’s which have triggered grief emotions. It is pertinent for individuals to be aware of this as a normal reaction so that they can be prepared to deal with these emotions in healthy ways as they approach. My work has focused on assisting clients as they are coping through changes brought upon from loss as well as identifying what techniques will assist them during these times.
Additionally important is to recognize that specific death losses can trigger a grief response that creates strong feelings like that experienced by your primary loss. When my Godmother died it surprised me how raw and intense my grief reaction was and how the surge of emotions would overwhelm me. They were similar to the emotions I had years ago when I first identified myself as a Motherless Daughter.
IDENTIFY SUPPORTIVE OPPORTUNITIES & RESOURCES
Today Mental Health Issues are dominate in our society. It is fundamentally imperative that this is noted as one of the key factors that will determine how someone can survive and thrive from their experience. Being aware that some may not be open to all the help that is available to them, it is still prevalent to encourage those in need towards these resources.
My first referrals were to American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and The American Association of Suicidology (AAS). These were the primary organizations to produce websites for suicide survivors. They were and still are responsible for most publications and recommendations for someone coping with suicide. These organization are invaluable for this population.
Having worked as a Grief Specialist at a local Hospice organization and being a counselor who utilized bibliotherapy in my practice I realized that there were limited books written to explain suicide to children. Over twenty years ago, after the birth of my first child, along with dealing with the questions from my nieces and nephews, I was inspired to write, “Someone I Love Died by Suicide; A story for child survivors and those who care for them”. At that time, it was one of the first books written for kids and has since been a resource of all Survivors of Suicide. This book is one of the books supported in Centering.org.
KEEPING THE MEMORIES OF YOUR LOVED ONE ALIVE
Assisting survivors to find ways to keep their loved one in their life is very important. Not everyone will be able to make sense of their loss, however allowing for opportunities to recognize the importance of the person who died can help to bring new meaning to their life. Personally, it has been my life’s mission to make a difference to Suicide Survivors and to help to encourage my clients and students to live fully and tentatively to their own mental health.