A few mornings a week, the entire school meets before classes for assembly. This is a time for announcements, sharing “moments”, or presentations on various topics put on by students or staff. Some time ago, it occurred to me that I should take advantage of my situation here at a boarding school to do some suicide prevention work. As time passed and I continued experiencing situations where people were clearly uncomfortable talking to me about my brother’s death, I recently decided it was time to take a stand. I spoke to the Assistant Head of School about doing a morning assembly and sharing my story. She and the head of the Health Center were incredibly supportive of my idea. I spent a month thinking about it and preparing, and even attended a state training on Public Speaking for Suicide Survivors. Everything seemed fine until the week that led up to my presentation. I was so incredibly nervous. So nervous, in fact, that the day before I was on the verge of vomiting all day and was trying to think of a way to back out of it. But I didn’t. I followed through, and once I was 30 seconds into it, I felt fine. (Just like being back in a high school theater production!) After it was over, I spent the day receiving an overwhelming amount of positive and very touching feedback from faculty and students alike. It was really incredible. Once I finished it, I realized how necessary it was, and I was so glad I went through with it. Several people since have asked me if it was recorded (it wasn’t), or if they could read what I said. I do have my written speech, though what is written isn’t exactly how it went. I didn’t memorize it completely, because I knew what I wanted to say, but writing and re-writing helped me organize my thoughts and the layout of the presentation. When I came here to post it, I realized a lot of it was still in ‘note form’ and filled it in with what I think I said. At any rate, for those of you who were interested, here it is. I am thinking about continuing to tell my story elsewhere (other high schools), so if you have any feedback about what else you’d like to hear, please let me know. I would love to hear from other survivors, or from others who just don’t know much about the topic; what is it you would want to take away from a presentation like this? Be candid. Thanks for reading, and please – feel free to pass it on!
Good morning. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Mrs. Kimball. I work in the College Counseling office. While most of you know who I am, this morning I wanted to share with you a couple of things about myself that the majority of you don’t know. I’ll start here, with one of my all-time favorite childhood photos. That’s me, striking the pose in the polyester shorts and the plastic beads. That’s one of our favorite cousins, Amy. And the first thing that a lot of you don’t realize is that this guy, right over here, is my big brother, Greg, better known around these parts as ‘Mr. Gilman’. Yes. Mr. Gilman is my brother. I’m sharing that with you first because Mr. Gilman has a lot to do with the second thing I want to share with you about myself, and that is that I am what is referred to as a suicide survivor. Now, that doesn’t mean that I survived my own suicide attempt. It means that I lost someone very close to me to suicide. And in my case, and in Mr. Gilman’s case, that person was this little guy in between us, our younger brother, Ryan.
There are two quick things I want to say before I get started, though. First of all, I want to point out that Mr. Gilman is obviously a part of my story, and that’s why I started with letting you know he’s my brother, but I want to stress that what I’m sharing with you today is my story and my experience. I can’t speak for him or his feelings, or any other survivor’s feelings for that matter. Please just keep in mind that this is only my experience. Secondly, I just want to mention that my story is long, and it’s abridged this morning for the sake of time, but if any of you ever have any questions or want to talk to me more about it, I’m completely fine with that, and you can come find me any time. But that may raise the question with you: why am I even telling you about this at all? Well, there are a few reasons I wanted to share this with you. I have been learning a lot throughout my grieving process, and I was thinking that a lot of what I’ve been learning could be helpful to other people.
Ok, so let me start by telling you a little bit about our brother, Ryan. He was typically a very outgoing, likeable guy. He had so many friends. People just adored being around him, because he was always joking and laughing, and making others laugh, too. He often did this in the way of pranks, because, as we all know baby brothers are wont to be, he was quite the prankster. He was a musician; he played the bass and sang in a band, he was an avid outdoorsman – to the point that the first house he bought was almost a cabin with no electricity that he would have had to snowmobile 2 miles into in the winter, and he loved the idea of that! But he hunted, fished, hiked, and he was a whitewater rafting guide, which provided all of us with lots of good times. He was also a loving father to his now 6-year-old son, Ethan. But despite being the good-natured guy that drew people to him, Ryan struggled for many years with depression. Obviously, in the last few months of his life, things just kept feeling more and more difficult for him to handle until ultimately, on April 9, 2008, he texted his friends and family that he loved us, and he took his own life. That day will always be burned in my memory as the nightmare that changed my life forever. It was absolutely devastating. I can’t even begin to explain to you what our family went through after that. I mean I really can’t. I literally don’t have the words to explain it, except to say that we were just destroyed. As individuals, as a family. It just changed us all forever. We’re healing now, all of us in different ways, and at different rates, but we’re getting there. I’m still going through an on-going healing process, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot up to this point. I feel like I was lucky because I’ve had a positive healing experience. I’ve had a lot of support.
What I found helpful:
1) Family. That first year was an emotionally tumultuous one. I know I wasn’t an easy person to live with. There were a lot of ‘firsts’ to deal with. First holiday season, first birthday, first anniversary of his death. But Mr. Kimball was very patient with me through that time, and stood by my side for support. I also had Harrison, who was 2 at the time. We had just moved here to Bethel that year, we were living off-campus, and I was just working part-time at a restaurant in town, so I was basically a stay-at-home mom to him. And having a happy, energetic 2 year old to focus all your energy on is a very welcome distraction. I also was lucky to have Mr. Gilman. We’ve always been close our whole lives, but this situation tied an even tighter bond between us. We had a lot to go through together. We took on the responsibility of all the arrangements for the funeral, the role of supporting our parents through the loss of their child, and the role of supporting each other through the loss of our sibling. It was difficult, but I’m pretty certain I can say I would NOT have been able to do it on my own, without him. And then he moved to Bethel a few months later, which I was so grateful for – for him, and because his wife is one of my best friends, so I had her as a wonderful support and friend, as well. Obviously this isn’t something you can control for as a survivor, and like I said, I was lucky. But if you have family in a time like this, try to reach out to them and take advantage of their support because it really does help.
2) Friends – I had a lot of supportive friends through this time, but there were two in particular who played key roles in my healing. Again, you can’t control who your friends are, but what I took from each of these relationships is something you can actively seek. One was my closest friend in Bethel and my neighbor at the time, Laura. We were running and exercise buddies. After Ryan died, though, we took it to a new level. We dove into a serious exercise and running routine that got me into the best shape I’d been in since High School. She was such a fantastic motivator! But even if you don’t have a friend like her, I would encourage you to lose yourself in something that’s important to you. Find a passion and make it a priority in your life. My other friend was Kara. She had already been one of my closest friends for years, but after Ryan died, we developed a deeper bond. Unfortunately, she also lost a brother to suicide some years ago, and we were able to have some really candid and open conversations about our situations. Again, though you probably wouldn’t have this in a friend, the important thing is to find someone with a shared experience that you can relate to. (Like support groups.) It’s really important and incredibly helpful to be able to connect to someone else in that way.
3) Acts of Kindness – This piece is really directed at you all as support people to survivors. You know, I think grief, or loss of any kind, is one of the hardest things we ever have to deal with as people. Grieving a suicide has some additional factors that come into play. I know it’s a touchy situation that is hard for people to talk about, but I want to remind you that despite those additional emotions that go along with suicide, the underlying emotion is still grief, and grief just needs to be acknowledged and comforted. You don’t need to have profound words of wisdom to share to make someone feel better. The best thing anyone did for me here was the first day I came back to Gould for lunch. I was so scared to come back, wondering what people were going to think about me. I went in feeling very isolated and disconnected. I ate my lunch and then went to bring my dishes to the dish room. When I turned around, Mrs. Donovan, who I really didn’t know well, just opened her arms, gave me a great big hug, and said, “I’m so sorry.” I imagine that felt like a pretty small, simple gesture on her part, but to me, it was enormous. It was the most comforting and meaningful thing anyone could have done, and all she said was, “I’m sorry.” She made me human during what felt like a very isolating time. (Thank you again for that, Mrs. Donovan.) So don’t underestimate the power of those words and a hug.
What I found to be not-so-helpful:
1) Sensitivity on the topic – I don’t want to spend a ton of time on these first two, but I do just want to illustrate a point here. If you all wouldn’t mind, please let us see, by a show of hands, how many of you have been affected, either directly or indirectly, by suicide in your lives. And now if you don’t mind just taking a quick look around. I just want to show you all that it’s more common than you may realize, and it affects people all around you, maybe people that you’re close with. You never know whom you’re sitting beside who may be going through something like this. So I would caution you all to be aware of that if suicide ever comes up in a conversation. You know, if you hear about a story about a suicide or an attempt, just be careful about taking it too lightly, or joking about it, because someone beside you could secretly be cringing.
2) Lack of resources in the area. (That’s rural Maine for you, though. There are plenty of state-wide resources, they’re just a bit of a drive away. But that’s just Bethel, in general.)
3) Stigma. – So this has been the biggest challenge for me during my healing process. Over the past few years, I’ve had some experiences that have shown me just how difficult is for people to talk about Ryan’s death with me, including some of my closest friends. First, when I went back to my job at the restaurant, no one said a word to me about it; it was as though it never even happened. Then there were other times that I felt really uncomfortable, thinking people were judging me, wondering what they were thinking, and I would realize later on that the people I was with didn’t even know about what happened, and I was just projecting my own pre-conceived notions about what it means to be related to someone who committed suicide onto them. I was just as much to blame. And there were a number of other situations in my personal life when I knew that people knew Ryan, and knew that he died, but would not acknowledge it, or ask how my family was, or anything like that. I’m not offended by this, but I have just truly been struck by how odd that is. I can never help but wonder: if Ryan had died another way, would people react differently? Of course I can only speculate, but I really tend to think so. After a while, I realized that I’d had enough. I feel like this has to change, and I realize the only way for that to happen is for me to start talking about it, because if I don’t, I’m just continuing to perpetuate the stigma myself. So, here I am. I want to try to change the way we all think about mental illness. When I talk to someone about it, I always equate mental illness with cancer because they really are similar in many ways: they are both hereditary diseases. They both are always seeing new advances in treatments. Sometimes those treatments are successful, and other times they aren’t. Sometimes the diseases are terminal, and sometimes they aren’t. But when I talk about that, I never feel like I capture it in the right way. So, when I was at a training recently, I came across this quote, and I feel like it said it really well, so I’ll share it with you…
“A person dying of suicide dies, as does the victim of physical illness or accident, against his or her will. People die from physical heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and accidents. Death by suicide is the same, except that we are dealing with an emotional heart attack, an emotional stroke, emotional AIDS, emotional cancer and an emotional fatality.” (Rev. Ron Rolheiser, 1998.)
I think that it’s really important for us to remember to look at mental illness this way. Until people who are suffering from it feel like they can talk openly about it and seek the help they need without feeling like social outcasts, they will continue to withdraw, feel isolated and misunderstood, and suicide rates won’t decline. I want you all to feel like Gould is a safe place to talk about these things. I want you to know that my office and home doors are always open to all of you if you need to talk, or just be listened to and not judged, or if you just need a hug, or if you need help being directed to appropriate resources. I am always available to you for that, and I mean that. And I know that there are a lot of other people in this room that would say the same to you.
When I was preparing for this presentation, I was thinking about how strange it would feel to talk for 20 minutes about such a somber topic, then look at you all and say, “Ok! Have a great day!” And send you on your way. But then I thought again about my grieving process. And remember I said that right after Ryan died, I really dove back into my running with a new sense of dedication? Well, part of that was because I felt the need to get lost in something I loved and that was important to me. But the other motivation behind it was the voice in my head that would say, “I am alive. Ryan isn’t. I have amazing opportunities available to me that he’ll never have. I have this young, strong, healthy, able body. I am going to charge to the top of this hill until my thighs burn and my lungs feel like they are going to burst because…I CAN. I am surrounded by incredible family and friends. I live in this astoundingly beautiful environment that people come to for vacation. I have incredible opportunities and activities at my fingertips every day.” I figure I owe it to myself, and to my brother and his memory to go out and really LIVE every day to its fullest, and take advantage of those opportunities, because I can. And I’d like to remind you that YOU all have young, strong, healthy able bodies. You are surrounded by an incredible group of caring, nurturing, and supportive people. You live in a vacation destination. You are so fortunate to be able to attend a school like Gould. You have opportunities available to you every day that people dream of. So I would encourage you to go out and take advantage of them and to live each day to it’s fullest, because YOU CAN. So, with that in mind, I feel much better about saying to you, please, if for no one’s sake but your own, go out and have an absolutely fantastic day.