As a heavy fog descended over Chapel Hills Road and ice formed on rearview mirrors in parking lots across northern Colorado Springs, residents gathered one chilly Saturday last month to remember those they’ve lost to suicide.
Ernie Rodriguez was there for his son, Henry.
Lisa and Ares Koumis attended in honor of their daughter, Amy.
Mike Bracchi came because of Sam.
Each of these parents lost their child to suicide in the past few years. They gathered Nov. 17 at the Pikes Peak Library District’s Library 21c to share their stories of loss and process their grief as part of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. The day included self-care workshops, breakout sessions, a remembrance ceremony and a keynote speech by Dr. Michelle Linn-Gust, past president of the American Association of Suicidology on “inspiring others through living creatively.”
Rodriguez, Bracchi and the Koumises talked during a break about the pressure they faced in trying to understand what their children might have felt before taking their lives. If he could see his son again, Rodriguez said he would tell Henry: “You are good enough.”
The day started with a viewing of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention documentary, “A Daughter’s Journey” in which 22-year-old Sarah Ash describes how she coped after losing her father to suicide. “What was most helpful to me after my dad’s death was talking about it, to anyone that would listen,” Ash said. “Because of my loss, I know that my love and my capacity for helping others is so strong.”
Some attendees wore nametags with a second name penned next to their own, indicating a loved one lost to suicide. These second names were color-coded, to indicate the relationship they had lost; purple was a mother, green a brother, and a brown dot indicated other family and/or friends.
During the lunch hour, Stacy Gery played a piano set up in a corner. Gery’s father took his life when she was 13. “There was a lot of anger, rage,” Gery said during a presentation. “Chopin and Rachmaninoff were my go-to’s because I had all of this anger and hurt that I needed to get out.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) sponsored the event and similar ones worldwide. The day is always held the Saturday before Thanksgiving in the United States. Organizers had 65 pre-registrations for this year’s event at Library 21c and said last year they welcomed 20 to 30 walk-ins.
Attendance was down this year, likely due to inclement weather. Still, a roomful of people came to fulfill the event’s state purpose, “join a community of suicide loss survivors to find comfort and gain understanding as we share stories of healing and hope.” Sessions included, “Complicated Grief, by Alissa Carey, “Help with Holiday Blues,” by Deb Kinnan, “Self Care after Loss” by Leith McHugh, and “Suicide Loss: What Teens Wish You Knew,” presented by Pikes Peak Suicide Prevention.
International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day has been hosted locally nearly annually since 2000, spearheaded in large part by LaRita Archibald, founder of HEARTBEAT, a peer support group for those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide. Breakout sessions were something new they were trying this year, organizer Lisa Koumis said.
According to attendee Lucrecia Sjoerdsma, whose daughter, Riley Winters, died by suicide in 2016, organizers invited members of area schools but didn’t receive responses.
“There’s been reluctance on the part of schools to talk about it,” Koumis added.
Vinny Burns, chief of the Wescott Fire Department, was also in attendance. “They go through trauma also,” said Sjoerdsma of local first responders who often are the ones called after a person dies by suicide.
A newly adopted statewide El Paso County-generated prevention program called “Below The Surface” also aims to touch on many of the same concerns presented during the event at Library 21c. The Below the Surface media campaign reflects concerns about appearing to “have it all together” on the surface while struggling inside with what societal expectations of what success looks like.
Attendee Jonny Waker came to the event with a friend who had lost her mother and her husband to suicide in the last year. Waker said he appreciated the event and said his friend attends a monthly support group offered by HEARTBEAT. He also said he wished there were more groups offering support “for before” a suicide happens.