Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Simple Gift: Reaching Out and Renewing Hope at Work

Reprinted with permission by the Colorado HR Association
Photo by mmlolek

After my brother died by suicide in 2004, my workplace gave me the most amazing gift – the gift of their support. As many of them reached out to me, their kindness made all the difference in my ability to cope with this devastating loss.

First, there was Jerene, my direct supervisor. Just two days after my brother’s death, Jerene called me up, “Sally where are you? I am coming over to give you something.”

She drove from our workplace up to my parents’ home and delivered a huge vat of chicken soup. During a time when my family could barely choke anything down, that soup sustained us.

Then there was Tom, my Vice President. On the day of the memorial service, Tom joined many of my co-workers at the church. After the service was over, he found me and gently cupped my face in his hands to express his sympathy. This tender gesture was so heartfelt and kind; I will never forget it.

Finally, my bereavement leave ended, and I found myself facing the reality that I needed to return to work and some level of functioning. When I opened the door to my office on my first day back, my desk was covered with cards, flowers and well-wishes. From co-workers I knew well, and from folks I didn’t know at all. I instantly knew that the support I was going to get was going to carry me through this very difficult part of my life.


Humans are hardwired to be in relationship with others. For some these are vast connections and broad social networks, and for others just a few intimate bonds are all they need. Workplaces that are mentally healthy cultivate a sense of belonging. Work teams and social groups can sometimes evolve into friendships that last a lifetime. Belonging fosters a sense of trust and interdependency that can help distressed workers find hope during tough times. When workmates pull together around difficult assignments, the encouragement they give one another can be the protective factor that decreases the impact of high levels of stress. For these reasons, workplaces that foster genuine belonging will find they have more mentally resilient employees.

A Little Goes a Long Way

While we can all think of some people that are constant drains in relationships because their needs are so great, most people do not need much. A little caring usually goes a long way. For example, in one study, hospitals sent caring letters to people who had recently been discharged after a serious suicide attempt. The letters just said something to the effect of, “We’re so glad you came in for treatment. Please, call us if we can help in any way.” Each letter was personalized to a small degree and signed by the attending care provider. The research found that the patients who received the caring letters were significantly less likely to have a subsequent suicide attempt than those who didn’t get the letters. If that wasn’t enough, the study was replicated using computer generated postcards – no personalization whatsoever. The same outcome resulted. If a computer generated postcard can have this level of impact, think about what is possible when people who know each other reach out and say, “I see that you have been looking down lately. I am here for you.”

Reaching the Unreachable

Another known fact is that people who have multiple risks for suicide are also sometimes the least likely to seek help on their own. Because of this, caring work communities need to be intentional in reaching the “unreachable.”

Mother Teresa was known for helping those that no one else would. In a story she wrote in her book, In the Heart of the World, she talks about finding an elderly man who had been ignored by everyone and whose home was in complete disarray.

She told him, "Please, let me clean your house, wash your clothes, and make your bed." He answered, "I'm okay like this. Let it be."

She persisted and he finally agreed. While she was cleaning his house, she discovered a beautiful lamp, covered with dust.

She asked him, "Don't you light your lamp? Don't you ever use it?"

He answered, "No. No one comes to see me. I have no need to light it. Who would I light it for?"

She asked, "Would you light it every night if the sisters came?"

He replied, "Of course."

From that day on the sisters committed themselves to visiting him every evening. They cleaned the lamp and lit it every evening.

Two years went by and Mother Teresa had completely forgotten that man when she received a message from him: "Tell my friend that the light she lit in my life continues to shine still."


One of the great things about the gift of reaching out is that we can re-gift it and people don’t think it’s tacky. It turns out the idea of “paying it forward” is both a gift to the receiver and a gift to the giver. When people who have been helped through a difficult time are able to help another, they often find meaning in their earlier struggle and value the wisdom gained.

This notion of “reciprocity” is one of the cornerstones in what make programs like Alcoholics Anonymous work. When people successfully go through the 12-steps of the program and maintain their sobriety, they can become sponsors and support others who are just beginning. The work of being a sponsor helps many maintain sobriety because it strengthens positive self-regard. Furthermore, sponsors find that being there for someone else makes them hold themselves accountable to being a worthy role model.

If people who are resistant to seeking help see an opportunity to pay it forward by mentoring another down the road, they often become more inclined to receive the gift of help. Peer support and mentoring programs offer these opportunities at worksites, but other opportunities can exist within communities.

In summary, reaching out is a great gift – one size fits all, and it’s easy to exchange.

For more information on suicide prevention, intervention or postvention training visit www.WorkingMinds.org or contact Sally@CarsonJSpencer.org.


What have you noticed about how others do or do not give each other support at work?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tsunami: The Aftermath of a Suicide Crisis

My brother Carson died by suicide December 7, 2004 -- the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, two weeks before Christmas, and two weeks before his 35th birthday. It was also two weeks before the Asian tsunami. As the world reacted to that disaster, the aftermath of Carson’s death similarly hit our family, as we too were flooded, overwhelmed, and left helpless. The news of his suicide crashed tsunami-like around us – totally engulfing us in despair and darkness. Frozen and in shock, we fought for every breath, thinking “This cannot be happening.” I confused night with day, day with night. I remember feeling very, very vulnerable. I would be driving to the airport to pick up a guest for Carson’s memorial service and I would look up and have no idea where I was or what I was doing. Then I would be hit by a wave of panic as I were sure everyone on the road was going to hit my car.

After the birth of my third child in September, I had been on maternity leave for the months leading up to Carson’s death. I had burned up all my sick and vacation time, and the three days we are given to grieve a first degree relative. I needed to resurface and go back to work. I remember coming up for air and looking around; the landscape had changed because my brother was no longer in it. Everything looked and felt different. Things that were so desperately important at work before no longer mattered. I both dreaded and welcomed my first day back to the office. Dread because I just didn’t care anymore; desired because I missed the structure and sense of purpose my workplace provided me. I remember the first day back. I opened my office door to see a pile of cards and flowers on my desk. My inbox was filled with well-wishes, many from people I didn’t even know. I knew with this level of support that I would be okay. My workplace gave me the flextime to access our Employee Assistance Program and attend support groups, which I did. They told me to do what needed to do to get back on my feet, and I am forever grateful for their kindness during this very trying time in my life.

Just like the tsunami, the ripple effects of Carson’s death spread deep and wide, and to this day still continue to affect others. Thanks to social media, I am still connecting with people Carson knew who are just now learning of his passing. His co-workers and business partners established a scholarship in his memory designed to help young entrepreneurs get to college. This loving affirmation of my brother’s life carries on his gift of helping others and gave many of those connected through his work a chance to honor his life.

The aftershocks of the trauma were severe at first, some of them predictable like on Father’s Day, his wedding anniversary, his birthday, and certainly his death anniversary. Others caught us off guard, like the time I was digging through a box of photos. I found a picture that I had forgotten about, of us dancing at my wedding. Not many brothers and sisters dance to their own song when they get married to another person, but Carson and I had a song: Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Whenever we heard it on the radio we would belt it out to each other at the top of our lungs as silly as possible. At my wedding, Carson and I twirled around the dance floor – my hair coming out of the up-do, his shirt hanging untucked from his tuxedo. And someone snapped a picture as we joyously sang the chorus, eyes locked and laughing. When I found this picture, I wept and wept. Then I made a copy of it to hang next to my computer at work, so I would never forget.

As with the tsunami, the rebuilding process has been long and hard, requiring many systems of support. In this sense I often feel lucky, because unlike many survivors of suicide I had a workplace that was supportive, a faith community that understood his suicide as the fatal outcome of a mental illness (not a crime against God), and a network of friends and co-workers who did all the right things.

I don’t tell this story because I want pity or because I need sympathy. While losing Carson has clearly been the most difficult experience of my life, I have been given many gifts along my grief journey. I was reminded of this by the leader of the rock group Seether, who lost his younger brother to suicide and wrote a song called “Rise Above This” on the album Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces. This too has been my experience in grief. I have found depth in relationships and spirituality and an unwavering calling of vocation. No, I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. I tell this story because so few families do, and thus, people think it can never happen to them. While I am humbled by this experience, I am also hopeful. Suicide is arguably one of the more preventable causes of death, so I also share this story in hopes that others will come forward and say, “I too have been affected, and I want to make a difference - how can I get involved?” And finally, I share this story because people who are in a suicidal crisis often think they those who love them will be better off without them. I am here to tell them that suicide causes a legacy of trauma and pain that continues for generations. No matter how hard it gets, you never know what is waiting for you around the corner.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Bridging the Gap: Interview with Author Jack Jordan

Reprinted with permission from the American Association of Suicidology's Surviving newsletter

Jack Jordan, co-author of Grief After Suicide (available on Amazon.com)
As I was pulling together my syllabus to teach a course on Suicidology to graduate level clinicians, I was searching for a text on suicide postvention when one arrived at my doorstep. Dr. Jack Jordan, a clinical psychologist from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, had sent a copy of the recently published book Grief After Suicide: Understanding the Consequences and Caring for the Survivors. Jack co-authored the book with Dr. John McIntosh and sent it to me for my review. After flipping through the pages, I was impressed with the depth and breadth of the book, and called him immediately to thank him and interview him about this work. The following conversation transpired on December 3, 2010.

Sally: Who is Jack Jordan?

Jack: I’m sort of an odd duck. I’m a clinical psychologist in private practice, but I also function like an academic. Twenty-five years ago, I became involved in the “Family Loss Project” – a group of practicing clinicians who were interested in the impact of loss on family systems, especially multigenerational impact.

Sally: How did you get into the work of studying grief among survivors of suicide loss?

Jack: Thirteen years ago, I had an epiphany. We were working with survivors of suicide loss in our practice and I thought, “They should be talking to each other.” So, we started a support group and it ran for about 13 years. To me, this was an inspiration. I saw their suffering, but I also saw their resilience and how they helped each other.

Sally: What came next?

Jack: I became involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and co-wrote the manual for their facilitator training program with Joanne Harpel. I took the training for the Suicide Prevention Resource Center’s Assessing and Managing Suicide Risk curriculum. Now I train and consult around the country and the world.

Sally: Has suicide touched you personally?

Jack: I am a distant suicide survivor – my great uncle took his life in 1987, but it was not a life-transforming loss because I only knew him in my childhood. It was my Dad’s death due to cancer when I was in my 20s that pulled me into grief work.

Sally: What is the inspiration for the book?

Jack: The book comes out of my interest in bridging the gap between research, academia, clinical work, and survivors. It has been apparent to me for a long time, somebody needs to do this; so finally I decided, maybe it’s me. I invited John [McIntosh] to work with me because he has researched and written about survivor issues for a long time.

Sally: What are the goals for the book?

Jack: Our target audience is really researchers and clinicians, and to a lesser extent activist survivors. This is not a self-help book; it’s really meant to say, “What has happened in the last 20 years in the field of survivor studies?”

Sally: Tell me about the book’s journey. What have been some of the challenges and celebrations?

Jack: I have gone from despair – was I actually going to survive this? – to some revelations. Everyone connected to you endures some of this. I pay homage to my wife for her patience. The revelation came because this work helped me see even more clearly how much is going on simultaneously around the world. Suicide awareness and prevention have been coming out of the closet. Now survivors are too. I hope the book accelerates this. All this amazing stuff. This work also helped me understand that despite some obvious cultural differences, the themes of survivor grief are similar around the world. I expected more differences, but at the heart of it all, losing someone to suicide transcends cultural difference.

I had a great partner in this. John loves to do the stuff I loathe. The APA references made me completely nuts. Thank God John could do this. My forte is about broad strategic thinking and writing.

Sally: What has happened since the book was published?

Jack: I went to a conference in October [2010] and had not seen a hard copy yet. There it was, and someone asked me, “Would you autograph these?” Strange experience. Surreal. I thought, “Oh, the cover came out pretty good. Maybe I’ll buy a copy.” Hopefully, the book will serve as a catalyst in the field, stimulating more research and clinical theory.

For more resources for Survivors of Suicide Loss visit the American Association of Suicidology: click here.
The Carson J Spencer Foundation offers families recently bereaved by suicide iCare Packages (semi-customized resources packets). For more information: click here.

What are your thoughts on what is needed to support survivors of suicide loss?