Personal Story: We Don’t Talk About Grandma

By Shannon Donnick | Sep. 22, 2017

Note: This blog is presented as a cross-collaboration between NAMI and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, whose mission is to save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. It originally appeared on the AFSP Lifesavers Blog.

When I was 13-years-old, my grandma died by suicide. She’d been my favorite family member. She was round and warm and gave the best hugs and snuggles of anyone I’ve ever met. Her smile lit up the entire room and her laugh could be heard around the block.

A few years before she passed away, she and my grandpa moved to Las Vegas. My grandpa had been sick for years due to heart problems, and they were hoping the desert air would help him heal. While I missed seeing her as frequently as I once had, she called us and sent us care packages often, so she was never far from my mind, or my heart. My sister and I loved to brag that we had the coolest grandma ever because, to two little girls living in Wisconsin, Vegas sounded so glamorous and sparkly and fun!

Grandma would send us t-shirts from her favorite casinos, which my sister and I cherished and wore with honor. She subscribed to Teen magazine so that she could stay hip to whatever latest fad caught our fancy; this made us laugh and love her even more. (Why call your friends to discuss the latest 90210 episode when you could call Grandma instead?)

We were able to visit her in Vegas once before she passed. One night has always stood out in my memory from that trip: we were all sitting around, sifting through old pictures, when we came across my grandma’s sixth grade school picture. I’d just had my own sixth grade school picture taken, and had brought a copy along on the trip to give to her. Placing them side-by-side, the likeness between the two of us was uncanny. I was so proud to look so much like someone I so loved and adored!

Sadly, it wasn’t too long after that night that we lost her. I was heartbroken. I was devastated. But I was also very alone, because emotion was not something that was ever discussed in my home.

We also did not discuss suicide in any way. My parents never directly told us that Grandma had died by suicide. My sister and I simply figured it out from overhearing hushed conversations.

My grandpa had passed away two years earlier, and the stark difference between how the two losses were handled in my home was not lost on my 13-year-old self. It became clear immediately that we would no longer be discussing grandma, ever.

I was full to the brim of feelings and questions and grief, but I had nowhere to go.

It wasn’t until many, many years later that my work in state government and politics began partnering with mental health advocacy and suicide prevention groups. As I began to gain a deeper understanding of mental health and what leads to suicide, many emotions I had never had the opportunity to process rose to the surface. I wanted to learn more, do more, and participate in whatever way I could to bring me closer to the large community of people who had also lost loved ones to suicide.

Today, I am the Manager of Loss and Healing Programs at AFSP’s national office in New York City, where my specific focus is managing the Survivor Outreach Program (SOP).

The Survivor Outreach Program is, in my opinion, human connection at its finest. Our trained volunteers, all having lost a loved one to suicide themselves, meet with fellow loss survivors soon after their loss: either face-to-face, by phone, or via computer, answering questions about the unique experience of losing a loved one to suicide, and letting them know that they are not alone.

While our SOP volunteers won’t have all the answers – we can never know exactly what our loved one was thinking or why exactly this happened – they are able to point those who are grieving to places they might find ongoing comfort, such as a local support group, or suggest a book or film that was particularly helpful in navigating their own grief journey.

Our volunteers also carry with them informational literature, like AFSP’s Children, Teens and Suicide Loss booklet, co-authored by The Dougy Center, which would have been invaluable to my own family 25 years ago, as it helps parents and families navigate the particular challenges of dealing with and explaining death by suicide to children of all ages.

I sometimes think of our SOP volunteers as superheroes. But the beauty of this program is that it shows that simple human-to-human connection through the sharing of memories, stories, thoughts, feelings and experiences, can go far to alleviate the isolation and loneliness that so often accompanies a loss of this nature.

I look back on myself as a young girl, stunned by the sudden loss of my wonderful grandma who had been so full of life, and with no outlet or guidance to help me through my experience, and I am so glad to have found my way here now. I wholeheartedly love this program and the loss survivor community as a whole, and take great joy and fulfillment in being able to spend my days doing all I can to help someone find their own way as well.

To find out more about becoming a volunteer for the Survivor Outreach Program, contact your local AFSP chapter. Or, if you’re feeling ready to take the next step in your own healing process, request a visit with one of our trained volunteers through the Survivor Outreach Program.

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