On Saturday evening, a large crowd gathered in the Capitol rotunda to recognize International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.
It is the one day a year when people affected by suicide gather in their communities to find comfort and gain understanding as they share stories of healing and hope. Thanks to the collaboration of several local organizations, the event was Lewis and Clark County’s first survivor day event.
“I am hopeful that this will be a day of healing for those in attendance,” said Tova Reddick-Starkel, event emcee and suicide loss survivor, prior to the event.
An act of Congress first created Survivors of Suicide Loss Day in 1999. Since then, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has sponsored and supported the event. In 2016, over 350 locally organized events were held throughout the United States and in 18 other countries.
This year’s event in Helena opened with remarks from Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell (D-Helena), Mayor Jim Smith of Helena, Mayor James Schell of East Helena and Jamie Eastwood and Abbie Colussi of the nonprofit organization, Breathe Let’s Start a Conversation.
In one of her opening lines, Dunwell expressed her gratitude to all those in attendance.
“I am sincerely grateful that you can find the inner strength to be here to share today,” said Dunwell.
In his statement, Mayor Smith pleaded with attendees to help guide him and others involved in legislation on how to best go about preventing future losses to suicide.
“Let us know what else we can do,” said Smith. “I’m asking you from the bottom of my heart … Tell us how we can be part of the solution.”
While the programming differs across events, every Survivor Day event includes a screening of an AFSP-produced documentary about the suicide-loss experience. On Saturday the film, "The Journey: A Story of Healing and Hope," was shown. The film, produced for Survivor Day 2014, tells the stories of a diverse group of suicide-loss survivors and shows how each is weathering the loss of a loved one. There was also a follow-up featurette called "The Journey Revisited," in which six of the original "Journey" participants gather three years later to reflect on how their grief and healing journey is evolving.
Following the film screenings, a Q&A panel was held with several local experts available to offer insight. Experts included Juliana Hallows, suicide prevention coordinator for Montana Veteran Affairs; Dr. Nathan Munn, psychology professor at Helena College; Anna Rolando, counseling services director at Carroll College; Bill and Lisa Wheeler with the Jacob Wheeler Foundation; and Eastwood.
In between the film screenings and Q&A panel, attendees were able to browse through a resource fair with representation from 12 different organizations. Perhaps most importantly, survivors also had the opportunity to meet and share their stories with other survivors in attendance. Two of these survivors on Saturday were Amy Peck and Jess Hegstrom.
As a child, Peck lost her grandmother to suicide, and in 2008 she also lost her sister. After losing her sister, Peck admitted that she did not seek help or support of any kind. In addition to not knowing what resources were out there to help her and her family, she also expressed fearing how seeking help for suicide loss would be perceived at work and by others in her life.
Helena’s Survivor Day was the first event of its kind that Peck had attended. Leading up to the event, she expressed feeling some trepidation at attending.
“I’m afraid of how overwhelming the emotions of it all will be,” Peck shared prior to the event. “But I know that being OK with being vulnerable is a step in the right direction.”
Her passion for helping others who have experienced similar losses compelled Peck to overcome her fears and join the other survivors in attendance on Saturday.
“So many people don’t feel the freedom to discuss these issues the way you would with a physical ailment,” said Peck. “But if we talk about (suicide) more and try to remove the stigma, that in and of itself, can be beneficial,” said Peck.
“I just want to feel as if I can lend my voice to be supportive of anyone struggling — whether it’s a military veteran, a teenager, or a mother with young children,” said Peck.
Hegstrom, an AmeriCorps VISTA member specializing in suicide prevention, helped organize Saturday’s event and also suffered the loss of her father to suicide in 1999. Hegstrom was 20 years old at the time and attending college. She recalled feeling completely alone in the aftermath and remembered that her mother, out of fear, told people he had died of a stroke instead.
Hegstrom’s involvement and attendance at Saturday’s event was spurred by her desire to eliminate stigma about suicide and help others who have gone through the same thing as she did.
“We just need to talk about it,” said Hegstrom. “It’s part of the human condition. We have the power to take it on and help other people so it doesn’t happen again.”
Closing remarks at Saturday’s Survivor Day event were given by Montana first lady, Lisa Bullock. And a musical performance by singer Book Price and local musician Jason Slead completed the evening.
When attendees turned to exit the rotunda at the end of the evening, they were met by a glowing testimony to several lives lost to suicide. Stretched up the staircase behind them were luminaries decorated by attendees in memory of loved ones.
“Events like this help people realize that they are not alone, that it is possible to heal, possible to reach a new normal — and you do that by giving back to others,” said Hegstrom.