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Grief is love with nowhere to go


January 1, 2020

Courtesy Photo

"Grief is just love with nowhere to go." -Jamie Alexander

In the fall of 2013, Sarah Echsner lost her younger brother to suicide.

"No matter how much time goes by, it doesn't really change how deeply wounded I feel," said Echsner. "It's something that I carry with me all the time."

Our community carries the collective grief for many who have chosen to take their own lives. We feel it, we think about it, but often, we don't talk about it. "Talking about him is helpful for me," said Echsner, "and I think a lot of people feel that way. Especially around the holidays, silence is worse."

The numbers say suicide is on the rise nationwide. Since 2000, the age-adjusted suicide rate in Colorado has jumped from 14 to 21.2 per 100,000 population. This rate is consistent with the other Rocky Mountain states, that collectively see more deaths by suicide than other states. Since 2015, there has been a concerning increase in suicide deaths among youth under-age the age of 18.

Suicide affects all age groups, but it is skewed significantly by gender. Men represent 76% of all suicide deaths in Colorado. Half of suicide deaths in Colorado are by firearm. Other major methods of death include hanging, strangulation or suffocation (27.7%) and drugs or other biological substances (12.7%). The three industries with the highest rates of suicide among employed Coloradans are construction, agriculture - forestry, fishing, and hunting - and transportation/warehousing.

So why is suicide on the rise? Lena Heilmann grew up in Niwot and graduated from Niwot High School in 2003. She also lost her sister to suicide in 2012. She is now the Colorado Youth Suicide Prevention Coordinator at CDPHE.

Heilmann stresses that suicide is a complex issue, and multiple factors contribute. Among these are financial stress, economic instability, isolation at home or in the workplace, sleep deprivation, and food insecurity - really, anything that makes life more challenging.

But for Heilmann, it is important to realize that experiences of suicide are on a continuum. Some feel suicidal despair, some feel suicidal despair along with ideation, and some attempt suicide but survive. For every one person who dies by suicide, 200-300 find themselves somewhere on the continuum. "There is embedded in that a more hopeful message, that the vast majority of those who have suicidal thoughts will not die of suicide," said Heilmann.

So what is the best way to help someone struggling with suicidal thoughts?

"I wish I could say really helpful things about how to prevent it," said Echsner. "I've certainly thought about it a lot, but every situation is just different. The one thing they might have in common is that nobody needs to feel alone."

Echsner also hopes that, as a society, we can let go of the stigma against mental illness and embrace people as they are.

One resource the state provides is Colorado Crisis Services, a 24-hour hotline: 1-844-493-8255. The state also has providers who work with people suffering from suicidal despair. The period after someone has attempted suicide can be very challenging, and follow-up care is important. "We want to make sure all efforts are culturally appropriate and that the person can decide what sort of treatment that works best for them," said Heilmann.

For those dealing with suicide loss, language is important. Heilmann was quick to point out that people don't "commit" suicide, which makes it sound like a crime or a sin. 'Died by suicide' is the preferred terminology. "Framing it as a death seems like the most direct and authentic way to talk about the experience," said Heilmann.

Heilmann added that going to a support group helps many people process their grief. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Colorado are both wonderful resources to that effect.

Echsner reiterated the sentiment. "I've created some relationships with people who have had significant losses, especially through suicide, there's a certain understanding, a camaraderie." Echsner also attended Hope Lights the Night, a candlelight ceremony put on by the Hope Coalition of Boulder to honor those lost to suicide.

When Echsner heard Jamie Alexander's quote, it hit home: "Grief is just love with nowhere to go."

Concerning her grief, Echsner said, "It feels like a black hole in my life, and I need to actively fill it with things that bring positivity. Otherwise, its force will fill it with coping mechanisms like addictions, toxic relationships..."

She has learned to channel her love for her brother into other pursuits--nature, song-writing, playing music, story-telling, and, as some readers might remember, making documentary films. "Even if it's just a small thing, honoring the person by intentionally lighting a candle for them in the evening. And it doesn't have to be your family member, it could be someone you just heard about, or never met." One of the most comforting things to Echsner is to connect with people who knew and appreciated her brother and miss him too.

During this interview, a song came on the radio, and the chorus pulsed through during a pause in the conversation, "I don't want to live like this, but I don't want to die."

It was a poignant reminder that all of us are struggling to find our way in life--and it is the responsibility of the whole community, as Heilmann said, to embrace "possibilities for ways to make people have lives worth living."


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