Hope was the theme of the day, but unremitting pain was the backdrop when friends and family members of suicide victims gathered in a Culver City park on Saturday for their annual summer potluck.
"Survivors After Suicide" they call themselves. It's a label with two meanings: They survived unthinkable, unbearable loss. And some, in the aftermath, contemplated or attempted suicide themselves.
These survivors share a singular sort of grief — one that binds them inexorably to guilt, confusion and shame.
Because for all the progress we've made in understanding mental illness, addiction and emotional pain, suicide is still often considered a loathsome exit — a failure of will or character, of family and friends.
Survivors suffer from that stigma and the isolation it brings.
"You're embarrassed, you're confused," recalled a tearful young mother. "It feels wrong to talk about certain things because people who don't know will judge you."
She was three months pregnant when her fiance killed himself last year. And his mother is still in too much pain to even look at her grandchild because the baby looks so much like the son she lost.
That's why she came to the potluck with her 8-month-old son; it's hard to suffer in silence. And the people in that room helped her move forward, and showed her that life goes on.
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I've been invited to the potluck a few times over the years by Richard Mogil, head of the suicide prevention and bereavement program at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services. I always found reasons not to go; there are so many less painful ways to spend a Saturday afternoon.
But this year I've been thinking a lot about my cousin who shot himself to death when we were teenagers, almost 40 years ago. I didn't realize back then that he was hurting; I've never really forgiven myself for not knowing.
There were no support groups or potlucks then, just the unrelieved pain of unanswered questions and unfinished business.
"Guilt is always the first thing on their mind when I talk to suicide survivors," said Mogil, whose brother killed himself several years ago. "That's the hardest thing to work through, but it can be helped by counseling … and by talking to other survivors who've been on the journey a lot longer than you."
The mental health center's Suicide Prevention Program has been around for more than 50 years; its 24-hour crisis hotline is one of the nation's busiest. Its program for survivors, which began in 1981, starts with eight weeks of group meetings and includes monthly support sessions and the camaraderie of people who understand what you're going through.
The potlucks grew out of that support group more than 30 years ago. Twice a year dozens of survivors come together to celebrate their loved ones' lives and mark their own uneven passage through a grieving process that can be profoundly complicated and hard.
Some were mourning decades-old losses on Saturday, like the woman whose mother committed suicide 50 years ago. "This is my first potluck," she told the crowd. She was 19 when her mother died, "and people wanted to comfort me, but no one knew how."
Others were dealing with grief so fresh and raw that they could barely talk. I sat near the mother of a teenage girl who killed herself last fall. She sobbed through the upbeat accounts of others who've managed to move on.
She's still angry at the doctors who "couldn't figure out what to do" about her daughter's depression. And she's angry at herself "for not being a better mother," she said.
But the theme was hope and gratitude, and even that bereaved mother found something to share: "I'm grateful," she said, "for God and my husband. And I'm not sure in what order." She cracked the tiniest smile.
I found the afternoon uplifting in unexpected ways, as survivors described how they found their way back from crippling despair: got a dog, planted a garden, kept a journal, volunteered to help others on the suicide crisis line.
They talked about the lessons they learned from a loved one's sudden demise: "It's a perilous journey, so grab what you can," said a man whose sister has been dead now longer than she was alive. "Her death taught me to live a better, more meaningful life."
As we went around the circle offering thanks, they reminded me how much small gestures can mean to someone trying to make their way through disabling grief.
From the fellow whose wife committed suicide after killing their two young daughters: He's grateful for the couple that took him into their home for six months "when I didn't want to live."
From the woman who, a decade ago, found the body of her 14-year-old daughter: She's grateful for the pediatrician who told her "You are a good parent."
For the neighbor who gave her a spiral notebook; "I wrote letters to my daughter." For the small stray dog who walked in her door three days after her daughter's suicide "and curled up on my lap." And for the first time someone dared tell a joke in her presence. "It was a revelation: laughter is possible."
And from the elderly woman whose college-student son drove off a cliff more than 30 years ago, a reminder to survivors that well-meaning people can be clumsy and "inadvertently hurtful. Let's be grateful," she said through her own tears, "for what they try to do."
Survivors After Suicide can be reached at (310) 895-2326.