It is hard to remember a time before I understood the meaning of the word “suicide.” My mom Joanne, who works in the mental health field, made sure it was never a taboo subject in my household despite the deeply personal weight of the subject.
Five years before I was born, my mom lost her brother Stephen to suicide. While the loss was nothing less than a tragedy, she turned her heartbreak into a 20+ year career working in the mental health field. After more than 10 years at a national nonprofit working in suicide prevention and postvention, she turned to run her own businesses: Coping After Suicide and Rethink The Conversation. She now does education work with stigma-tinged issues including suicide and mental health and also provides professional guidance to individuals and groups who are coping with suicide loss.
I have always been in awe of her story, so I decided to take some time to ask her questions about her loss and subsequent career path.
In a few sentences, can you tell Stephen’s story?
Stephen was my younger brother. He was an absolute Rockstar. He was the kind of guy that the other guys wanted to be friends with and the kind of guy that all the girls wanted to date. He was an honors graduate of Yale and went on to get a masters from Cambridge University and then go on to Harvard Law School. Before that, he had been valedictorian of his class in Westchester, New York. When he was 26, he very suddenly developed bipolar disorder. We tried very hard to get him the right help, but we ran out of time and from the time he was first diagnosed until the time he took his own life, it was less than a year.
What was it like for you finding out that your brother took his own life?
When I first learned that he had taken his own life, I would say I was shocked, but not completely surprised. We knew that he was very sick and high risk and in fact had made one prior suicide attempt a couple of months before that. So, I knew that he was at risk, but even so, I don’t think I ever really believed that it would happen. We were all still very much involved in trying to get him help and working to help him get better, so it was quite shocking. About 6 weeks after he died, there was a conference for survivors of suicide loss and I went with my mother and my younger brother, who was 15 at the time. There was a panel of people who had lost loved ones to suicide longer ago, so it wasn’t so recent to them. They were speaking about their experiences and even just 6 weeks after my own brother died, as I was sitting and listening to them talk, I thought in the back of my mind, I’m going to do this someday. Not only that I could do it someday, but that I am going to do this someday. I knew I had a lot of my own emotional healing to do before I was going to be in any condition to help anybody else, but even just 6 weeks after he died, I had this very strong sense inside that I was going to turn this around somehow. I had no idea what that was going to look like or how I was going to do it, but I have a very vivid memory sitting in that audience, listening to those people speak, and thinking, I’m going to do this too someday.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable telling his story?
There were people who I told the entire story to in excruciating detail within those first weeks and there were other people and other settings where I had never told the story. The process of getting comfortable has been an ongoing process for 20 years. It has been very predictable in certain ways and unpredictable in other ways. I have gotten increasingly comfortable talking about the issue of suicide. I don’t feel any shame or stigma or self-consciousness about talking about the fact that my brother died by suicide, but there are many aspects of the story that still feel very sacred to me and so I am private about how much I share with people because it is a very personal story and I feel a sense of responsibility to be gentle with my brother’s memory.
How did you initially begin to get involved with suicide prevention?
At the time Steve died in 1993, there was no internet, so I went to Barnes & Noble and found the shelf labeled “death” and I bought every single book on the death shelf that had the word “suicide” in the title. I started reading everything I could get my hands on about suicide and about people who had lost someone to suicide. I was a corporate lawyer, so there was the part of me that wanted to learn and educate myself and really understand what suicide was all about. I noticed that in the back of many of these books, there would be a list of organizations that were involved with suicide prevention and I noticed, over and over again, this organization that was based in New York City and so I called them and said “I’m a lawyer, I live in New York City, I lost my brother to suicide, I’d like to get involved. How can I help? I want to do something substantive. I don’t just want to stuff envelopes. I really want to get involved in a deep and meaningful way. Is there room for me?” I started out as a volunteer and after a couple of years, they invited me to join the national board of directors for the organization and after a few years, they invited me to work for the organization and to create a new department for them focused on what we referred to as “suicide postvention.” So, I went to work for them as a member of their senior management team to develop a national and ultimately international portfolio of resources and programs for survivors of suicide loss.
Is there one piece of advice that you would give someone who has just lost someone to suicide?
I have spoken with and worked with thousands of survivors of suicide loss over 20+ years. I have yet to meet a single one who wasn’t grappling with the question “why?” and trying somehow to make sense out of it. I have seen how that drive to make sense out of it can be both very practical in the sense of reliving the last hours or days over and over again, rehashing them in your mind to search for whether there were clues that you missed or signs that you didn’t see or misinterpreted combined with the sort of existential questioning of wondering why this happens in the world. My piece of advice would be to understand that it is completely normal to want to figure out why it happened and the biggest challenge can be to accept that suicide is very, very complicated and to make peace with not knowing. It can take time and can be painful and so, ultimately, my advice is very simple. Remember that your journey is your own and it may or may not resemble what the people around you are doing or feeling at any given time and to be patient with yourself and be patient with the people around you. Grieving suicide loss is hard.
When describing her work, Joanne is often faced with the question of how she does what she does. A part of her response, which often makes its way into her talks and meetings with clients, is to think of the difficulty of the topic and the loss of a loved one as a physical weight placed on one’s shoulders. The weight does not get any lighter, but over time, one’s shoulders become stronger to carry the load. And my mom is the strongest person I know.
Special thanks to Joanne L. Harpel, MPhil, JD for sharing her story and for her work in her businesses Coping After Suicide and Rethink The Conversation.