Linda - 'From Anguish to Activism: Transcending a Suicide Loss'

by Linda L. Flatt

There are several new titles that I've acquired in the last few years. In a recent Las Vegas Review Journal article, I was labeled an activist. When I first saw that in print, it seemed pretty extreme—I certainly don’t feel like an activist. Actually, I prefer the term advocate. I am an advocate for the prevention of suicide, and I am working to improve suicide prevention efforts in my community.

In the fall of 1997, I became a Community Organizer for Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network (SPAN), a grassroots organization dedicated to the development of a proven, effective national strategy for suicide prevention. Recently, I helped establish the new Nevada chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and, on November 20, 1999, I participated as a speaker on the Healing Through Involvement panel in the first survivor conference to be held in Nevada—AFSP's Survivors for Suicide Prevention Conference.

So I guess you could say that I’m an activist. But before I became an activist, I became a survivor of suicide. That was a title I had never heard and certainly never wanted. On June 29, 1993, my tall, handsome son Paul took some chemicals from the lab where he worked. When he mixed the chemicals, they created cyanide gas. He inhaled the cyanide fumes and intentionally ended his life—at the age of 25.

Suddenly, I was on a dark and treacherous road with no light and no road map. I had no frame of reference in my life for surviving my child, much less his suicide death. For the first few weeks I was in a thick, anesthetizing fog. When that lifted, I experienced overwhelming waves of anger—anger at Paul, anger at myself for the parenting mistakes I had made, and anger at the counselors who had seen Paul over the years—and not fixed him. I was angry with God for allowing this incomprehensible experience to happen in my life. I was also angry with other moms who could still watch their sons grow to adulthood, get married and have children. I shook my fist a lot during this season of anger.

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The incredible emotional pain of the loss of my son was also ever present. Recurrent tears, heaviness in my chest, frequent sighing, and the inability to sleep became commonplace.

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Slowly, crushing guilt became tangled in my anger. I felt like a complete failure as a mom—that I was somehow responsible for not equipping my son to make good choices. It seemed my fault that he made this final poor choice to end his life rather than change his self-destructive behavior. I spent hours trying to rework my reality in my mind—trying to find answers to questions that had no answers—as though the answers would somehow change the outcome. Like many survivors, "If only I had," "If only I hadn't," and "Why?" were my constant thought companions.

The incredible emotional pain of the loss of my son was also ever present. Recurrent tears, heaviness in my chest, frequent sighing, and the inability to sleep became commonplace. Although the structure and routine of my office was somewhat comforting, I found it difficult to concentrate or focus on tasks—at work or at home. It was as though my brain was rebelling against this experience. Or possibly this was my brain’s way of forcing me to be gentle with myself in my grief. Whichever, the fog did not lift completely for over a year. During that time, I found it difficult to think about anything except Paul and his suicide. Everything around me was a relentless reminder of my loss.

In March of this year, I was involved in the exciting process of presenting a state suicide prevention resolution to the Nevada State Legislature in Carson City. That resolution was adopted in this legislative session, and money was appropriated to expand a statewide toll-free suicide hot line. In May 1999, the Nevada chapter of AFSP was established in Las Vegas. Our board is dedicated to raising public awareness of the significant suicide problem in our state—and improving suicide prevention education in our community. My prayer is that the work of SPAN and AFSP will make a significant difference in the way the people of Nevada deal with suicide survivors and suicide prevention.

For over six years I have traveled from the healing path to the survivor support path—and on to the prevention advocacy path. It is a path I am now comfortable with, because I have worked through my feelings of guilt and responsibility for my son’s death. I can embrace the fact that many suicides are preventable, and I now believe that there is very important work to be done. Out of my experience, I have discovered that one voice—my voice—can make a difference. One message will be heard—if it is clear, persistent, and directed to the right people. I also know that many clear, persistent voices can carry the message farther—and make more of a difference. Let us all heed the U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action and become activists for the prevention of suicide!