St. Peter bereavement ministry aims to provide consolation

SLINGER – It takes nine months of anticipation before God’s gift of life is delivered, but suicide takes it away in just a second. The lasting hurt that surrounds a suicide is the reason the St. Peter Bereavement Ministry’s February gathering focused on suicide prevention and awareness.

Joanne O’Haver, a member of the bereavement ministry, which started in the fall of 2008, said it was created for those seeking consolation and support in their Catholic faith. “We are trying to develop awareness for bereavement itself, and because there have recently been suicides in the area and surrounding areas, we felt that it was time for St. Peter’s and the community to become more aware and possibly prevent some of them and get educated so people know the signs and can help each other,” said O’Haver, who has a two-year certification in thanatology, the study of death and dying, from Marian University.

In 2007, there were 724 suicides in Wisconsin according to the Hopes suicide education and prevention Web site. When Slinger experienced two suicides, St. Peter Bereavement Ministry invited everyone in the community – students, teachers, people in helping professions and funeral directors – to learn more about it from Janet McCord, a professor at Marian University, Fond du Lac, who is developing a master’s program in thanatology.

“Suicide has touched my life, too,” said McCord, who has studied under people like Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, and Edwin S. Shneidman, who died in May at age 91, and is considered a pioneer in the field of suicide. “I’m lucky that it has not touched me closely in my family, but colleagues and friends and their family, yes, and I know it’s touched some of you as well and there isn’t a pain – there’s no other pain like it. There just isn’t.”

Suicide is not a medical issue

McCord said she would present much of Shneidman’s work because he is so humane. “He does not like how the field of psychology and psychiatry has ‘medicalized’ suicide because it’s not a medical issue,” she said. “It’s much deeper than that.”

She offered facts. “…Ninety percent of those who kill themselves have a diagnosable mental illness – diagnosable according to the DSM, which is the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’ … that essentially has all the different categories of mental illnesses with their clinical symptoms so that psychologists and psychiatrists can bill your insurance company. That’s really what it’s for,” McCord said before explaining psychiatric disorders are linked to people who commit suicide, but that it has to do with family history, demographics, history of past attempts and age.

“If he could stand here today, he would say, ‘Millions of people live very long, unhappy lives with major depressive disorder and never even think of killing themselves,’” McCord said, repeating Schneidman’s words.

Cause is psychological pain

McCord defined suicide with Shneidman’s words, “Stripped down to its bones, my argument goes like this. In almost every case, suicide is caused by pain. A certain kind of pain, psychological pain, which I call ‘psych ache.’ Furthermore this ‘psyche ache’ stems from thwarted or distorted psychological needs,” she said, explaining that suicide is an escape from that pain.

When people have two options: to live with unbearable pain or to end that pain by killing the body, McCord said that Shneidman had two questions that must be asked. “’Where do you hurt?’ That’s question number one. Question number two is, ‘How can I help you?’” McCord said that when someone who is suicidal is asked these questions, “they will intuitively understand that you don’t mean, ‘Gee, does their leg hurt, are they achy?’ They will intuitively understand that you’re talking about their anguish and distress.”

QPR = Gatekeeper method of prevention

McCord presented QPR, which stands for question, persuade and refer, as a new gatekeeper method of suicide prevention for which people can receive training in as little as an hour.

“It’s kind of like CPR,” she explained. For the question part, “Ask, ‘Where do you hurt? How can I help?’ We’ve known for decades that it never hurts to ask someone ‘Are you feeling suicidal? Do you think you might take your life?’ That won’t put any ideas in their heads, believe me. If the idea’s there, it’s already there.”

Shneidman’s research led McCord to suggest that people can try to diffuse the situation and understand that the suicidal person will never take suicide off his or her list, but it can move down from option one to three or four as a way to deal with life’s hurts.

“He has said again and again, and I believe he’s right on this, that if you can relieve the pain, even a little, the person will choose to live.”
For the persuade and refer portions of QPR, McCord said that that people need to persuade the person to get appropriate help and to talk to them about the different kinds of help available.

“So, you’re going to have to know about the resources in your area or know who to call to get the resources in your area,” she said. “You can make the phone calls for them. You can go with them. Take them to the appointment. Take them to the hospital for assessment.

“…And follow up afterwards. If it’s appropriate, this is a good place to bring in the resources to your parish, to muster all the resources so that as a parish, as a community, so it doesn’t have to be a burden on one person; you can help each other, work with each other to follow up with that person.”

McCord explained that the idea behind QPR training, created and designed by Paul Quinnett, is that maybe even the bank teller could identify symptoms and ask the questions and help someone before it’s too late.

Grief after suicide is intense

For every suicide, McCord estimated there are at least six people bereaved, she said, noting some professionals believe that is a very conservative figure.

“…Grief after suicide is very intense, very complex, it can be very long term, something that has to be revisited more than once,” she said, explaining that it is society’s discomfort with the topic that makes it so complex and important to follow through with the bereaved.
While McCord said peer support groups can be effective, she warned that they can also deteriorate quickly unless the right people are involved.

“You can heal after suicide and you can do it with a peer group that’s getting appropriate supervision, and supervision is available free through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and some other areas as well,” she said.

During a question and answer session, McCord suggested starting a support group if one is not available in the area.

Clara Mae Bayer, St. Peter Parish secretary and a member of the bereavement ministry, said her uncle took his life when she was young. She was interested in the suicide prevention meeting because back then suicide was a hushed topic and nothing like this was offered.

“Nowadays, the children are exposed to so many things … they sometimes are so stressed that I can see where that might be their out,” she said.

For mother, prayer is antidote

When Bayer’s sons – she’s a mother of six – went off to school, she worried about the effects of stress on their lives.

“I know when my children went to school, to college, after they were gone I did worry because I know that there were some stressful times in their lives and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, you know, something could happen,’ and so I think I did a lot of praying.”

Now, with 19 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren, Bayer said the talk left her with an increased awareness of what she could look for in her loved ones.

St. Peter Parish’s bereavement ministry took a step in the right direction, according to McCord, by opening up the conversation about suicide prevention in the community. Now, they just need to keep it going, and with O’Haver’s and the rest of the bereavement ministry members’ help, they hope they can provide the comfort the bereaved are seeking.

“We expect that we’ll not only make the community aware of suicide, but … we’re hoping that St. Peter’s will become a center where people can come for hope and healing if they’ve experienced a suicide in their family or friends, and also that they can come to a group if we have (it), if they so desire, and also for educational purposes,” O’Haver said.