For the last few days Sally Spencer-Thomas has been busy preparing to travel across the country to be in Atlanta today.
The Denver, Colorado resident will make the trek in order to attend the 48th Annual American Association of Suicidology Conference which will bring together over 1,000 people, including researchers, clinicians, those who lost someone to suicide, suicide attempt survivors, prevention advocates, and others, to discuss the issue of suicide.
Rockdale County has had at least two suicide-related incidents this month. On April 2, the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office (RCSO) deputies talked a man down from jumping off the Salem Road bridge. Less than a week a later, an elderly 73-year-old man, who was suffering with cancer, allegedly shot himself in his apartment complex April 7, according to a police report.
Overall, the RCSO responded to at least one suicide-related event per week in 2014.
"(The) conference will be incredibly inspiring," said Spencer-Thomas in an e-mail. "(There will be) many stories about hope and recovery (and) many new promising practices of ‘what works' in suicide prevention."
The theme of this year's conference is "Get Connected" which highlights the importance of having social interactions when dealing with a troubling situation.
"The theme underscores the power of belonging and community in suicide prevention and bereavement support," she said. "When people pull together during tough times, we can get through just about anything."
Spencer-Thomas, survivor division director for the American Association of Suicidology (AAS), knows all too well how to handle the suicide death of a loved one. The 47-year-old lost her younger brother, Carson, to suicide in December 2004. The loss of her brother, who was 34 and suffered from manic depression, engulfed her family like a tsunami.
"The news of his suicide crashed tsunami-like around us totally engulfing us in despair and darkness," she wrote on her personal blog. "Frozen and in shock, we fought for every breath, thinking, ‘This cannot be happening.'"
The aftermath of his death was "severe" to deal with at first, with Spencer-Thomas weeping heavily on upcoming holidays, which are usual joyous occasions. Even finding an old wedding picture of hers with the two of them dancing and smiling sent Spencer-Thomas into a crying frenzy.
But, she rebounded and the following year, along with her family and close friends, started the Carson J. Spencer Foundation in honor of her brother to prevent what happened to him from happening to other people.
The foundation seeks to educate teenagers, adults and employers on ways to handle dealing with negative emotions from their peers and themselves.
In keeping with the theme of this year's three-day AAS conference, held at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, 265 Peachtree St., Atlanta, Georgia, Spencer-Thomas gives a lot of credit to her network of friends and family for helping her through "the most difficult experience of my life."
"As with the tsunami, the rebuilding process has been long and hard, requiring many systems of support," said Spencer-Thomas. "In this sense I often feel lucky, because unlike many survivors of suicide I had a workplace that was supportive, a faith community that understood his suicide as the fatal outcome of a mental illness, not a crime against God, and a network of friends and co-workers who did all the right things."
Spencer-Thomas also gives these four tips from the Carson J. Spencer Foundation website for dealing with the death of a suicide member:
1. Accepting the reality of the loss. In order to do this, survivors of suicide loss often need to tell their story again and again. Finding others who can hold this pain with them and listen without judgment can be difficult. For these reasons, finding peer support from other people bereaved by suicide can be helpful.
2. Processing the pain of the loss. The pain left behind after suicide can be intense and prolonged. Attempts to escape the pain through self-medication and avoidance often just extend and complicate the bereavement. Support groups, rituals, faith communities, and therapy can all help.
3. Developing a new normal and positive identity. In the aftermath of loss as devastating as suicide, many of life's patterns and future plans are forced on different trajectories. Developing new traditions and a new affirmative view of oneself are essential in the journey of getting unstuck from the intensity of the grief.
4. Remembering without reliving. Over time, the bereaved will begin to be able to hold memories of the death and loss at a healthy distance. While they never go away, with support, healthy mourning practices, and new life experiences, the trauma of suicide becomes integrated into the fabric of the story of our lives.