Military suicide survivors help each other heal at seminar

Two women hug at a remembrance ceremony at the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar earlier this month in St. Petersburg, Fla. The program brings together survivors of service member loved ones who committed suicide. Heath Druzin/Stars and Stripes


By HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 28, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Sitting and sobbing outside the hotel room where her Marine husband had just hanged himself, Kim Ruocco said she was horrified to find that nearly everyone who responded to the scene somehow managed to make her feel worse.

First she asked the hotel manager where her husband was staying, and he wordlessly backed into another room, shutting the door to avoid her. A trauma specialist told her to lie to her children about what had happened.

And then there was the priest.

Addressing the newly widowed woman, just steps away from her Catholic husband’s body, he said, “You know what Catholics believe about suicide? It’s a sin.”

“I said, ‘Are you telling me that I should tell my kids that their dad is not only dead, but that he’s also in hell?’” she recalled. “And he just looked at me.”

That experience in 2005 started Ruocco on what has become a full-time mission to help fellow survivors cope, heal and thrive. That often starts with an annual seminar for and by those who have lost troops and veterans to suicide.

Her journey culminated in the creation of the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar, which recently convened in St. Petersburg, Fla. The program is organized by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), a non-profit group that provides assistance to loved ones of fallen troops. This year’s event drew roughly 650 survivors from around the country, all of whom lost a servicemember to suicide.

Amid the devastating personal stories at the seminar – Ruocco’s is sadly representative -- perhaps the most striking element of the gathering was the laughter, which filled the palm-lined veranda of the beachside resort where it was held. Old friends met and caught up, and seminar veterans welcomed newbies with smiles and warm embraces. Many wore buttons that read “I’m a hugger.”

There are, of course, plenty of tears at the three-day get-together, and especially in private grief sessions where participants share their sadness and deepest fears. Emotions are raw, and often bubble to the surface, with survivors sometimes breaking down even as they check in. Organizers spend several days training hotel staff on what to expect and how to be sensitive to survivors struggling with their emotions in public. But equally, there are waterslides and s’mores and music and art. Child survivors splash in the gulf while their parents learn to write songs or create collages. At heart, the seminar is meant to be a celebration – of the lives of loved ones lost and survivors – and that is a good thing, said Frank Campbell, a social worker and nationally recognized suicide expert, who spoke at the conference.

“If all you do is come together to grieve, that’s a funeral service,” he said.

‘Zebra in a herd of horses’

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dragged on, multiple deployments strained the fabric of families and many troops were left with unseen wounds, such as traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, which the military was slow to address properly. Suicide rates in the military steadily rose during the peak of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and remain well above the rate of their civilian peers, according to the most recent Pentagon reporting.

Loved ones of military suicide victims endure a specific kind of pain – grief at the loss, and the stigma from those who see death by suicide as a sign of weakness or even dishonor in servicemembers. They also suffer from the loss of the military family that has been part of their lives.

Ruocco’s husband, John, struggled with depression through multiple combat deployments as a helicopter pilot. Before starting the seminar, she felt out of place at events for families of fallen troops, where some survivors gave her the cold shoulder.

“I felt like a zebra in a herd of horses,” she said. “It increased my shame around his death and it increased my fear that his death had wiped out the way he had served.”

So, in 2009, she and the leadership of the TAPS launched the first National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar in San Diego, California. That event drew about 150 people. As a testament to the seriousness of the epidemic and the growing willingness of survivors to talk about their experience, the TAPS database for suicide survivors has swelled to more than 5,000.

“We’re the group that nobody wants to have to join but everyone’s glad is here,” TAPS spokeswoman Ami Neiberger-Miller, whose brother, Christopher Neiberger was killed in action in Iraq.

The seminars offer a new sense of community.

“It’s just a group of people that, they don’t judge you, they know how you feel, they bring you in with open arms,” said David Bye, whose stepson Jeffrey Svoboda committed suicide in 2010. “It’s a safe place where you can be yourself.”

Many survivors return year after year, forming tight bonds with others who can relate in a way that so few in the country can. One of the biggest difficulties participants talk about is a lack of understanding in the larger community. “Suicide” is still a word too often spoken in whispers, deepening the alienation that survivors feel.

“We’re still carrying thousands of years of stigma and taboo around the word suicide,” Campbell said.

Survivors helping survivors

In addition to grief sessions and talks from mental health professionals on coping mechanisms, the seminar offers alternative therapies, such as yoga, art and music. A pilot program this year gave several participants a chance to try equine therapy. Children have their own sessions – called the Good Grief Camp – which gives adults, many now single parents, rare time to themselves.

A fundamental concept of the seminar is survivors helping survivors. Adults are paired with “peer mentors,” who have endured similar tragedies, often down to the branch of the military in which their loved one served. The community has its own lingo: “How far out are you?” is a common refrain, a way to ask how long it has been since a loved one’s death.

“We can talk about things we wouldn’t talk about in front of anyone else,” said Linda O’Brien, who lost her grandson, Marine Cpl. Daniel O’Brien.

All of this is known as “postvention,” steps aimed at helping survivors cope and celebrate their loved ones, but also find new meaning in their own lives. It is also prevention, as survivors of suicide victims are far more likely to commit suicide themselves, Campbell said.

“I’ve seen too many kids grow up to be adults that saw the prescription for suicide written in the deaths of their loved ones,” he said.

One of the most crucial ways the seminar prevents that is by breaking the silence and teaching everyone how to talk openly about suicide and to help those thinking about taking their lives – an approach that could lower the suicide rate in the civilian world, too, if the country would embrace it, Campbell said.

“If the whole community is trained in CPR, (deaths from) heart attacks will go down.”

Twitter: @Druzin_Stripes

Juliet Kalsbeek, who lost her son, John Kalsbeek, to suicide, makes a collage during an art therapy session at the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar earlier this month in St. Petersburg, Fla. The annual event, organized by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, aims to help those whose service member loved ones lost their lives to suicide.

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