When someone you love commits suicide

Carolyn Poirot Special to the Business Press

Norma Garcia Lopez was 22 – the oldest of five siblings – when her 18-year-old brother hanged himself in the garage of her family’s home in Forest Hill in 2002. In 2009, her uncle, who was “living the American dream” with a great job and a beautiful home in Rowlett, took his life the same way. He was 33 and “left an amazing wife and four little children,” Garcia Lopez said. Yet no one in her family was willing to talk about suicide or mental illness, or even their own grief.

“We had no resources in 2002. We didn’t know how to deal with the grief of suicide…” said Garcia Lopez. “We were shocked. We were just lost. I blamed myself because I was the big sister. I should have known what to do, and everyone kept telling me that I had to be strong. I had no clue what that meant. I was lost … I couldn’t even grieve until later on.” Then came the second family suicide. “It was déjà vu all over again, and no one saw it coming,” she recalled in a recent telephone interview. “All I could think was, ‘Oh, my gosh. We need to start talking about this. We have to talk about it,’” Garcia Lopez said. “Suicide is still such a stigmatized subject, especially in the Hispanic community. Nobody talks about it. It’s such a hush-hush thing, still to this day.” But Garcia Lopez says she is a survivor – a double suicide survivor – and she wants to talk about it because she wants others to know they are not alone. There is help, and it is within reach.

“The scars cannot heal without help, but there is help available,” she said. “I decided I was going to use this as a positive thing.” Garcia Lopez is a volunteer with the Mental Health America of Greater Tarrant County’s LOSS (Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors) Team. Last year she signed up family and friends to participate in Run For Life, the 5K and 1K fun run to provide funding for the LOSS Team. This year she made a YouTube video to help raise awareness about the LOSS Team and the Third Annual Run for Life! on Sept. 7. The LOSS Team of Tarrant County was organized in Arlington in April 2011 and made its first on-scene “call out” in Fort Worth in October 2011. Fort Worth police have agreed to “call out” to LOSS Team volunteers for immediate survivor support at the scene of a suicide as well as any other time they see the need, said Lezlie Culver, LOSS Team coordinator. The team of about 45 trained volunteers provides both immediate and long-term assistance to people who lose a loved one to suicide. Volunteers include counselors and other mental health professionals, survivors, educators and representatives of area hospitals, nonprofit agencies and police departments.

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“I think if the LOSS Team had been available in 2002, our family would have been better mentally and emotionally dealing with all the grief,” Garcia Lopez said. The LOSS Team has helped 220 individuals in Fort Worth and Arlington, providing immediate support at the scene as well as ongoing counseling, therapy and whatever resources they need in the weeks, months and even years ahead, Culver said. It is part of the Suicide Awareness Coalition of Tarrant County. Formerly the Suicide Prevention Coalition, the new Awareness Coalition leads the community in suicide outreach, education and prevention. Suicide claimed 2,857 people in Texas in 2010 – 200 in Tarrant County alone, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. Last year, the number here increased to 222, Culver said. And for every suicide, an average of six surviving friends and family members are left to grieve. “We are, unfortunately, getting very busy,” Culver said. If you have lost someone to suicide and want to connect to resources or you want to know more about what you can do to help the LOSS Team, call 817-733-9123. For further information, go to www.mhatc.org