Survivors support survivors on the Web
By JONI WOELFEL
A joyful life, I read in an old Christopher Note, begins with three things: a deep appreciation of Gods love, a noble purpose in life and a spirit of fidelity to the present moment. These affirming words have stayed with me over the years and helped motivate me to establish a Web site as a gift for my husband on the second anniversary of the death of our 17-year-old son. A joyful life? How can there be such a thing when a parent has lost a beloved child to probable suicide? Nevertheless, it is possible.
In her book, Coincidences: Touched by a Miracle, Antoinette Bosco writes, It was the beautiful teaching of the Communion of Saints that gave me this assuring sense that we are all connected to one another. But it was only after experiencing the deaths of loved ones that I had what I call gifts of feeling their presence, sometimes through a sign that seemed only coincidental at first.
And thus it was for me. Out of the wrenching pain and grief rising out of the most shattering questions, I was ushered into a completely new world that I never knew existed before. It began with these statistics: Suicide is the second leading cause of death in children, teens and young adults. Every year over 31,000 people in the U.S. die by suicide. Suicide is the 8th leading cause of death overall. For each person who dies by suicide, 20 people (1 million total) make a suicide attempt each year. For every completed suicide, there are seven to eight close survivors, meaning that nearly 7 million people across the country have survived the suicide death of a loved one. The statistics are from Suicide Awareness Voice of Education.
Shortly after the death of our son in l999, the U.S. surgeon general appeared on television declaring suicide an epidemic.
I was stunned. How could I not know this? Bosco writes in her book that there is a pattern or a guidance of people and the world toward a higher purpose and that we can tap into this if we respond to grace. At the time, even though my grief was too new and raw and all I could feel was devastation, looking back I can see that that moment marked a turning point, wherein my life, the words of the U.S. surgeon general and the death of our son were together moving me forward.
That journey took about two years of incubation, processing, grieving. As the second anniversary of our sons death approached, I dreamed one night that Mic, our boy who died, was with my husband and me in our living room. Mic had his hands hidden behind his back, grinning. I playfully grabbed his hands and pulling them open found that they were empty! I realized Mics hands were empty because his work on earth was done. But my hands and my husbands are not empty. We, as all people, are called to some higher purpose.
So one summer day, I contacted Gary Frye, a colleague from an illness-support Web site that he founded and that I assist in facilitating. I asked him if hed help me establish a support Web site for teen/adult depression and suicide prevention. We worked as a team for a number of days, with me doing the text writing and him doing the graphics and mechanical creating. We felt as if we were conduits for something wonderful revealing itself as events seemed to affirm the work we were doing.
My husband and I did a three-part interview on suicide and depression for local papers, which simultaneously announced the creation of the site. Within a short time, a dozen of our sons friends had posted on the message board as well as other friends, acquaintances, kids and people we didnt know. By the third week, we had over a thousand hits to our site and over 150 posted messages. We received poignant cards and e-mails affirming the need for our site.
We linked our site to the prominent SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voice of Education) Web site, http://www.save.org which covers every educational aspect of suicide and depression. Special features on our site are the striking colors, graphics of the aurora borealis, the symptoms and warning signs of depression and suicide, statistics, our sons story. We added a theme song, composed by Frye. Sometimes its music rather than words that will encourage and touch someone in need of hope.
A popular feature of the site is the message board, where people can gather to offer solidarity, share questions, worry, insights, pain, triumphs and comfort. A unique dynamic underlies the ministry of a support site message board that cant be taught through a textbook. It is best understood through participation. While many elements in a face-to-face support group apply, such as good manners, good listening skills and responding to what a person says with affirmations or appreciation, on a Web site all communication is through the written word. There is no eye contact, voice inflection or facial expressions to help one access the feeling behind the words.
People quickly become adept at projecting personality and self-expression through Web language. Each site develops its own persona through the moderators and regulars who visit there. People who post learn how to make their point, vent, exchange information or even express humor with clarity and brevity. Sometimes a site is all some people have as a safe place where they can go for comfort. Like all human communications, there will also be misunderstandings, personality clashes and times when people simply, with the help of the facilitator, agree to disagree. Tolerance, maturity and practicing forgiveness are elements of a spirit of good will.
At the very least, a successful Website can be a warm place of temporary shelter for someone passing through. At its deepest level, it becomes a sacred community that, as the old Christopher Note suggested, is based on a deep appreciation of Gods love, a sense of purpose and meaning in life and learning to live in the fragile, precious present moment as survivors supporting survivors.
The Internet address for Mics Message Web site is: www.geocities.com/micsmessage/index.html
Joni Woelfel is the author of Tall in Spirit, Meditations for the Chronically Ill and The Light Within, A Womans Book of Solace, from ACTA publications. She also writes a column for Catholic Womens Network.
National Catholic Reporter, September 7, 2001