By Brad Hearst
Since my brothers passing, all I’ve heard is how suicide loss is like no other loss. You can’t compare it to anything else because there is no other loss like it. Which I won’t disagree with. As time has passed, I’ve encountered other losses and learned about their grief. One specific community I am also a part of is the Gold Star Community. If you were to go back five years and ask me what a Gold Star Family is, I wouldn’t have been able to give you an answer. If you look up the definition directly from the United States Army’s website it says, “The nation recognizing the sacrifice that all Gold Star Family members make when a father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter or other loved one dies in service to the nation.” In standard terms, a Gold Star Family is one that has lost a loved that was in active service of this great country when they passed. Each loss is unique, and no one is the same. It is a recognition I’m not sure any family really wants but one that they will carry forever after losing a loved one. If you’re a survivor of suicide loss that might sound familiar.
I’m sure by now you are asking what this has to do with suicide. You might also be saying that these families are aware of the risk their loved ones are taking, so it isn’t fully an unexpected passing, so it can’t be related to suicide. Well as the founder of Survivors Joining for Hope, I am a survivor of suicide loss and a Gold Star Family member. My brother was a member of The United States Army when he passed away by suicide. He was active duty at the time of his passing and just a few short weeks away from being deployed for the second time. As a survivor of suicide loss, I also learned that it can be very difficult to relate to others after a loss to suicide. To eliminate the stigma, we need to find a way to make it more relatable and create conversations that are comfortable for both ourselves and the general population that hasn’t been impacted.
The day the Casualty Assistance Officers (CAO) arrived at our house and told my mother that my brother had passed away will be one I’ll never forget. It is burned into my brain like a national catastrophe such as where I was on 9/11. Second to that is the day the CAO gave our family our Gold Star pins. The moment came and went with relative ease because as I mentioned earlier, I had no idea the significance the pin represented. That pin encapsulated my brother’s commitment to this great country and our families new struggle knowing he was gone forever.
Few may realize it but identical to Veterans and Memorial Day there is a Gold Star Mothers and Family’s Day. It is held the last Sunday in September every year. It is a day to remember, reflect and honor those that we lost. For new families it can be an extremely difficult day that brings a flood of emotions that can be difficult to handle. For families where more time has passed it is a time to smile on the positive memories and remember the sacrifice their loved one made when serving this great nation. It is comparable to Survivor Day which is a chance for survivors of suicide loss to come together and share their stories in November of each year. Each day can find common grounds when it comes to the emotions shared and the difficulty of having to remember the loss of loved ones.
When my brother passed away, we received the support of the CAO and the financial backing of the United States Army. We had immediate emotional support and guidance when it came to planning the funeral. I will forever be grateful for the services our CAO provided to our family. I’m not sure we could have got through those first two to three weeks without them. It was crucial to me beginning my grief process. I didn’t have to worry about how our family was going to cover the expenses of the funeral and they made planning it about as easy as it could get by escorting my mother from church, to funeral home to memorial marker company.
Along with similarities, there are also drastic differences. This is one such difference from what I hear from most families that are impacted by suicide. Most families struggle with how they are going to financially cover the expenses of a funeral. In some situations, families are taken advantage of or manipulated to purchase items that aren’t needed during the funeral planning process. Families struggle with having to take time off work because they live paycheck to paycheck. Life insurance may not cover because of cause of death which leads to an even larger financial struggle than originally thought. All of this inhibits their ability to focus on their grief and recovery and this is just the financial challenges. It is this specific difference that inspired me to start Survivors Joining for Hope. Just like the assistance provided by the CAO each family impacted by suicide deserves a high level of support to get them through the initial shock. It is our goal to someday deliver that full service.
One similarity between Gold Star Families and a survivor of suicide loss family is that they instantly become part of a family that of which none of them wanted to be a part. Gold Star Families carry a bit of pride and honor as their loved one was active duty military at the time of their passing. I personally have customized license plates to show the pride I carry for the dedication my brother had to this country. His life revolved around his commitment to the military despite the challenges it put on his personal life. It is also a way to remember him every day by how he lived and not by how he passed away which is important to me personally. Suicide may be how an individual passed away, but it is how we chose to remember them that preserves their legacy and helps guide our grief.
When a family loses a loved one to suicide, they also become part of a family they never wanted to be part of either. They are now part of the “survivor of suicide loss community”. The stigma surrounding suicide creates a much different environment for the family in this scenario. It is difficult to talk about with someone who hasn’t been impacted by suicide, a lot of families carry a certain level of guilt or shame and there certainly isn’t a license plate to commemorate their life. The journey through grief is a much different course but it shouldn’t be. Survivors of suicide loss deserve the same level of respect to commemorate their loved one. Suicide shouldn’t be the focus of their passing.
I was fortunate enough to be both a member of the Gold Star and survivor of suicide loss community. I had no desire to be a part of each, but both played a key role in my own grief process. The Gold Star was a way for me to commemorate my brother’s legacy in a positive light. The survivor community allowed me to meet other survivors who taught me how to handle my grief and know eventually I would find a level of peace missing from my life at the time. I’m not sure I would be the person I am today without each one. If I would have allowed myself I could have easily denied both but being open to other perspectives allowed me to gain insight into my own scenario.
While we strive to make dents in the stigma it’s important to remember that no one loss is the same but key aspects can be identical. Finding ways as survivors to relate to those that haven’t been impacted can be tough, but it can be done. Finding ways to relate will ultimately help us through the grief and minimize the feelings of loneliness that come along with this type of loss. As survivors we want the world to adapt to us in our time of pain but to create change, we must be open to change ourselves. In life it is easier sometimes to focus on our differences than our similarities. With that being said, it won’t be easy but if it could save a life isn’t it worth it?