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Rising above the hurt of suicide

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FARGO -- At Edward Bommersbach's funeral in 1987, no one mentioned he died by suicide.

His daughter, Tavia Smith, then 20, knew it. She saw her father struggle with alcoholism and depression. And she was well aware of the events preceding his death, which included a suicide note left on the table along with a box of shotgun shells.

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Even so, family and funeral guests studiously avoided the topic. Smith felt stigmatized in her North Dakota hometown. She spent years worrying he was in hell after a pastor told her suicide was an unforgivable sin.

Today, Smith is no longer ashamed or silent. She talks openly about her dad's suicide. When her three daughters were old enough, she told them how their grandfather died. And this will be her third year participating in the Out of the Darkness Community Walk, an event that supports suicide survivors and raises funds for suicide prevention and awareness.

"You feel it's a selfish act," Smith says of her father's decision to end his life. "It certainly isn't a selfish act. It's a last resort to a lot of pain."

In her father's case, that pain included the pressures of being a single parent and struggling to stay sober after a couple of rounds of chemical-dependency treatment.

And whether aware of it or not, her father simply followed a grim legacy: His grandfather and father also completed suicide - a fact Smith didn't learn until years later. All three men battled with alcoholism and depression.

Years of struggle, anger

Smith almost followed the family's pattern of shameful silence. For 16 years, none of her co-workers at Gate City Bank knew how her father had died. She never talked about it.

But three years ago, Smith's work phone rang. The caller was Mary Weiler, whose daughter Jennifer died by suicide. Weiler was seeking corporate donations for the local chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which was planning its first Out of the Darkness walk.

The conversation stirred something deep inside Smith. For years, she had struggled with embarrassment and anger. She had even blamed herself because the two fought shortly before he shot himself.

Through the Weiler family's support, Smith learned of a local group for survivors of suicide. There, she heard words that helped to ease fears she'd carried for years.

A group member repeated what a friend had told them: "God didn't call your dad, but he was there with arms wide open."

She learned it was OK to actually feel relief when she learned of her dad's death.

She also told co-workers how her father had died, and was gratified when some opened up and shared their own stories of loss.

Partly through Smith's connection, Gate City has become a financial supporter of the annual walks. The company also pays its managers to pursue an annual mission project.

Smith's project this year: a training program with local law enforcement on the best way to deal with family notifications in cases of suicide.

Breaking cycle of silence

Through counseling and her support group, Smith learned how important it was to talk openly about the past.

And so she prepared to tell her own children about their grandfather when they reached an appropriate age.

When they were very young, she told them her father was sick and died. As they grew older, she told them he had died of a broken heart. And when they were old enough to understand, she told them about her father's depression and alcoholism.

In turn, her children have become keenly aware of the importance of talking about feelings and loss. So much so that one of her daughters wrote a third-grade theme about the Out of the Darkness walk. In it, she wrote in a careful cursive: "I'm raising money because my grandpa was very sick, sad, depressed and was an alcocholic (sic)."

Smith believes some parents today are so intent on protecting their children that they shelter them too much.

"Sometimes we try to shield our kids so much for disappointment, that when something bad happens they feel like it's the end of the world when it really isn't," Smith says. "We have to give them the tools to deal with it."

And Smith is grateful that people are so much more open about suicide today than they were when her father died.

Several years ago, while preparing for a media interview, she approached an aunt to get more information on her dad.

Her aunt replied: "Why do you want to bring this up again? There are people in the family who still struggle with this."

Smith figures no one struggled more than she did, as a daughter left behind. And she isn't about to keep silent.

"I'm no longer embarrassed or ashamed," says Smith. "If one little thing I say sparks something for someone out there, it was worth it."

Tips for survivors

* Keep in mind that each person grieves in his or her own way, and at his or her own pace. There is no set rhythm or timeline for healing.

* Some survivors struggle with what to tell other people. Although you should make whatever decision feels right to you, most survivors have found it best to simply acknowledge that their loved one died by suicide.

* You may find it helps to reach out to family and friends. Because some people may not know what to say, you may need to take the initiative to talk about the suicide, share your feelings and ask for help.

* Children experience many of the feelings of adult grief and are particularly vulnerable to feeling abandoned and guilty. Reassure them that the death was not their fault. Listen to their questions and try to offer honest, straightforward, age-appropriate answers.

If you go

* What: Out of the Darkness Community Walk, an event to raise funds for suicide prevention

* When: 2 p.m. Sunday, September 27

* Where: Lindenwood Park, Fargo

* Info: To register, form a team and begin fundraising, go to www.outofthedarkness.org or call (701) 219-4110 for more information.

* For more information on the Survivors of Suicide Loss support group, call (701) 219-4110 or e-mail afspnd@gmail.com.

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The Forum and the Echo Press are both owned by Forum Communications Company.

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