Robert Woodhouse of Phoenix will talk about his personal experience of losing loved ones to suicide during Saturday’s “Survivors of Suicide” conference. - Jim Craven

Suicide's hidden victims

Suicide may end one person's problems, but it creates a whole new set of emotional troubles for the people left behind.

Relatives and friends who go on living — suicide "survivors" — often struggle with feelings of shame or guilt while they try to understand why a loved one made such a painful choice.

"There's always the 'why?' " said Robert Woodhouse of Phoenix, who lost his father, mother and sister to suicide over a span of several decades. "That's the biggest thing people are trying to cope with."

Helping people cope is the subject of a Saturday conference for suicide survivors at the Smullin Center on the campus of Rogue Valley Medical Center. Woodhouse and others who have lost loved ones will talk about their experiences during a panel discussion that's part of the three-hour program.

Talking about a loved one's death is the key to recovering and moving on, said Sue Carroll, executive director of WinterSpring Center, a Rogue Valley organization that helps people grieve the loss of a loved one. Unfortunately, many Americans avoid talking about death in any context, and suicide makes the topic even more uncomfortable.

"Everything that's challenging about the whole grief and loss process is more complicated (in a suicide) because of the stigma that's attached to suicide," Carroll said.

"Suicide is not a culturally acceptable way to die," she explained. "People don't get a positive response when they say someone died of suicide, so they tend to keep it to themselves."

Along with the shame, survivors often feel guilty because they think they should have seen the suicide coming and been able to intercept it. Parents of children who commit suicide are especially vulnerable to feelings of guilt, said Lucinda Weatherby, program coordinator at WinterSpring.

"Parents feel like it's their job to keep their children safe," she said.

Teens and older people at the end of life are most likely to commit suicide, but anyone who feels overwhelmed by their problems may contemplate suicide as a solution. More than 30,000 Americans take their lives every year, or about 11 out of every 100,000 people.

Oregon's suicide rate is higher, about 15 for every 100,000 residents, and has held fairly steady since 2000. Jackson County's suicide rate is higher still. In 2007, 45 Jackson County residents took their own life (a rate of 22.3 per 100,000), and in 2006, 36 local people killed themselves (18.2 per 100,000).

No one is quite sure why the local suicide rate is so much higher, or why it spiked dramatically in 2007, said Gretchen Ericson, youth suicide prevention coordinator for Jackson and Josephine counties.

"People are under a lot of stress right now," she said, noting the sinking economy has left many people jobless or facing the loss of their home. "If you're under stress it's hard to problem-solve, to come up with some kind of solution for their problems.

"The more life stressors they have, the more likely they are to feel hopeless," she said.

Failing to acknowledge grief can be unhealthy in itself. Carroll said many people who try to ignore their feelings and go on with life can fall into destructive habits such as overeating or abusing alcohol or drugs.

"Some people choose very unhealthy ways of coping," she said.

"You have to have the ability to be patient with yourself," she explained. "When you're feeling all the complicated things you're feeling, you have to allow yourself to feel them rather than running away from them."

Family members and friends are usually the best sources of emotional support, but people who lack a support network can find help from organizations such as WinterSpring, which organizes grief support groups where trained facilitators help people talk through their feelings.

"You may think you're alone," said Woodhouse, who recently finished his training to become a WinterSpring volunteer. "But there's this huge network of people out there who want to help you."

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail

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