Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Combination of Grace and Truth

Joyce Bruggeman holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Spanish from the University of California, Irvine. For many years she worked professionally at Cal State University, San Marcos. Eleven years ago, she was working full time in the Student Affairs Department while also married and raising children. Her life revolved around balancing the responsibilities of work and family.

Then, in 2008, Joyce's life was changed forever. Her husband, who'd suffered from mental illness for many years, died by suicide. 

One of the ways that Joyce's experience of loss is exemplary, however, is that early on she recognized that sharing her personal feelings and story could be of benefit to others. She knew that her perspective and experiences were important to share.

"My husband took his life after a twelve year battle with clinical depression. Living with someone caught in the turmoil of a mental health issue has provided me with a close up view of the impact of such illnesses," she explains.

After her husband's death, Joyce recognized the importance of speaking out about suicide loss. Even before he'd died, she'd been aware of the tragic consequences that stigma can have on those who are left behind after a loved one dies by suicide. When her husband was still a teen, his own father died by suicide.
"In society at that time, depression and suicide were completely taboo subjects, so my husband was never allowed to deal with his traumatic grief. Thirty years after the death of his father, life events triggered a depressive episode in him, and thus began our psychological battle. Sadly, he is a text book example of what happens when survivors are not given the opportunity to heal from the traumatic injury of suicide." 

In the years following her husband's death, Joyce became an active volunteer in suicide awareness and prevention efforts. She sought out training in issues related to mental health. She became a volunteer facilitator for a faith-based support group for families living with a loved one with mental illness. Eventually her efforts changed the direction of her professional life as well. Today, she serves as the Executive Director of one of the United States' premier suicide related support groups, Survivors of Suicide Loss (SOSL) in San Diego, California.

I was honored to speak to Joyce Bruggeman and to learn more about her insights on these topics. I am equally honored to share what she had to say with you, now.

In order to get a sense of where Joyce's passion lies, one only needs to look at the mission of the organization that Joyce leads, Survivors of Suicide Loss (SOSL). According to their website, their goal is to provide a safe and supportive community where healing can take place. Founded in 1981, today SOSL has a newsletter, a helpline for those grieving, and their suicide postvention program includes sixteen groups every month in 10 different locations in San Diego and Riverside counties.

In her role as Executive Director, Joyce draws from her personal experience and speaks throughout Southern California to educate others and, most importantly, to reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues and suicide. The impact of losing a loved one to suicide is difficult to explain, and yet one of Joyce's gifts is her ability to do just that.

 "There really are no words to describe the pain. It is gut wrenching, intense, anguish, agony, despair,horrific," she says. "Your physical health is impacted, relationships changed forever, your faith challenged at every turn. It is a slow, painful, and agonizing journey to work your way back to life again."

But, one of the things Joyce wants her fellow survivors to know is that they will have an opportunity to turn their trauma into a new type of strength. When a grieving person is ready, she wants them to consider that their experience does not have to be viewed in a wholly negative lens.

 "Life will never be the same again," Joyce acknowledges. "For most of us, it is impossible to go back to what was. We must find the tools, skills, and courage to move into the what will be. Where I find myself today was not a part of my plans. Mental illness and suicide have impacted my life and changed me in ways I could never have anticipated. It is important to me that those left behind find the strength to move beyond just surviving and that they find a life that is good once again."

One of the common myths about mental illness is that it is a result of flawed thinking. This myth perpetuates the stigma felt by those who are suffering. Joyce agrees that this is frustrating. 

 "I think the biological component of mental illness is often disregarded by many unfamiliar with the topic. Many who are not educated about mental illness believe it is a character issue - rather than a medical issue," she says. 

 Joyce also describes the impact stigma has on those who have been left behind after a suicide loss. 

"Suicide is shrouded in tremendous fear - which increases the stigma. Because people are so afraid to talk about suicide, there continues to a tremendous misinformation in society. As a survivor of suicide loss, you learn very quickly that many don't want to hear your story, or don't know what to do when you share it. You can read the fear on the faces of people when you just say the word suicide." 

 It is because of the challenges that survivors face when it comes to reaching out that Joyce proactively shares her story.
"I break the silence so survivors can seek help and find healing."

After having talked to thousands of survivors of suicide grief, Joyce regularly sees what the additional trauma of suicide related guilt can do to a person. 

"It is estimated that after a suicide, there are approximately 6-10 people left behind who now carry a higher risk of mental health issues and suicide - if they do not get plugged in to appropriate care. Research also shows that if those survivors find a place and way to work through the suicide grief, they can reduce or eliminate that risk."

Joyce again refers to her personal experience to further explain how important it is to reach out and accept help when surviving a suicide loss.

"I lived many years in the aftermath of a suicide grief that was not allowed to be treated. When my husband took his life, I knew I did not want to repeat the same mistakes of his family. There are no guarantees that what I am doing will yield my desired outcome, but I know what doesn't work, and I am doing my best to change this sad legacy of suicide in my family. Organizations like SOSL exists to help survivors work through the trauma and grief of suicide."

Joyce points out that guilt and blame are some of the most difficult aspects of the way that stigma affects survivors of suicide loss.

"Due to stigma and the many misconceptions people have about suicide, survivors often experience intense feelings of guilt and shame, sometimes actually being blamed (or blaming themselves) for not being able to prevent the death," Joyce explains. "Anger misdirected outward results in blaming family, friends, medical or mental health professionals. Blame finds fault and levels judgment."

"Being blamed is one of the most painful things to experience." 

For fellow survivors whose grief is being compounded by blame, she says this:

 "In truth, you have no power to determine what others believe. Hard as that is - it is the only way I have found to deal with it. If certain people are too toxic, sometimes it becomes necessary to remove them from your life."

 And to those who feel that another person is to blame for a suicide death, Joyce reminds them that this is not a fair judgment.

 "Almost always, the truth is that the only person responsible for the suicide is the person who ended their life. But expressing anger toward the person who lived in such despair, feels wrong and uncomfortable. That is why it is important to understand that we can assign responsibility without judgment or blame. It simply states the facts as they are. For example, if the suicide followed years of clinical depression, it is likely a result of their illness. Coming to that understanding is a huge step towards acceptance."

 As for feeling guilty, Joyce has learned that guilt is often part of coming to terms with loss.

 "After working with survivors for a number of years now, I have come to understand the grappling with guilt is a necessary part of the recovery process - painful - but they must deal with all of those emotions and come to an understanding that they are not responsible for the suicide."

 Joyce suggests that having a better understanding of mental illness can help many to alleviate the worst of their guilt. 

"All survivors grapple with guilt on some level. For me, because my husband had been ill for so long, I understood the real cause for his suicide was his clinical depression and his reluctance to address his illness."

 In fact, Joyce also found that educating herself about mental illness and suicide prevention helped to process some of the shock and pain of her loss.

 "Learning the truth about the clinical depression that consumed my husband was an essential part of my healing process. Knowing the truth about suicide has kept me from carrying the responsibility of his fatal mistake."

While Joyce recognizes that everyone's journey as a survivor of suicide loss is different, she is happy to share the things that have helped her to find peace and moments of joy in her life, once again. She says that working with a good psychologist helped her to manage the challenges of living with her husband's mental illness prior to his death, as well as afterward. 

Joyce also says that leaning on family and friends was instrumental in her moving forward. She encourages all survivors of suicide loss to reach out to nonjudgmental people who will let them talk, cry, and yell, if necessary.

"Healthy loving relationships are key."

Like many survivors of suicide loss, Joyce has put thought into what she might say to her husband, if she were to have another chance to talk to him. She says that she knows that he had no idea how much pain his death was going to cause others. But she also wants him to know that his pain did not die with him. Instead, it was multiplied and transmitted to the people who loved him. 

"Now each of us is faced with the challenge of healing from this horrific wounding. If we do not, we will pass it along to future generations. I know you would not want that," is what Joyce would tell her husband.

She also wants her husband to know that his family is now committed to breaking that pattern.

"We are bound and determined to end the legacy of suicide in our family."

When Joyce explains how it is she's able to move through her own grief, tackle stigma, and support others as well, she counts spirituality as her chief comfort and greatest source of strength.

"Without faith in Christ, I do not know where I would be today. I was fortunate to have a grace filled faith community that addressed my loss and provided a place for me to heal," she says. 

As a fellow advocate on behalf of survivors of suicide loss, I am so thankful to Joyce Bruggeman for her honesty, commitment, and passion. There are so many things about her that I hope to one day emulate. Not the least among them is the clarity with which she explains her process of healing.

"The combination of grace and truth, in just the right measures, were vital in my journey back to wholeness." 

So to Joyce Bruggeman, I say thank you for your grace, your truth, and for helping so many along on their own journeys. 

We are lucky to have you among us.

Survivors of Suicide Loss (SOSL) has a website, here:

SOSL has a Facebook page, here:
Survivors of Suicide Loss - San Diego

You can find SOSL on Twitter, here:

Joyce writes more about her personal experience, here:
Enduring Legacy