International Survivors of Suicide Day

by Jon Dalrymple

Denise Ellenwood visits with friends in front of the “Wall of Encouragement” that they created for the International Survivors of Suicide Day. The wall served to offer words of hope for those attending who had lost loved ones to suicide.

Nespelem, Wash., January 8, 2013 - Two years ago Denise Ellenwood, a member of the Spokane Central Church, lost her mother to suicide. She and the rest of her family grieved deeply, not only for the loss of their mother, but also that their children would not know the love of their grandmother. 

It’s still impossible to fully answer the question, ’why?’  And Denise still wrestles with wondering if there was something she could have done. But instead of trying to forget how her mom died, Denise is choosing to remember the life that she did live. And she is working to help others learn how to prevent suicide as well.

“For people who lose loved ones to suicide, it’s hard to forgive,” says Denise. “It’s hard to forgive the person who died and, for a lot of people, it’s hard to forgive yourself for not being there to stop them.”

That’s one reason Denise has become an advocate for suicide prevention, and organized the first International Survivors of Suicide Day in her home town of Nespelem, Wash., last November.

With a population of only 230 people, Denise was excited to see 60 people from the community come to the gathering. Nespelem is located seven miles from the Grand Coulee Dam and is part of the Colville Indian Reservation.

“Suicide on a reservation is very common,” Denise says, “so I was happy to see so many people especially, a family that lost their son in his early twenties just two months before I lost my mother. Just like in many other communities, it is like an epidemic affecting everyone around them."

Shortly after her mother’s death, Denise did some research and found that suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native Americans; that’s 70 percent higher than any other ethnic group in the United States! After reading these numbers, Denise felt a great need to do something for her people and, as a Christian, she felt she had something more she could give as well.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention provided a plan that Denise could follow to conduct the International Survivors of Suicide Day. On their website she found a planning guide that helped her plan and hold a meeting in Nespelem that would be both meaningful to people who have lost loved ones, and helpful to the community.

The event featured guest speaker Arnold Thomas, a Native American who lost his father to suicide, and attempted suicide himself. Arnold was one of the top athletes in his state and was on his way to becoming a professional athlete. When his father committed suicide, it sent Arnold on path that led to his own attempt. Though at one time he chose to end his life, he now chooses to live, and he has dedicated his life to helping others as a chaplain and motivational speaker.

In addition to a meal for those who attended, the event also included sharing of music and poems that some had written including a song in the Colville language. Denise’s grandmother collected pictures, notes and other mementos from those who attended and created a memory quilt that is now hanging in the Health Services Clinic in Nespelem.

Denise hopes to make this an annual event for the community and would like to add a discussion time during the program. She sees this as an opportunity to reach people with hope and healing love of Jesus, and as a way to prevent suicide in other people’s lives.

“I would like to bring more people to the event next year and build more awareness in the community,” Denise said. “I think a lot of people are afraid, or don’t know what to say, but it is good for people to talk about suicide and understand and see the signs of it. That way we can help those in need before it happens.”