Recognizing survivors of suicide

Trauma therapist discusses suicide, remedies for the holidays, National Survivors of Suicide Day

Posted: Friday, November 14, 2008

As a suicide survivor and therapist since 1985, Sondra Sexton-Jones thoroughly understands the intricacies of suicide, and her experiences have helped her to help others.

"What influences me to talk with survivors about being a survivor, is the memory of the people who helped me walk through a very dark period," she said. "They were kind and gracious, loving and supportive - never judgmental. I realized that as I traveled on my journey, not everyone was as fortunate as I had been."

A Licensed Professional Counselor in Alaska, Sexton-Jones also has been a contract guardian ad litem and custody investigator for the court system since 1994.

She said her work with suicide survivors started about three years after her husband's suicide in 1986.

"Most of us who 'get into suicide work' have, in some way been touched by a loss through suicide: friend, loved one, client," she said.

After co-chairing a survivor's group at the Dallas Suicide & Crisis Center, Sexton-Jones began researching and training for trauma therapy. She joined the American Association of Suicidology and the Association for Death Education and Counseling, and did training at the Center for Loss and Life Transition located in Colorado.

"At the time of my husband's death, there were very few avenues for training and/or certifications or degrees in thanatology," she said. "That has changed and there are now degree programs."

Also, prior to moving to Alaska, Sexton-Jones owned a private practice, which included individuals, families, children and several groups of survivors.

"Once physicians discovered I worked with survivors, the referrals doubled very quickly," she said. "I also began doing community seminars prior to the holidays, covering the grief process and ideas about how to manage the holidays after a death."

Sexton-Jones noted that the holiday season may be a difficult time for suicide survivors or those who have lost family or friends to suicide. She suggests making plans ahead of the holiday and giving oneself permission to change how it is celebrated.

"Keep those family rituals that are important to the family, but perhaps with alterations," she said. "Christmas cards are frequently problematic. Maybe you don't feel like sending out cards - don't. Some choose not to send, instead, write letters. Some don't do either, and it is all right."

Some survivors volunteer in their community or travel to get away, "knowing the sadness will be with them, but perhaps less so out of the familiarity of their home," she added.

"Some people elect to celebrate in their usual way, placing an empty chair at the table; using the time to reminisce while looking at photos," Sexton-Jones said. "The point is to do what is comfortable, but not to wait until the day before the holiday to make plans."

Aside from giving said advice, Sexton-Jones often just talks with other survivors as part of her daily routine.

"I always take the time to speak with them," she said. "Sometimes it's simply to answer 'How do I survive this?' Though, for all of us, the answers are different, the one common denominator is that we surrender to the grief and mourning as a pathway to healing."

Sexton-Jones tries to help survivors heal from their emotional wounds.

"A festering wound only gets worse. Opening it allows the healing process to begin," she said. "For some survivors, that is talking and talking and talking. For others, it is gathering as much information as possible on the possible causes of suicide."

Sexton-Jones consistently encourages survivors to find a suitable clinician or counselor.

"A good counselor will allow the exploration of all your feelings, including the rage at the act, without judging, and at the same time, gently help you find your pathway to healing," she said. "Ask why until you find yourself coming back to the same answer."

She also advocates participating in grief groups specifically for survivors.

"I was fortunate I had extraordinary friends and family who carried me when I couldn't walk," she said, "held me when I couldn't stop sobbing and wailing, held me close when I would careen through the whys, begging to know where he had gone in his mind that allowed him to make the decision to kill himself."

Among other various articles on suicide, Sexton-Jones published a short book, "When Someone You Love Completes Suicide," in 1996, which she revised in 2006. In 30 pages, the book explains her personal experience with suicide; the physical, psychological and emotional impacts of suicide; and how to move on. It also includes inspirational pictures, poems and quotes.

"The purpose of the book was to provide information in a manner which was easily read, yet gave good information about the grief/mourning process," Sexton-Jones said. "A person could turn to any page and read short sentences without having to plow through paragraphs when our brains weren't capable of remembering two words."

And according to Sexton-Jones, Nov. 22 will be the 10th annual National Survivors of Suicide Day. The day, which was created by U.S. Senate resolution through the efforts of Sen. Harry Reid, who lost his father to suicide, is promoted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

In 2005, Alaska was ranked No. 3 nationally in both males and female suicides, and for ages 15 to 24, Alaska was ranked No. 1.

Professionals such as Sexton-Jones help support the survivors.

"We belong to a unique club, not one of our making, nor one we wished to join," Sexton-Jones said. " ... Inevitably, it leads to a conversation about 'getting through the nightmare.' The most frequent question is 'When will this be over?' The answer of course, is that it will always be part of our history. But, life can be good again. It will be different - for the death of a loved one by suicide reshapes the way we see the world, and it alters our future in innumerable ways."

For more information on suicide or to talk to Sexton-Jones, she can be contacted at her office at 586-3313.

• Contact Neighbors editor Kim Andree at 523-2272 or

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