Lake Norman & Mooresville

Sharing grief after a suicide

A friend's or family member's suicide can leave survivors feeling isolated, said Huntersville resident Karen Civiletto.

Not only must they deal with unsettling emotions - such as anger and guilt - but they also sometimes must face others who dismiss suicides as undignified deaths.

"One woman said her co-workers stopped talking to her when they found out her son died by suicide," said Civiletto. "A lot of people who are devout Christians believe that people who die by suicide will end up going to hell, and to me that's a big issue because I don't believe that."

Civiletto wants to break the stigma attached to suicide and mental illness. That's why she agreed to take over the Living After Suicide support group in Huntersville in September.

Karin Solomonson started the group in 2010, when she found there was no support group for suicide survivors in Lake Norman.

The nearest groups were Healing and Understand from Grief of Suicide (HUGS) in Charlotte and Survival Over Suicide (SOS) in Iredell County.

When Solomonson stepped down, Civiletto decided to lead the group.

The 35-year-old resident knows how heartbreaking it is to have someone close commit suicide: Her best friend killed himself in November 1995, when the two were sophomores in college.

Civiletto was attending UNC Charlotte at the time, and her friend, Arik, was enrolled at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. The two had planned to catch up over Christmas break.

"I had no idea suicide was even an option. A lot of people struggle all their lives trying to find out why, and there's really no answer and there never will be," she said.

Civiletto said she struggled with denial about Arik's death for a while and found it hard to reach out to others.

Alice McGinley, founder of HUGS, said many suicide survivors often struggle with a lack of closure - something that can haunt them for years, she said.

"A lot of people who have lost someone to suicide need to know why," she said. "Almost every survivor feels guilt at some level, and it's hard to come to terms with the fact that the responsibility for the death lies with the person who took their life."

Civiletto said she wants to reach as many people as possible through the support group, although she added that "I'm always really sad when we have new people."

She said that peer support groups like hers help people feel comfortable talking about what they're going through because they know everyone else in the room has been through the same thing.

Civiletto said she's become involved with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to help break the stigma attached to suicide.

The group hosts a nationwide Out of the Darkness walk every spring to help raise awareness.

Even though 35,000 people commit suicide each year in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, Civiletto said her group's numbers average around three or four people each month.

Civiletto said the low numbers reflect a lack of knowledge about her group and fear about opening up on a topic that is so stigmatized.

"When it comes to mental health, everything is so hush-hush," she said. "But mental illness is just as serious as cancer."

Still, Civiletto said, even if she were the only one who attended the meetings, she'd show up in the event that someone came for support.

To that person, she'd tell them, "Let your emotions happen naturally. Whatever you're feeling is a valid feeling, whether it's guilt or sadness or anger. Give in to that and understand that it's normal and that you're not alone. There are other people out there who have been through the same thing."