Sissi O’Shaughnessy is a per diem Community Education and Outreach trainer at Samaritans. She provides workshops to schools and other communities on suicide prevention, including teaching about warning signs, risk factors, and how to best support someone who is struggling with suicidal ideation. She is also a suicide loss survivor and the founder of the Mo Foundation, honoring her late husband. At the October 2023 Annual Meeting, Sissi shared her story and why being a part of the Samaritans family has been one of the biggest healing components of her grief journey. The following is a transcript of the speech Sissi gave during the meeting.
On May 24, 2020, I got the phone call that no one ever wants to get. My brother-in-law called and just said, “Sissi…” and he fell radio silent.
I said, “Where is he? I’ll go get him.”
And all he said was, “He’s passed away.”
I couldn’t believe it when he said those words. How could this happen to us? How could this happen to me? How could this happen to my children?
He was a senior executive at a high tech company. He had four beautiful girls, a million and one friends around the world. And yet, he was fighting a silent battle.
“Strong men don’t cry,” he would tell me. “They don’t ask for help. Strong men don’t have big feelings. They just keep pushing forward and they provide for their families.”
What came after that day was a type of grief that unless you have actually experienced it is very hard to describe. I had also just lost my mother two months prior to Mark, to cancer. The clinical term for that is “complicated grief.” I think that’s a little bit of an understatement.
The grief was heavy. The manner of death was complicated. I kept trying to make sense of something that just did not make sense. I started my search to answer questions like, how could he have done this? How could he leave our girls? Questions like, is this genetic? What does this mean for my children and their future? And in the quest to answer all these questions I found Samaritans. What I realized then was that while some of the answers to those questions would have been nice to have, what I really wanted was to feel connected to a community that understood the pain and grief I was going through, that had experience in how to move forward in the depth of that anguish.
Because what I’ve learned in the last 3 1/2 years is that there is nothing that can take away the pain of losing someone to suicide. But through connection and service to others, there is a way through it. A way through it that can actually make us stronger and wiser, more sensitive, and having a new profound appreciation for the meaning of life and purpose.
Because what I’ve learned in the last 3 1/2 years is that there is nothing that can take away the pain of losing someone to suicide. But through connection and service to others, there is a way through it.
And so the night I found out Mark had passed, I promised him one thing. I sat in silence and meditated with him and said, “I will be your voice.”
Part of what I share when I speak at schools is the fact that as a child, if Mark would have known half of what we cover in those workshops, he might still be alive today. We talk about self-esteem and how we see ourselves matters. We talk about what it means to have difficult feelings, and that there are ways that we can learn to move through them by connection and talking to people about them. We watch movie clips from cartoons, and talk about how freeing it is to give all of all of our feelings permission to be seen and felt.
If he had known some of the warning signs we go through, some of the risk factors that we talk about, he might have reached out earlier. If he had learned to manage the stress that came with his job and managing demanding responsibilities, he could have developed the coping skills he needed to work through it. If he had know how to to ask for help, he might have let go of his pride and reached out in his moment of darkness.
And this is why this work is so incredibly important. Last week, through Samaritans, I tabled a Best Buddies event where I had three different individuals with disabilities share their stories of how suicide had touched the lives of their friends because they saw themselves as broken. One woman hugged me after I handed her a Samaritans resource card and thanked me because her son was struggling with suicidal ideation and she had no idea what to do. It was an honor to have people feel comfortable enough to share their story with me because they felt safe when I shared mine with them.
As much as I do for Samaritans, it gives me back threefold. To walk away from those events knowing I connected, and that someone left that event knowing they had support. When I receive a LinkedIn message from someone I met thanking me for letting them share their story. And when I leave a workshop and I ask the kids, “Tell me one thing you learned from today,” and they scream out the 988 number, or show me they put the Hey Sam number in their phone, or—and I quote: “It is a sign of character, and not weakness, to ask for help when we are having our big feelings.” That is priceless. These experiences have changed me to my core, and have opened my eyes to the reality of how much our humanity is suffering this very silent battle.
And while I would do anything to have Mark back for one more hug, through my work with Samaritans, I can honestly say that I am doing my part and holding up to the promise I made to him the day he died, and that his voice is heard and that his struggles mattered. Through the resources Samaritans offers, whether that be grief support, or workshops, or just creating more awareness around the topic of suicide, suicide loss survivors like me feel like they have a home, and that we are all truly never alone.
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