END PAGE HEALING IN THE WAKE OF SUICIDE
BY MERRY SUE BAUM
It's been said that the grief inflicted by suicide may be the hardest of all to bear.
Karen Dunne-Maxim, RN, MS, agrees.
And she should know. Her youngest brother Tim took his own life when he was just
16. She says suicide survivors often feel stigmatized and experience feelings
of shame, isolation and even anger, which hamper normal mourning. And there's
usually an exaggerated sense of responsibility, the belief that perhaps, somehow,
it could have been prevented.
In the 14 years since that first
group met, 2,000 plus people have attended "Survivors After Suicide"
meetings at UBHC, which are still run by Dunne-Maxim. Several hundred groups like
it have sprung up across the country and a few just recently began in Germany,
England and Australia.
"There was so little information on the cause of suicide, we thought talking about it openly would help prevent it," she said. The subject remained taboo until 1985, when Mariette Hartley spoke publicly about her father's suicide. Others followed: Joan Rivers, Larry Bird, Katherine Hepburn, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Peter Fonda. Their candor helped bring suicide "out of the closet."
But preventing suicide is the ultimate goal. As co-coordinator of the Suicide Prevention Project for 11 years now, Dunne-Maxim trains school and community workers in suicide prevention strategies, particularly how to recognize and deal with signs of depression and suicidal tendencies, how to "safely" talk about depression in the classroom, and how to minimize violence among teens.
She also consults with schools in New Jersey after teen homicides, suicides or fatal accidents. Her model for meeting the special needs of families and school systems after a traumatic loss is now used throughout the country.
An example of the advice she gives is to let students ventilate and to validate their feelings. She calls this "the two V words."And, perhaps most importantly, Dunne-Maxim advocates working with the media in order to decrease copycat behavior.
This year, one of Dunne-Maxim's main goals as president of the American Association of Suicidology is to try to eliminate the glorification of suicide in the media. It is often joked about or used inappropriately in ad campaigns. Even cartoons, she points out, show suicide as a way of solving problems. "Porky Pig will sometimes put a gun to his head when he gets frustrated," she explains. Some movies do the same: Thelma and Louise, Titanic, Groundhog Day, Princess Bride and Captain Hook all romanticize suicide.
"After Paul Newman's son died of a drug overdose, he formed a foundation that educated the media on the perils of idealizing this type of behavior," she says. "It has since stopped. I think we can do the same with suicide."
Dunne-Maxim is truly a pioneer in her field. She is on the board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and was the recipient of its Paloma Award in 1990. She's appeared on all the major television networks and talk shows, has consulted on several films and on episodes of "Chicago Hope." She is almost always called to advise school districts after a high-profile traumatic loss takes place, like the Megan Kanka murder. She worked with school administrators on New Jersey military bases, where both teachers and students had loved ones in the Gulf War. And she consulted throughout New Jersey after the school massacres, particularly Littleton, to try to avoid copycat behavior and to alleviate students' fears.
But not all aspects of her work are morose. The clinician says she's met wonderful people and has had some delightful experiences. One of her favorite stories is of the ride she took in California with Peter Fonda. Dunne-Maxim had been asked to help him prepare a speech for a seminar they were both attending. The two had only the ride from a restaurant to the conference site to prepare the talk.
"I tell people I rode down the California coast with Peter Fonda, but I was a grandmother at the time, I wasn't on a motorcycle, and it wasn't an easy ride."
Dunne-Maxim resides with her husband, a mathematician, in Princeton Junction. When she's not working, she nurtures herself with opera and art. She also loves to travel. She's been to Europe, South and Central America and Asia. She just returned from a trip to Vienna that she described as extremely enriching. Not surprisingly, one of the things she did there was tour the opera house.
The clinician has two daughters, one a stockbroker in Manhattan and the other a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Her grandsons, 5 and 9, are a constant source of delight. "They live in Virginia so I know the Amtrak route from here to there very well," she says. "I see them as often as I can."
As for the future of violence in America, the expert is optimistic. She points out how far the country has come on matters such as wearing seat belts, curbing air and water pollution and decreasing the number of drunk drivers. "And who would have ever thought we'd win suits against the tobacco companies?" she says. "We have to have zero-tolerance for violent acts in the schools and kids must learn not to bully others but rather be respectful. It will take everyone's efforts, but we can do it."
Dunne-Maxim likes to think her brother would be proud of the work she's doing. "It gives some meaning to his life."