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Originally published Sunday, November 22, 2009 at 12:12 AM

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National Survivors of Suicide Day helps those who have lost loved ones

On National Survivors of Suicide Day, friends and family of people who have taken their own lives attended support groups in 240 cities. In Washington, groups organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) met in Shoreline, Bremerton and Tacoma.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Information online

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:

www.afsp.org

Contact the Puget Sound region chapter at

afsp.ps@gmail.com.

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In February 2003, Sabrina Ross, then a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Washington, got a visit from her 22-year-old brother, Zach, who just two months earlier had graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in plastics engineering.

She had no idea that it would be the last time she would ever see him.

Zach returned to Bellingham, and when he called Sabrina a week later they had a "very joyful, uplifted, happy" conversation. But that night, Zach hanged himself.

Saturday at the Shoreline library, Ross organized a support-group meeting for family and friends of people who have taken their own lives. Afterward, she described her own experience and how she came to terms with it.

"He'd come to say goodbye to me," Sabrina said of Zach's visit.

Staggered by Zach's death, the Ross family arranged counseling. Sabrina's parents urged their remaining children to share any problems. But worse was to come.

Six months later, Sabrina's 23-year-old brother, Kacey, killed himself the same way.

Like Zach, Kacey arranged a final, gentle parting with his younger sister. He took Sabrina out to dinner shortly before he killed himself. And before he did it, he called and left a short, unrevealing message on her answering machine.

For a long time after, Ross said, she and the rest of the family were racked with guilt that they had missed signs that the brothers were struggling.

Her mother, Sandy Ross, sank into alcoholism for two years. Sabrina's relationships with her father and remaining brother were strained.

In time, the family recovered and is close again. Sandy, now sober, attended the Shoreline meeting with Sabrina. Both work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) to offer support to others.

The Saturday before the Thanksgiving holiday — a tough time for those who have lost loved ones — was designated National Survivors of Suicide Day by the U.S. Senate in 1999, through the efforts of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, who lost his father to suicide.

On Saturday, support groups organized by the AFSP met in 240 cities across the U.S. and abroad. Participants watched a national webcast and provided a place to meet and talk for the families and friends of people who have taken their own lives.

In Washington state, where a local AFSP chapter is being formed, small groups met in Shoreline, Bremerton and Tacoma.

Suicide statistics

Statistics compiled by the national Centers for Disease Control (CDC) show that in 2006, the latest data available, 809 deaths were attributed to suicide in Washington state, a rate of just less than 13 people per 100,000 population.

Nationally, the suicide rate for that year was just over 11 per 100,000.

Though the gray winter weather in Washington is often cited as contributing to depression — creating a condition known as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — the data suggest that's less important than other factors.

Western states with more rural populations have significantly higher suicide rates than the rest of the country. Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico had the highest rates in 2006, ranging from 23 suicide deaths per 100,000 in Wyoming to 18 in New Mexico.

AFSP spokesman Wylie Tene said that's generally attributed to aspects of rural life in those states: People living outside big cities who struggle with depression or substance abuse are more likely to be isolated and to lack access to psychiatric help or substance-abuse rehabilitation centers.

The suicide rates are also raised by the prevalence of gun ownership in Western rural areas, Tene said.

The AFSP focuses on funding research into mental health, raising suicide awareness and offering support to those left behind after a suicide.

Steve Absalonson, of Seattle, whose son Michael killed himself two years ago at age 23, attended the AFSP support meeting in Shoreline.

Comparing his son's death through mental illness to another's death from brain cancer, he rejects the commonplace notion that people who take their own lives are weak or selfish.

"When a person sinks into the dark depths of depression, they don't have the level of understanding and reasoning they had before," Absalonson said.

At his son's funeral, he said, he promised not to hide from the facts of his death, but "to honor his memory and all the positives about him."

He is active in AFSP events now, he said, to offer support "for others ahead of us that have to face the same tragedies in their families."

Sabrina Ross is similarly driven to help the more recently bereaved cope with the guilt and grief.

Her brothers, she eventually realized, "purposely hid [their inner struggles] from me, to not let me know," she said.

In time, she even found consolation in the way they reached out to her in their final days.

Six years later, she said, "I appreciate that they came to say goodbye before they left."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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