Honoring the Vital Role of Survivors in Suicide Prevention

A secret grief living in silence is a very lonely dark place. The heavy burden of unspoken sorrow may become unbearable. A shared sorrow may ease the burden, shed light in the darkness, give voice to the pain, understanding to the hurt, comfort and hope for a better day. 

Marilyn Koenig, co-founder of Friends for Survival

Research suggests that as many as 14 survivors are profoundly affected by each suicide death. This translates into over 45,000 Californians each year who must begin to navigate the complex grief that comes in the aftermath of suicide. Referred to as “survivors of suicide loss,” they often suffer in solitude because they don’t know how to share their unique pain with others, who may find it difficult to know how to respond. Unlike deaths due to a disease or accident, their loss is often complicated by feelings of shame or being blamed for the death.

Turning Sorrow into Prevention

Some of the most significant suicide prevention efforts are spearheaded by survivors: the Garrett Lee Smith Youth Suicide Prevention grant program was started by U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, whose son, Garrett, died by suicide. The Suicide Prevention Action Network, a leading legislative advocacy organization, was formed in 1996 by parents who had lost their 34-year-old daughter to suicide. Survivors can provide inspiration to fuel suicide prevention efforts and serve on coalitions and task forces, speaking to community groups, talking to the media, helping to launch programs and services, and advocating for legislative change.

Below are profiles of three survivors of suicide loss who have turned their intense sorrow into action that has led to real change at the community, state, and even national level.

Alex_Dan Strauss

Dan Strauss lost his 17-year-old son Alex, a high school student, in his family’s hometown of Chico to suicide in October of 2010. Before he died, Alex tried to text for help using his cell phone but was not able to reach anyone because they were sent at night when their recipients were asleep. Dan realized that had Alex been able to reach a 24-hour crisis texting services, he might still be alive. So Dan formed The Alex Project to promote awareness of 24-7 crisis texting services and convey the message to young people that there is help for them, any time, any place. His actions have helped many youth from northern California and around the state understand where to turn for help. Dan can be contacted at [email protected].


Kathleen Snyder’s husband, Jim, died by suicide 30 years ago. A few years latKathleener she was ready to turn her grief into a way of helping others. She began volunteering at a local crisis line. While doing this work, she realized she wanted to take it even further, channeling her immense energy, empathy, and talent for connecting with others to become a trainer for LivingWorks Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). Since then, she has also become a safeTALK and Mental Health First Aid trainer. For the last 25 years, Kathleen has traveled extensively throughout California helping individuals, communities and regions build life, help and hope towards suicide prevention. It is likely you have either taken a training from Kathleen or that you will; her dedication to helping Californians learn more about suicide prevention is unmatched. Kathleen can be contacted at [email protected].

Marilyn Color  Informal copyMarilyn Koenig lost her 17-year-old son, Steven, to suicide in 1977. A few years later she connected with another mother who had lost her son to suicide, and both found the companionship, understanding, and support of another survivor to be irreplaceable. They were surprised to learn that there were no grief support groups specifically for survivors of suicide loss, and together they decided to form one. Friends for Survival (FFS) is still growing and thriving over 30 years later. Although FFS holds monthly meetings around northern California, Marilyn’s experience has shown her that survivor support must also extend to people who cannot or will not attend meetings. One of the most important ways Friends for Survival does this is through its monthly newsletter, Comforting Friends. Led by Marilyn’s tireless dedication, FFS has reached thousands of Californians, and many hundreds of others across the nation. Last year she teamed up with the Know the Signs statewide suicide prevention campaign to publish Pathways to Purpose and Hope, a comprehensive guide to establishing a sustainable suicide bereavement support program.  Intended for survivors, the guide walks through the steps of starting, funding, and sustaining a survivor support program and is the first and only of its kind in the nation.  The guide is listed in the national Suicide Prevention Best Practices Registry. Through FFS and Pathways, Marilyn has truly turned her grief into a lasting way for other survivors to build a community of healing. Marilyn can be contacted at [email protected].

These remarkable individuals demonstrate that, although their voices arose from terrible tragedy, survivors of suicide loss are a critical part of any suicide prevention effort, and they can be the driving force behind real change.

If you are a survivor, reach out to other survivors through your local survivor support program. If you are having trouble locating a group, contact Friends for Survival, who maintains a list of existing groups statewide. If there is not one locally, consider starting one using the Pathways to Purpose and Hope guide.

If you would like more information, please contact Sandra Black at[email protected].

On November 22, survivors will come together to recognize International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, a day on which friends and family of those who have died by suicide can join together for healing and support. Learn more at www.survivorday.org.