What do you do when your loved one commits suicide?
Written by Jay Copp
Top: Actress Mariette Hartley (left), U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher, Sam and Lois Bloom at the Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center's "Era-sing the Stig-ma Leadership Awards Luncheon" in Beverly Hills, Calif. The Blooms received an award at the luncheon.
Bottom: Sammy Bloom (r.) with childhood friend Tim Ahrens in 1981. Tim is pastor of First Congregational UCC in Columbus, Ohio
© Thomas Neerken and Bloom family
Nearly 20 years ago Sam and Lois Bloom's 23-year-old son drove his car off a cliff in California and killed himself. Immediately after the police left their home, the grief-stricken Blooms called their pastor from Neighborhood UCC in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., who hurried over to offer comfort.
Within weeks of losing Sammy, the Blooms resolved to confront their grief, not to walk around it. They decided to ignore the stigma surrounding suicide and to reach out boldly to others in similar situations.
Their son's suicide tested their faith, ruined their sleep and anguished them during their waking hours. The pain still remains. But the Blooms found a calling amid their sorrow.
"We didn't want this terrible thing to happen to anyone else," says Lois. "In many cases, suicide can be preven-ted if people know the warning signs."
Says Sam, "It's a great gift, a blessing, to be able to help others. We didn't trade Sammy for the gift. But we were left with a choice when we lost him."
"Our choice," says Lois, married for 49 years and quick to finish her husband's thoughts, "was to reach out to help others."
Sam and Lois' church was key in their development as activists. It consoled them and gave them an opportunity to learn how to console others.
Today, the Blooms are among the nation's most influential lay people in suicide prevention. Through their involvement with the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, the Blooms helped shape groundbreaking therapy sessions for people who lost a loved one to suicide. Bereavement therapy was evolving when the Blooms became involved, and mental health professionals credit them for helping to create the small-group grief therapy now used worldwide.
The Blooms also champion suicide prevention awareness. They helped found the Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network-California. Along with others, they crisscrossed the country lobbying legislators for action. Their efforts paid off last December when the U.S. Surgeon General released the report, 1999 Call to Action to Prevent Suicide.
In 1969, the Blooms had moved to California from Pennsylvania without knowing a soul. They soon became active, visible members of Neighborhood UCC. Their church was like a second family.
Sammy was the oldest of the Blooms' three children. The Blooms taught church school, worked with youth groups and served on church boards. Sam and Lois structured their lives around their children, who were "great kids—didn't have problems with drugs or alcohol," says Lois.
"Sammy was good looking, bright, ambitious, well-liked. He had a love of life and a special way with people," she says. But after several stressful episodes in college, depression set in.
After Sammy's death, the Blooms accepted countless dinner invitations from church members. Neighborhood UCC also formed a Good Grief Group to console them. The small group assuaged their sorrow and gave them the tools to help others. They eventually took over the group and also trained others to work with bereavement groups through the L.A. Suicide Prevention Center.
In 1986, because of her activism, the UCC asked Lois to write a booklet on surviving suicide. The highly regarded Mourning After Suicide (Pilgrim Press; 800-325-7061) has sold more than 30,000 copies. Lois poured herself into writing the booklet, originally penning 130 pages that had to be shortened to 24. "I really believe that God was speaking to me [through the book]," she says.
Lois' ability to counsel others was hard-won. She struggled mightily to come to terms with Sammy's death. "I was just so angry with God," she says.
She read When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold S. Kushner. She devoured books about Holocaust survivors, reasoning that she could survive her trauma if they overcame theirs. She talked to her minister.
"He told me to hang tight. It's OK to be angry. That was helpful information," she says. "I had an immature relationship with God. I had to re-evaluate that. It's not, 'Why me?' It's really, 'Why not me?' Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to all people."
The Blooms learned early on that they eased their own pain by being open and honest about the suicide. "We weren't held back by the stigma," says Sam. "We didn't cover it up. We gave people permission to talk about it. They didn't have to walk around on eggshells. You open yourself to all kinds of support that way."
The Blooms' forthright approach also lessened the pain of those they led in therapy groups. Says Sam, "I've had people tell me, 'I hope I can be like you.' They look at us and see that we're carrying on." Part of their advocacy is urging more funding to treat depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. Suicidal people need more than a reassuring hug or "keep your chin up" advice, say the Blooms. Both governments and religious bodies must counter the stigma surrounding suicide and support prevention, they say. The Blooms say they would like to see the UCC in particular to take up the cause of suicide prevention.
While in college, Sammy had joined a cult, which aggravated his mental problems. In the 10 months before his death in 1982, he had been receiving treatment at a mental health center in Los Angeles.
"He was, as they say, 'helpless and hopeless,'" says Lois. "I've never been angry at him. I didn't think he made a wise choice, but I understand he didn't think he had any other choice."
Her love for Sammy prompted her activism and keeps her going.
"He lived life so fully," she says. "I wanted to honor him."
Lois Bloom notes this suicide crisis line, used throughout the United States: 800-SUICIDE (784-2433). To find a suicide survivor support group, contact The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 212-363-3500; or The American Association of Suicidology, 202-237-2280.
Jay Copp is senior editor at DePaul University in Chicago.