As executive director of the Calgary-based Centre for Suicide Prevention (CSP), Mara Grunau dedicates her days to educating the public and supporting individuals who are affected by suicide. But outside of work, she finds herself sitting with a psychologist for steady support.
“I feel a lot and so if I’m sitting with someone who’s grieving, I feel their grief,” says Grunau. “So for me, that’s never going to change, but I don’t want it to.”
Although part of Grunau’s job is to support people who are affected by suicide, she admits because of her empathetic nature, she needs support too.
“I couldn’t do this job if I didn’t see somebody to support me as well,” says Grunau.
Her position at the non-profit education centre means ensuring the public is receiving the best information they can on the prevention of suicide. This includes constantly checking in with her staff, from librarians to workshop coordinators, in order to ensure everyone is on track and doing well.
Whether she’s communicating with people inside CSP offices or dealing with various outside stakeholders, Grunau is immersed in the world of suicide prevention on a day-to-day basis.
“People who consider suicide don’t want to die. They can’t see another way out. Their vision has tunnelled right down and they can’t see any light in their darkness,” explains Grunau. “We want to teach people how to build a bridge with someone [who is at risk of suicide] to be able to talk to them without triggering their defense mechanisms.”
“Losing Eric was life changing. Everything went from before Eric died to after Eric died,” — Joy Pavelich
However, it’s when people with a loved one who has succumb to suicide, come in for visits that Grunau fully grasps the everlasting pain that comes along with losing a person who took their own life.
“My hardest day at work is sitting with those people who are trying to make sense of their world, because there is no grief like suicide grief,” says Grunau. “They are plagued by what they should have or could have done, and it takes a lot of time to recover from that.”
Joy Pavelich experienced this indescribable pain when she lost her son, Eric, to suicide in 2013.
“Losing Eric was life changing. Everything went from before Eric died to after Eric died,” says Pavelich.
But months after his death, a job opportunity came up with the Calgary region of the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) as communications leader. This job helped her finally understand Eric’s mental illness and allowed her to grieve.
“It was the perfect place for me to pour my heart into, trying to make sense of the loss of Eric and his life,” says Pavelich. “I don’t know if I would have survived losing Eric if I didn’t have somewhere to put this grief.”
Pavelich admits she was unaware of organizations like CMHA and CSP prior to Eric’s death, but says the supports would have helped her immensely.
“While Eric was going through the medical system, I didn’t know that there were supports for me here,” says Pavelich. “Sometimes it’s not having the answers, it’s just knowing that someone understands what you’re going through.”
While Pavelich finds solace in her job as communications and community engagement leader at CMHA, Grunau has had a slightly different experience and admits she sometimes comes home from work exhausted in a way most people who work in an office don’t.
“There’s something called compassion fatigue and it’s when you care for people for so long that it starts to wear you out or burn you out,” says Grunau.
Dave MacLeod, suicide prevention trainer at CSP and psychologist at Western Psychology Services, says it’s important to set boundaries and find the “sweet spot” between caring too much and caring too little.
“You can be too hardened, too distant, too unfeeling, too unapproachable - and that may keep you safe from any kind of pain but it doesn’t really minister to the needs of the client,” says MacLeod.
Because compassion fatigue is prevalent in the CSP offices, Grunau and her colleagues value the monthly visits they get from other mental health specialists to help them understand and work through it.
But it’s the extra support Grunau receives when she sees a psychologist in her time away from the office that allows her to maintain strength on especially difficult days.
Still, every ounce of emotional exhaustion that comes with Grunau’s job is worth it when it means giving people the knowledge they need to save the lives of the people around them.
“If you are suicidal, ask for help,” Grunau emphasizes. “If you are concerned about someone in your world who is suicidal, ask them if they are considering suicide and if they are, be a friend. Be a good listener and don’t judge them, and connect them to help.”
If someone around you is in need of help, you can contact the Calgary Distress Centre 24/7 at 403-266-1601.
- By Karina Zapata