October 31, 1986 is a date that is permanently etched in Kevin Eberle’s mind. The day before, he had picked up the train tickets he and his best friend Connie would use to travel to Florida over Thanksgiving, and he and Connie had talked excitedly on the phone about their upcoming trip. So, it didn’t make sense that now, just one day later, he stood with the phone in his hand, listening to someone tell him that Connie was dead. It made even less sense when he heard she had taken her own life. He immediately drove to her house and saw the ambulances, paramedics and Connie’s body, covered by a sheet, and yet he still couldn’t believe his best friend was gone. “I had a lot of guilt for a long time, because I kept playing that last conversation over and over again in my mind, thinking that there might’ve been a word or something that I missed,” Kevin shakes his head. “I just never could come up with anything. I was angry, because you think you’re friends—I mean, we confided everything. I knew everything about her and she knew everything about me. It was just a lot of anger and a lot of guilt.”
Kevin continues,“Suicide is a loss like no other. I lost my grandmother to cancer. I lost two uncles to cancer. I lost my father, whom I was very close to, to dementia, and that was horrible—but a suicide loss is just different.” Kevin found that when he tried to talk to people about Connie’s death, the subject was taboo. He couldn’t find any support systems for people affected by the suicide of a loved one. So he started researching the topic of suicide on his own, reading books and attending conferences held by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Two years after Connie’s death, Kevin ran into someone whose father had committed suicide, and when that friend mentioned her frustration at having nowhere to turn for support, Kevin resolved to help others by beginning a support group in Lancaster for survivors of suicide.
The group, which meets at St. Peter’s Lutheran Church on the corner of Delp Road and Lititz Pike in Lancaster, has now been helping those whom suicide leaves behind for over 30 years. “After all these years,” Kevin notes, “the biggest feedback I get from people is that they’re so grateful to be somewhere where everybody else knows how they feel, because suicide’s a very different loss.” In his time as the group founder and facilitator, Kevin has helped countless survivors deal with their grief by providing understanding, acceptance and education.
Throughout his years of running the support group, called Survivors of Suicide, Kevin has also worked full-time jobs—first as a bridge welder, followed by six years in behavioral health and nine years at his current job working with patients of traumatic brain injuries. But his devotion to helping others cope with the difficult topic of suicide has remained a part-time calling close to his heart.
He understands all too well the “firsts” that his group members go through: “Believe it or not, it usually takes at least two or three years to get acclimated to your new life,” he explains, “because once that person dies, your life is no longer the same. You’re going to have a ‘first’ of everything—their first birthday, anniversary, Christmas—and if it’s a child, it’s graduations and proms.” Kevin notes that group members often attend meetings for years to get through these difficult milestones.
When asked if running the group keeps his own pain fresh in his mind, Kevin admits he can still close his eyes and recall the paramedics and the white sheet covering Connie’s body. “I can close my eyes and I can still see that day like it was yesterday. That doesn’t really change. But it’s not all-consuming anymore. It doesn’t haunt me.” But sharing his story with others and building a community of survivors brings him the most peace.
As an example, he recalls a story of being on a plane flying to Colorado several years ago, where a woman admired Kevin’s zebra tattoo on his leg. Kevin thanked her and mentioned that the tattoo represents a poem about suicide survivors being like zebras among horses, their stripes a constant reminder that the pain of losing someone to suicide never truly goes away. “I mean, here we are at 30,000 feet in the air, and the next thing you know there are five people in the aisle and we’re all talking about suicide. It was amazing. You just never know who you might touch or connect with.”