I arrived in Halifax on Tuesday (March 23) afternoon to an overcast and rainy welcome. Like most Canadians, Nova Scotians like talking about the weather… “you should have been here last week, it was hot and sunny”. This was a phrase that I was going to have to get used to.
After getting my rental car, complete with GPS that guided me to my hotel, I was quickly making last minute arrangements to meet with people who had come forward to be a part of the Collateral Damage Project. During my time in Nova Scotia I met with more than twenty people and the following is a little of the dialogue that was created.
Martha, who lost her father to suicide had written to me with a need to let other survivors know that they are not alone as they try to find their way through the confusion and loneliness that stigma brings. That night Martha and I met to talk about her Dad and how she is finding ways through education to move forward. Even though it was a blustery evening we were able to get some photographs.
The next morning I had breakfast with Angela Davis of the Nova Scotia division of Canadian Mental Health Association who is also the coordinator of the provincial Communities Addressing Suicide Together (CAST) provincial conference as well as the national conference in October of this year as well. Angela and I met last October at the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention (CASP) Conference where I presented the Collateral Damage Project and I was then invited to do an exhibition at this years National Conference in Halifax. Angela is passionate about working to help communities in Nova Scotia build their capacity to address suicide. She has also been instrumental in bringing the Collateral Damage Project…and me, to Nova Scotia through the CAST and CASP conferences.
The next few days were filled with coordinating meetings, conversations and photographs. I wish I had time to meet everyone personally but with the response so overwhelming, that was just not possible. I really didn’t have time to truly take in the beauty of Nova Scotia but I certainly did learn that Nova Scotians have hearts of gold and treated me like I was a long lost relative. Perhaps with a last name like Chisholm that makes sense, especially around Antigonish.
As the days went by I also had to finish up final preparations for my keynote Address for the CAST conference. At times, I found myself overwhelmed with creating an outline as there is so much to talk about and so many stories to share. The one thing that always comes clear is that “Not talking about it isn’t working”. When we share our stories and invite other to do the same we begin a dialogue that seems was never allowed. Its empowering to witness conversations begin and know that they will continue with family, friends and coworkers in a way that will truly enable healing.
The CAST conference was on Friday and my day began early with an interview at 7:45am on CTV’s Breakfast Television with Jayson Baxter. It was funny, as I met the anchor who does the weather report he said, “you should have been here last week, it was hot and sunny”. The interview went well and right after we headed to the conference centre for Communities Addressing Suicide Together. Although I was nervous, after all it was my first keynote address, the message that I was bringing was clear…Not talking about it isn’t working. Collateral Damage postcards were handed out to all delegates with instructions to address the card to themselves. On the card, everyone was challenged to write down what they are going to do after the conference to continue the dialogue with friends and family. I started with the introduction video and then continued with where the project began and how it was building into something that I believe is going to introduce the faces of those left behind by suicide. The true momentum with the Collateral Damage Project is the community that is coming together and inviting others to do their part in continuing the dialogue. Although my keynote address was only an hour, I was busy the whole day talking with survivors and professionals alike about their personal stories of loss to suicide and what we are going to do to create and continue the dialogue. I was especially touched by people who had traveled to meet with me and hear my keynote address. So as the day began early it ended late and I was physically and emotionally exhausted from a day that will continue to shape the Collateral Damage Project. Thank you to everyone who attended the CAST conference and made the commitment to continue the dialogue.
Saturday morning I met Veronica Bernard for breakfast and had an incredible conversation about her loss of her 3 brothers to suicide and the work that she is doing in Eskasoni as a Mental Health Worker. She spoke of the issues of suicide that plague her community that are consistent with the suicide epidemic that is ravaging First Nation communities across Canada. Sometimes I find myself in conversations that I feel so privileged to be a part of. I am learning about a culture that has been on my backdoor for my entire life yet for some reason I know little about it. To find solutions we need to learn about the people. Whether its in our own families or with the Fist Nations… we have so much to learn and accept. Without knowledge, acceptance and dialogue we will remain ignorant and we will continue to lose our loved ones to suicide at an alarming rate.
Saturday afternoon was quite familiar for me. Jen had contacted me after reading the Collateral Damage article in The Chronicle Herald and shared her story that was similar to my own. We have both lost our fathers to suicide and we were about the same age at the time. When Jen and I first talked on the phone she wanted to have her brother and her mom come together for the photograph. Although I liked the idea, I made it clear that I believe we all take our own unique path in healing from our loss to suicide, especially within the same family. As I arrived at the house, Jen’s brother was outside which gave us an opportunity to talk. He seemed defensive and a little unsure of me so I encouraged him to participate only if he truly wanted to do so. “Don’t do this for your sister or your mom”. I believe that this is when he began to feel like he was part of the project, when it was truly his choice to do so. We continued into the house for snacks and an incredible family conversation at the dinner table. Again, I felt honoured to be a part of this dialogue that was open, honest and difficult at the same time. From there we did some family photographs that I know came together because of the Collateral damage Project. Not talking about it wasn’t working for Jen’s family and hopefully this was just the beginning.
I had one more stop to make and that was in Bridgewater, about an hour outside of Dartmouth. Although it was getting late and I didn’t think I would get any photographs done I knew how important it was for Gail and I to talk. It really is about the dialogue and there is great comfort in knowing were not alone, even though our stories can be quite different.
Sunday morning I made an appointment with Amber in Kentville. Amber had emailed me to share her story of losing her beautiful 14year old daughter to suicide in 2007. As I was getting ready to head out on the drive to Kentville, I realized how physically and emotionally exhausted I was, but I also knew how much Amber was looking forward to us meeting. I pulled the car over and called Amber to let her know how I was feeling and that I wanted to postpone our meeting until I return again in October. I certainly didn’t want to just go through the motions and although she was disappointed, she also understood my commitment to do this right.
It was finally a sunny day in Halifax so I did what I love to do most…I went for a walk with my camera to photograph the world around me. So I did get to see a little of Halifax but I also know that I will be back in October and I have been promised sunny and warm weather.
Thank you to Angela Davis and the Nova Scotia Branch of Canadian Mental Health Association for making my visit to Nova Scotia possible. We’ll see you again in October.