Leslie Zeitler

Adversity: Mother died by suicide when Leslie was 15

Advocacy: Writes and speaks about the challenges faced by survivors of loved ones’ suicides

“I may not change a whole culture, but I am working on changing my part of the world. And if that makes a positive difference for others, I’ve done something right.”

At a time when a child would need support and understanding, Leslie felt isolated. When she was 15 her mother, who had battled with depression, died by suicide. “At the time, there was a great degree of silence around this issue,” says Leslie. It was a situation compounded by the fact that her mother was Chinese and the culture tends to consider suicide shameful. “So we ‘lost face,’” Leslie says. “It was better to keep it a secret and not talk about it.” In the Chinese community, and in the greater American community at large, there were limited mental health resources for her mother. After her suicide, likewise, there was little help available for child survivors. It took many years for Leslie to work through the pain of her mother’s death, begin talking about the suicide, and forgive her mother. And then tragedy struck again, as an aunt took her own life in 2004.

Leslie has now dedicated herself to making sure survivors of suicides have resources available to them and that they aren’t isolated. She speaks to individuals and community groups and shares her story in her blog. Through the blog, she plans to compile resources to help others cope with the grief and confusion that follows suicide, with the ultimate goal being to end suicide completely. “I think there’s a different way we need to look at suicide and depression,” Leslie says. “Much of the previous research appears to have focused on the negative or tragic sequelae of people who have survived the loss of loved ones to suicide. What I want to know is, how do we support resilience for kids, families, and communities when this kind of tragic loss occurs.” Leslie wants to make it OK to openly discuss having survived the loss of loved ones to suicide. “There is such a huge taboo on the subject of suicide. After my mom died, I really needed another survivor’s perspective, someone who had grappled with the complexity and pain of grieving: anger, sorrow, compassion, forgiveness. I needed someone who would have said, ‘It’s possible to survive this, and while I don’t have all the answers, I do have some suggestions.”

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