When Nyana Sabharwal was 13, her mother died by suicide.
But 23 years would pass before she shared this fact with a good friend. The spark behind the revelation? Her friend had just lost her father to suicide.
The process of sharing and processing their experiences with each other led both women to realise that there were many others in a similar position out there, but with no safe spaces to turn to for healing.
“Suicide in our country [India] comes with its burden of stigma. You see it in hushed voices, you see it in people’s stares and glares, you see it in people’s body language,” says Nyana. “And it’s prevalent, it is deep, it is chronic, and results in a lot of shame both for the family, as well as the person who is at risk.”
“We talked about how it was important to share this loss with people who actually understood the loss, because [my friend] was talking to a lot of people, and didn’t feel that she was receiving the kind of understanding and comfort that she needed,” says Nyana.
And so in 2018, We Hear You was born — founded by the two friends as well as their therapist, as a free monthly support group for people who are dealing with suicide loss.
> “My family, my friends, tried to comfort me. But I felt they could not truly understand how I felt.”
A, who prefers not to be named, thought he had it all — a good career and a happy marriage with dreams of starting a family. The sudden loss of his wife after six years of marriage sent him into a spiral of disbelief, anger, guilt, and isolation.
“Why did she not tell me about what she was going through?” he recalls wondering. “I wondered if I deserved to live on…how can I stay if she is gone?”
Losing a loved one to suicide is an extremely distressing and difficult grief to go through alone, yet being with family and friends may not help as people react and respond differently, shares Nyana.
“We may hear responses, like ‘put it behind you’, ‘move on’, ‘there’s nothing you can do about it’. Things that we don’t want to hear,” she says, adding that people may have meant well.
In a support group like We Hear You, members are encouraged to speak and listen without judgement.
“There’s just a natural bond that gets connected in that grief…We ensure that everybody gets a chance to speak. However, we don’t force anyone to,” says Nyana. “We don’t ask each other personal questions. We don’t advise, we don’t give opinions. It’s just a place of pure sharing.”
For A, his first session at the support group brought relief. “I felt safe. There were shared experiences, shared pain, shared grief. There was no judgement,” he said.
Meeting others also eased the crushing sense that he had been marked for tragedy. “As human beings, we always think we are special. But listening to everyone, I realised, no, I had not been ‘marked’ for this. I had not been ‘chosen’,” he shares.
“I felt supported and I hope my sharing helped others,” he says. Though his grief continues to come in waves, he has begun to find comfort in the memory of his late wife, both happy and sad. “It is a lonely journey; but one that I must travel. We all must find our own answers,” he says.
We Hear You’s sessions are held on the first Tuesday of every month — since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world, it has been holding its sessions virtually. On average, there are about 30 members at any given time.
In the first few months of starting We Hear You, there were no attendees. But gradually, by spreading the word amongst the mental health care community, people began trickling in. “There were people who had kept silent for decades, 30, 40 years,” says Nyana.
“What we generally see is that people have started writing again and sharing the story of their loved one who passed away….And I think that those are signs of healing occurring,” shares Nyana. “We’ve seen people who have said that they’ve got closure, they’ve understood their ‘why’.”
Remember to take a breather. Here’s a link to hotlines in your region, if you need it.
A Safe Space for all
> In 2019, a person died by suicide every four minutes in India.
National Crime Records Bureau, India
Before starting We Hear You, Nyana went to London to learn from Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide (SOBS UK) a non-profit known for their support for people who have lost loved ones to suicide.
“They taught me how to run a support group, what to look out for, how do you create safety parameters… because it is a unique grief,” recalls Nyana. “I did learn that those left behind have also risk of thoughts of suicide themselves. And so we needed to be prepared to know [if] somebody was showing the signs.”
When Nyana learnt that suicide is generally held to be preventable, “it just shook me to my core,” she says. “As a bereavement and loss survivor, I always thought that there is nothing we can do about it.”
“And when I learnt about first response…that we could actually keep a person [at risk of suicide] safe and get them the help that they need…that was the catalyst to start Safe Space.”
Set up as a separate entity from We Hear You, Safe Space India focuses on mental health awareness and education, with a special focus on training people to become “suicide first responders”. “It is essentially knowing how to intervene, or talk to someone who has or expresses distress or thoughts of suicide, [to] keep that person safe and get them the help they need,” says Nyana.
Anyone in a community can be a first responder, be it people working or volunteering for crisis helplines, medical professionals, counsellors, HR managers, teachers and parents, she adds. The workshop is run by instructors who are certified by the National Centre for Suicide Prevention Education & Training UK. So far, Safe Space has trained 180 first responders, from doctors, to parents, to helpline operators.
Reflecting on her experience, Nyana notes that getting to where she is now required her to “overcome my own shame of the loss that I had as a child of a loved one, that I mistook as something that I needed to hide for years.”
“When I’m talking to someone who has thoughts of suicide, I say to them, ‘Look, I know what you’re talking about. I have seen that firsthand. And it’s something that I don’t hide anymore’,” she shares.
Owning one’s story is a way of overcoming stigma. “We own where we’ve come from and what made us start, we own that we understand it. We own that you are no different than anyone else, just because you experienced grief, or that you’ve seen something so horrific and tragic.”
Nyana and her co-founders hope to encourage conversations around mental health and suicide, and help those in distress see hope. “[We don’t] look at suicide as ‘[help] the person not take their life’. We look at it as creating a life for that person that is worth living,” she says.