MISSOULA - Montana has ranked top five in the nation for suicide rates for the past 30 years, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The Montana chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) looks for new and different ways to help ease the grief of those who have lost a loved one to suicide. Their Lifekeeper Memory Quilt program brings families together to share and connect in their grief.
The program encourages people who have lost someone to create a quilt square, often including a picture of the person who has died, their birth and death date, and anything else sentimental. Once AFSP receives enough squares, they sew them into one large quilt, which is displayed in public spaces and other AFSP events.
The quilt offers families an opportunity to create a tactile, living memory of their loved one, and it reminds them that they are not isolated in their grief.
“Having the quilt allows people to know that they’re not alone in that journey, that somebody else has also lost somebody to suicide, that there is ways to reach out for their own support, their own help," said AFSP executive director for the Montana and Wyoming chapters Katie Levine.
The Montana AFSP chapter's quilting program was initiated shortly after they began in 2001. They have created two total quilts, and have four squares to put toward their third. They hope to finish the next quilt before their community walks in the fall.
The quilt program is similar to the idea behind the AIDS quilt, which began in 1985.
“There’s just something that’s wonderful about having the in-person, tactile piece of art that can be shown around the community," Levine said.
They have several programs to support families in grief, including Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, and Healing Conversations where a loss survivor can speak with an AFSP volunteer one-on-one. Levine says art and creativity is a great way to handle grief.
“Art is very cathartic, so whether you are creating it, our viewing it, there is a healing process in that," she says.
Katie Mcivor — the owner of The Confident Stitch in Missoula — has been quilting for 30 years. She knows firsthand how hard suicide loss can be.
“When you lose someone to suicide, and I’ve lost two family members to suicide, it feels like people forget about them," she noted.
Mcivor didn't have prior knowledge of the Lifekeeper Memory Quilt Program, but thinks it's a great idea, even for those who aren't talented at quilting. She said art and sewing were helpful during her own grieving process.
“After my brother took his own life, I quilted up a storm," she said. "You don’t have to be amazing at quilting, and it can still be really fun... It will be therapeutic even if quilting isn’t your primary hobby.”
The AFSP focuses on suicide prevention and awareness. They host events, such as Talks Saves Lives, that spread information about the signs of suicide and what to look for in family and friends who may be suffering. Levine says they want to change the stigma around suicide.
“Losing anybody to death to a disease– suicide is similar in that fashion," she says.
Montana clearly has an issue with suicide rates, but there are several organizations, like the AFSP, who are working hard to change that. Though there is still work to be done, Levine is hopeful when she sees communities coming together for suicide prevention.
“We know that this is a problem here in Montana, and people want to get together to make a difference," she says. “There are a lot of organizations out there wanting to make a difference, and it’s incredible that we can work together to make it happen because this can’t be done alone.”
Even if people don't know how to create a quilt square, they are still encouraged to participate. There are directions on the AFSP website, as well as volunteers around the state who are willing to create squares for people who send in information on their loved ones.
The volunteers often have a connection to the cause and are, of course, very passionate about quilting.
In addition to the physical quilt, the AFSP national organization has a digital memory quilt with pictures and the same sort of information placed on the tactile blanket.
Unfortunately, one of the Montana AFSP's quilts was recently stolen, meaning they now only have one quilt. Levine is hoping they can replace it with their third.
Additional information about the Montana chapter of the Lifekeeper Memory Quilt Program can be found here.
If you or someone you know is suffering, help and resources are available 24-7. You can call the suicide prevention lifeline at 9-8-8 or 1-800-273-8255. You can also text "MT" to 741 741.