HARRISONBURG, Va. (Mennonite Mission Network) – After one of Mennonite Media’s documentaries airs on network television, Mennonite Media staff never quite know what they’ll encounter when picking up the phone.
It may be a man who tries to talk but can barely be understood for grief overcoming him. It may be a young mother with children screaming in the background. It may be an almost-homeless woman who lives in a camper and has tried every church and helping agency she knows and has almost given up. It may be a 76-year-old mother of a 58-year-old woman with depression who similarly simply doesn’t know where to turn. These are all real phone calls from the past two months at Mennonite Media.
This is modern media ministry. Many of the documentaries Mennonite Media produces end up airing on weekends, especially Sundays, because that is when local TV affiliates (who play them at their discretion) give free air time. The air time is worth millions of dollars, but the total value is hard to calculate. Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide was used by 181 of ABC’s 200 affiliates during January and February, which means it was available to approximately 94 percent of homes with TVs in the United States. The program focuses on families dealing with the aftermath of a suicide.
Mennonite Media staffers Lois Hertzler, Sheri Hartzler, Dorothy Hartman, Melodie Davis, and volunteer Mary Buller take turns trying to cover the phones during the times when the most stations are airing the programs. At the end of the program, a toll-free number appears on screen. Sometimes as many as three or four phone calls come at once, and staff members prefer for calls to be answered by a live voice as much as possible.
Follow-up phone calls continue through the week, and Mennonite Media staffers switch from writing a routine report or figuring out production schedules to responding to a woman who starts out calm but has trouble getting out the words, “My son took his life four months ago.” After spending 20-30 minutes on the phone trying to find life and death help for the person, “it is hard to just go back to the computer and write that report,” notes Lois Hertzler, coordinator of customer service for Mennonite Media. When people in acute crisis call, they are referred to a national suicide hotline number.
Since Fierce Goodbye began airing on ABC Jan. 7, there have been at least 175 phone calls and 195 copies of the program purchased, or related books bought. Some viewers follow up by searching the Internet for the program and to purchase copies. Also, some 150 people have left their lengthy, personal and very painful stories of suicide loss at the Fierce Goodbye Web site, (under “Tell Your Story”) since the program first aired on Hallmark the fall of 2004.
On Christmas Day, Barbara Murphy, a survivor of childhood incest who has lived through three serious suicide attempts, was hopeful after finding the Fierce Goodbye Web site. “I am amazed that anyone who hasn’t experienced the determination to terminate themselves is capable of the descriptive eloquence I read here,” Murphy wrote. She was looking for a qualified treatment center to help with her problems adding, “I don’t ever want to succeed in my self-destructive plan. … This Web site is a God-send, and a beacon of hope for anyone who has ever known suicide in any capacity, grieved suicide, survived suicide.”
Murphy was raised Catholic and said she had fallen away for many reasons. “Your Web site has shown me a side of the Church I never knew personally and always longed for,” she wrote. In a follow up e-mail, Murphy said she had several people helping her find a treatment center and was doing better.
Mennonite Media staff had offered her the opportunity to correspond with a counselor, Pam Comer, director of counseling services at nearby Eastern Mennonite University. Comer backs up the media staff with limited screening-type counseling via phone or e-mail on a volunteer basis. Most exchanges involve only a round or two of e-mail.
Last November, Comer received an e-mail from someone counseled a year earlier after the suicide of a loved one. The woman wrote, “Things are better today. I am staying busy at work, and we are anxiously awaiting the birth of my first grandchild. Again, thanks for your response. It was the only one.”
Burton Buller, director of Mennonite Media, said the fact that this woman noted, remembered and thanked Comer for responding reminds Mennonite Media to take great care in handling responses.
“We take each inquiry seriously and try to respond as quickly and personally as possible,” explained Buller. “We never know when that one response can make the difference between newfound hope or continuing despair.”
Staff frequently network with persons who have appeared in the documentaries to provide personal follow-up for special inquiries. A woman from England whose husband died by suicide a year earlier contacted Mennonite Media after two of her closest friends also died the same way. She wanted to talk to one of the clergy in the program. Staff members put her touch with Dr. James T. Clemons, a United Methodist clergyman, and author of several books on suicide. She said, “I now run a Christian group for Survivors of Suicide, and I find this [Web site] enormously helpful and regularly use your resources.” She said she has made friends with others who have posted their stories at the Web site and finds it “comforting to know that we are not alone.”
In Fierce Goodbye, family survivors of suicide share personal stories of their trauma. Mental health experts talk about the stigma of mental illness and suicide, and theologians and biblical scholars spell out traditional views on what happens to the “soul” after suicide and how some views are changing in light of new knowledge about mental illness. The program was hosted by Judy Collins, who lost her adult son to suicide.
The documentary was produced in cooperation with Faith & Values Media, and is a ministry of Mennonite Media through Mennonite Mission Network.