My Night on Stage at the Grammys: Standing Up for Suicide Loss and Attempt Survivors
Bright Lights Shine on Suicide Prevention
That moment when you are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow suicide loss and attempt survivors on the Grammy’s stage at Madison Square Garden during the grand finale while nominees Logic, Khalid and Alessia Cara sing 1-800-273-8255…and you think – maybe, just maybe, our time has come…
Eight months earlier, I had a received a Facebook message from friends of my teenage sons telling me about the song and how it was going viral with the youth. They told me that I should pay attention.
The song was a timely force of positive messaging to counteract the fears many of us in suicide prevention had about the unsafe messaging we felt was being given by “13 Reasons Why,” the Netflix series that had come out just weeks before. I remember thinking that the 1-800-273-8255 song was a beautiful way to tell a story of how someone in the depths of suicidal despair can find hope by reaching out to another. Logic didn’t mince words – “I feel like I’m outta my mind…I just want to die today” – and his co-performers Alessia and Khalid remind him that while the road is long, he will experience a new breath and feel a lightness of being again. In the end Logic says, “I finally want to be alive.”
Then came the song’s video. I wept the first time I watched this captivating portrayal of a young, Black teen bullied for being gay. And the second time. And the third. The story of the video illustrates that you never know what is on the other side of your despair. The video went on to win MTVs Video Music Award in Hollywood later that spring.
Preparation, Connection and Self-Care
This week I had arrived to New York City three days prior to the Grammys under a commitment of secrecy to the planners to not share the plans for the big night. That meant no social media – not an easy task for me!
Luckily, I had plenty of distraction to keep me busy. I was incredibly fortunate to stay with a fellow sister-on-a-mission, Joanne Harpel. Joanne lost her incredibly beautiful, intelligent, and talented brother Stephen to suicide in the 1990s. Joanne has been a role model and comrade of mine for many years. I cherished my time sitting around in our jammies, drinking coffee and wine with her as we reminisced about our beloved siblings, while plotting our next moves in the fight against suicide.
During the days that we were revving up for the big night and planning how we would change the world, I was still able to do plenty of self-care: daily runs in Central Park, incredible food (French, Korean, Afghan, Japanese, Indian, Mexican – you name it, we ate it), art exhibits (Michelangelo, Rodin and Hockney), and even a bucket list Broadway show (Wicked). Plus, a few late night laughs and endless meandering looking for the perfect jazz clubs.
Two days before the Grammys we had a rehearsal at Madison Square Garden. What complete joy we experienced when several of us – friends and fellow advocates – found one another at the “talent check in” table. We weren’t sure we were bringing much talent to the table, but we sure were bringing plenty of passion. Many hugs exchanged in the makeshift tent as we gave security our IDs for access inside.
Leading the effort was the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Director, Dr. John Draper and his team Shari, Jonah, Lyda, David, Frances and many others. Many of them publicly disclosing their own lived experience with suicide for the first time. This team oversees 160 crisis centers across the US that every day – 24/7 answer calls of people fighting for their lives. I have often said, the Lifeline is probably the single most important suicide prevention resource we have in our country. I proudly serve as the Consumer/Survivor Committee co-chair with my partner DeQuincy Lezine. I am continually impressed by the services the call centers deliver and have known their staff and volunteers to be some of the most dedicated members of our suicide prevention community.
What made this gathering at Madison Square Garden even more special was that it was a public demonstration that suicide loss survivors like Joanne and me could publicly stand as one community with suicide attempt survivors like Eduardo Vega, Misha Kessler and Kevin Hines. Together our stance of solidary and the power of our stories can leverage systems and cultural change. This effort represents the mission of an incredible nonprofit several of us are working to develop: United Suicide Survivors International. It’s a global organization working to build effective change agents in suicide prevention by helping them harness the power of their personal story.
After we pass through security and received our official “Grammys Credential,” we were escorted into the Madison Square Garden stadium.
In that instant it became real for me.
A chill went through me and goosebumps tickled my arms when I looked around. The huge stage and lighting system towered over us as dozens of stagehands hurried to build the set that would transform completely multiple times. Rows of chairs propped up large poster board placeholders with headshots telling us where people would sit. These faces of celebrities all would recognize smiled up at us – Bruno Mars, Rhianna, Jerry Seinfeld, Sting, U2, Lady Gaga, Pink, Jim Gaffigan, Imagine Dragons, Kesha, Sam Smith, Kendrick Lamar, and – right in front of where I would stand on stage – Miley Cyrus and Elton John.
The inspiration stuck us when we practiced stepping on the stage. We would be delivering this powerful message of hope to this incredibly influential audience and the millions who would be watching all over the world.
Honoring and Remembrance
On the day of the event, I got emotionally prepared. Joanne and I walked over to Central Park to scatter some of our loved ones’ ashes. This honoring practice is something I have done over the years as I have traveled around the world and had important opportunities. Opportunities where I wish Carson was with me. I tell him I love him, and I wish he didn’t have to die of suicide. I ask him for guidance to do the most good.
In the drizzling rain, Joanne and I and our small containers walked up dirt path to a secluded hill in the park and came to an overlook that gave us a view of the skyscrapers and a half-frozen pond. On the previous days when I can gone running, thousands had been out with their small yap-yap dogs in sweaters and jogging strollers. Horses adorned with elegant headdresses clip clopped through the park pulling carriages filled with lovebirds and giddy children. On this day, however, the rain kept folks home.
Unfettered by the weather, Joanne and I gently cradled our containers and said our prayers – some aloud, some in silence. We concluded our ritual by releasing the ashes in this special place. Then we stood there side-by-side, without umbrellas as our coats got soaked and the smell of earthy wetness enveloped us, and we shared ghost stories -- experiences we had of continuing bonds with dearly departed.
When the time seemed right we headed back down the hill and walked five blocks back to her colorful midtown apartment for primping. A couple of hours of hair and makeup were needed to bring out our “natural beauty.”
The Big Night Backstage
Given our simple “uniform” for the Grammys performance (a white t-shirt Logic had given us that said either “1-800-273-8255” or “You are not alone”, black pants and black shoes), the only means for self-expression was our jewelry. I wore several small meaningful pieces that connected me to the cause and people I am holding in my thoughts. My mother couldn’t stand that I was going to the Grammys and not wearing anything blingy, so she loaned me her statement necklace, which I think worked out well and gave me a chance to nod at Mom.
Once we got to Madison Square Garden, we were ushered to a professionally staffed large hair and makeup room, and things got lively. Probably over 100 people were in there at one point, mostly back up dancers and singers and their support teams. The room was chaotic with backpacks and clothes scattered along with people waiting long hours for their moment on stage.
The bright lights of the makeup tables and smells of hairspray and the jitters electrified the scene with a vibrancy. The costumes, hairdos and makeup were incredibly elaborate for some – fantastic afros, velvet jumpsuits, and stylized hats. Others, like Kesha’s choir were elegantly dressed in all white.
Every once in a while a dance troupe would be called to go on stage, and the rest of us would offer a rowdy cheer as they paraded out the door. Then in a spontaneous moment of excitement, the dancers for Rhianna turned up her song “Wild Thoughts,” arising from someone’s remote speaker in the dressing room. The whole team started informally rehearsing their dance moves in various stages of dress and preparation and got the rest of us swaying and singing along with our phones out recording it all. The celebratory moment was delightful. And well documented.
Because we were just the back-up folks, we couldn’t sit with the audience, so we watched the program live streaming huddled in clusters around our phones. We ate snacks of Whoppers and BBQ potato chips and kept our energy up with Red Bull as the hours of waiting quickly passed.
Showtime and the Reason I Am Standing Up
Finally, it was our time. The grand finale performance of the night. We knew our piece was going to be an emotional climax of sorts because it followed the segment honoring people who had died over the previous year and would be followed by a 30-second PSA of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, for those watching on television.
Our escort brought us through a labyrinth of escalators, scaffolding, and tunnels and stationed us in the seats behind the stage for a few minutes before we went to our final positions. During these moments as I sat there behind the curtain a dear childhood friend and I started texting. After a difficult battle with alcoholism, she had attempted suicide earlier in the fall, and I had gone to visit her shortly after her hospitalization.
She texted, “Way to go wild sal!” (that is what they used to call me in 7th grade)
I said, “I am standing up for you.”
She said, “You always are. Since 1979.”
My eyes brimmed with tears while Patti LuPone brought down the house on the other side of the curtain singing “Don’t cry for me Argentina. The truth is I never left you. All through my wild days, my mad existence, I kept my promise. Don’t keep your distance.”
And then we were told: show time.
The ten of us that stood center stage were brought under the platform into a narrow tunnel of metal, fabric and monitors. As we waited for our cue to emerge onto the stage, Bruno Mars and his entourage passed between us, and we got to congratulate him. Alessia was hunkered down there with us as she awaited her solo. She, in her incredibly gracious and genuine way, confessed she felt a little nervous. The Emcee James Corden came through and mingled and bantered with us for a bit.
Together all of us vied to watch the memorial reel play out on a very small screen off to the side. We crowded around it making sure everyone had a vantage point and somberly viewed because we knew…
Chris Cornell and
…would be on it. Two music legends, from Soundgarden and Linkin Park respectively, we lost to suicide this year. We observed pensively in silence, connecting deeply to the reason we were there. The two musicians, who were also close friends, were honored in the last part of the reel and then…
The haunting intro of Logic’s song began.
I grabbed and squeezed Joanne’s hand and gave Misha a quick back massage. Here. We. Go.
Khalid started too soon up the stairs for his entrance and was abruptly pulled back by the collar of his shirt by the stage manager. Amidst the nervous laughter we all took a deep breath and up the stairs we climbed.
The lights, the crowd, the music. Exhilarating. Poignant. Powerful. We were standing up for all those who were taken from us by the depths of their despair and for all those who lived through it. Logic gave voice to all those silenced by discrimination and spoke about many of the social justice issues and forms of oppression that lead to hopelessness. The crowd went bananas. They jumped to their feet and started cheering and clapping so loudly we couldn’t hear anything Logic was saying on stage (good thing his mic picked it up for the recording). I threw my hands up and let out a roar from deep inside.
It was all over in a moment.
Logic turned around and gave me and a couple of the other survivors a hug.
We exited stage left and posed for a quick selfie with him, and it was over.
As I write this now. I am sitting in the airport on my way back to Denver. No makeup, little sleep. Blissful and blessed.
And hopeful. That we have arrived a cultural tipping point of change.
NOTE: Thank you to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Mental Health Association of NYC team for inviting me to be part of this amazing experience. Grateful for and inspired by the way you help ensure that the perspectives of suicide loss and attempt survivors are at the forefront of our field.
About the Author
Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and the nation’s first initiative for suicide prevention in the workplace. In 2016 she was an invited speaker at the White House. In her recent TEDx Talk she shares her goal to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities. Connect with Sally at www.SallySpencerThomas.com and on Facebook (@DrSallySpeaks), Twitter (@sspencerthomas) and LinkedIn.
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