‘It wasn’t your fault’: Local woman helping families impacted by suicide through outreach group

PITTSBURGH — A local woman is leading a brand new organization that helps families who have been affected by suicide.

Sue Soltis reads the inscription on a wooden bench at Blue Slide Park in Squirrel Hill: ‘Like a sparkle of sunshine you glisten upon the earth.’

“That was a piece of poetry my sister had written,” says Soltis.

Her family had the bench put in, in memory of his sister Heidi. Shade softly covers it.

“My mother provides shelter to her (Heidi) because my mother is the tree that sits behind it,” Soltis points out.

Soltis’ family planted the tree, dedicated to her mother, Wilma, a few years after the bench went in right next to the playground.

“So, there’s a place where I can always come see them and it’s happy. There is smiling,” said Soltis. “Because you can go on.”

She spreads that message any chance she gets to families who have lost loved ones to suicide. Because she lost two.

“This is one of the most devastating losses you can go through,” said Soltis.

In 2001 Soltis’ sister, Heidi, died by suicide. Two years later, her mom, Wilma, did too.

“There wasn’t anyone coming to my house to say, ‘Are you okay? It wasn’t your fault,’” Soltis recalled.

But Soltis has become that person. She is part of a new program in our area dedicated to reaching out to people who just lost loved ones to suicide. It’s called L.O.S.S., which stands for Local Outreach for Suicide Survivors. It’s an arm of the Westmoreland County Coroner’s Office and it’s only the second L.O.S.S. group in the state.

“What we’re trying to do is go right to the loss survivor and to the family to say ‘you are not alone. We are here for you. We have resources. We have hope. We have support for you,’” said Soltis.

Support that is needed, according to numbers from the Westmoreland County Coroner’s office. In 2022, 62 people in Westmoreland County died by suicide. That is the most reported in the last 18 years.

Either the day of death or the day after, Soltis or her colleagues deliver care packages and guidance to families about how to respond to the suicide.

“You’re helping them navigate that journey of grief, and trauma, and loss,” said Soltis. “As a loss survivor, we are four times more likely to die by suicide ourselves.”

Knowing that information, Soltis has been proactive in her own life, getting counseling, making sure people check in on her, and being aware of signs of suicide.

“Maybe someone who is outgoing and sociable is now withdrawn or you see them engaging in behaviors that you may be concerned about,” said Laura Francis, Director of Behavioral Health Clinical Programs at UPMC Health Plan.

Francis says it’s okay to ask them how they’re feeling and to be direct about it by asking, ‘Are you thinking about suicide?’

“There’s a common myth that talking about suicide will plant a seed, but that’s not accurate. Talking about suicide will not cause suicidal behavior,” Francis said.

“No one should ever feel like the option is not being here,” said Jamie Edwards, LCSW, Chief Clinical Administrative Officer for Community Care Behavioral Health.

For Soltis, there’s a hole where her sister and her mom used to be.

“Here’s what I think about: she never got to meet my grandson,” Soltis shared.

But she’s found purpose in her pain, by not being afraid to talk about suicide and offer hope.

“Because if something that I can do or say can help save a life, can make an impact, I’m going to keep talking.”

If you need help, counselors are only a phone call away. Dial 988 for the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. They will connect you to local resources.

Other local resources include Community Care Behavioral Health, which is in 43 counties in Pennsylvania: https://www.ccbh.com/

For Allegheny County residents, resolve Crisis Services: https://www.upmc.com/services/behavioral-health/resolve-crisis-services

In Westmoreland County, Ray of Hope is the suicide awareness and prevention task force. It is also where you can find information about the Local Outreach to Suicide Prevention Team (L.O.S.S.): https://www.rayofhopewestmoreland.org/

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