Anna Margrét Bjarnadóttir is no stranger to adversity. She grew up in Breiðholt, a suburb of Reykjavík, known in the past for its criminal gangs and pockets of poverty (relative to Icelandic standards). A close friend of hers died by suicide when Anna Margrét was 17 years old, and five years later she lost her father to suicide on Christmas Eve in 1999 when she was 22 years old. Her father was 46 years old. Her mother succumbed to cancer in 2014 when Anna Margrét was 36. Cancer has taken the life of several of her relatives due to BRCA2 gene mutation in her family. She is a BRCA2 carrier, which makes her at very high risk. Thus, shortly before her arrival in the US in 2016, Anna Margrét underwent risk-reducing surgeries. Dealing with adversity has shaped her life and strengthened her character.
Anna Margrét’s family hails from Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands), the archipelago south of Iceland. In 1973, the tenacious islanders attempted to divert the massive volcanic lava flow that threatened to destroy the harbor, the lifeline of the islands. Among them were Anna Margrét’s parents and her older brother, only a few months old at the time. The islanders celebrate their own National “Holiday”(Þjóðhátíð) in early August each year.
Like her tenacious foremothers, which the First Lady of Iceland in her recent book calls Sprakkar – the tenacious ones – Anna Margrét decided early on to make something special of herself. She graduated from senior high school, Menntaskólinn við Sund, and went from there to study at the University of Iceland. She graduated with B.A. in Danish and Icelandic. Anna Margrét also has two master’s degrees from Aarhus University in Denmark, one in Culture and Aesthetics and another in Educational Theory.
In Iceland, she has worked at a cultural institution, as a Danish Teacher and at Vigdís Finnbogadóttir Institute of Foreign Languages. But after her mother’s death, she made two monumental decisions. First, she underwent preemptive surgeries, as noted above, to improve her prospects for long-term survival. Secondly, she dramatically changed her career by switching to work for a non-profit organization that helps others affected by hereditary cancer. She is an advocate for genetic testing, standing up for the rights of those with BRCA, and organizing events and conferences to raise awareness of the issue. She is also president of BRCA Iceland. This involvement reinforced her determination to write a book about her experience with death and its aftermath.
During her high school years, she met her future husband, Þorvarður Tjörvi Ólafsson, who was then studying at Reykjavík’s premier high school, Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík. Tjörvi went on to study economics, mostly at the University of Aarhus in Denmark (with a short spell at The National University of Iceland) where he attained his PhD degree. (He is also a former professional handball player). The two have now been together for 27 years and will have a 20-year wedding anniversary in June. They have three children, ages 13, 15 and 19.
In 2005, Tjörvi was hired by the Central Bank of Iceland, and the family moved back home. In 2016, Tjörvi got a job offer from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Washington DC. The couple uprooted themselves again, this time to the US. Tjörvi now has bright career prospects at the IMF, where he was recently promoted to Deputy Unit Chief.
After arrival in the US, Anna Margrét had the opportunity to focus on the question that had haunted her since her father´s death. Why is there so much stigma attached to suicides, and why is there so little support for the surviving family members? So instead of teaching, she decided to focus her efforts on her book about suicide. She interviewed a wide range of people from four different countries who had experience with the topic. After analyzing the replies, she wove them into a logical, coherent story, written in Icelandic. Then she found a publisher and a photographer, and they decided to adorn the book with pictures of Icelandic landscapes. To personalize the topic, the book also includes pictures of the suicide loss survivors she interviewed.
The book consists of stories of 12 people associated with their loss of a loved one from suicide. It also has a chapter from a psychiatrist on dealing with loss after suicide. The last chapter consists of guidance to families (including young children and teenagers), friends, and co-workers of suicide victims. The First Lady of Iceland read and reviewed the book, which was published in Iceland in April 2022. In connection with her successful book launch, Anna Margrét also had the honor of presenting the President of Iceland with the book. It is now being translated into English and Danish and hopefully will be available in Greenland, which has the highest suicide rate in the world. In Icelandic the book is called Tómið eftir sjálfsvíg – Bjargráð til að lifa með sorginni, and a tentative English title is Hollowness after Suicide – Guide for Suicide Loss Survivors.
Anna Margrét and Tjörvi joined the Icelandic Association of Washington DC shortly after their arrival in the US where they settled in a Maryland suburb of D.C. They have faithfully attended Þorrablót, the annual June 17th festivities, and the Jólabasar where Anna Margrét helped with food preparations.
In the future, Anna Margrét wishes to focus on lighter topics than suicide and cancer. Being a food enthusiast, she has plans to write a book on food or start a blog on baking, cooking, and recipes.