June 12, 2020

New program offers hope, healing to survivors of suicide loss

By Natalie Hoefer

After losing her husband to suicide in November of 2017, Lisa Thibault attended a widows’ retreat last October year.

Afterward, she spoke about her feelings during the retreat with one of the presenters, Providence Sister Connie Kramer.

“I found [the retreat] beneficial, but I shared privately with Sister Connie my desire for a retreat specifically for those grieving a suicide loss, because I felt very lonely [at the widows’ retreat],” says 49-year-old Thibault, a mother of three and a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis.

“Suicide loss is a different kind of grief. It’s an isolating grief, especially in my experience. So being around other survivors is very important to move things forward, to learn how to survive.”

Sister Connie took Thibault’s comments to heart. Connections were made, and meetings were held early this year to develop a program for those grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide.

The end result is a program called “You Are Not Alone: Hope and Healing for Survivors of Suicide Loss,” being offered at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis.

The program offers three components: a series of three two-hour sessions; a two-day retreat at Our Lady of Fatima; and suicide prevention training through an American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) program called “safeTALK.” (See here for more information on each of these programs)

This article addresses the series and the retreat, both of which cover the emotional, healing and spiritual journey of suicide loss survivors.

“Sharing with [suicide loss survivors] who have my same belief in God as a higher power—that he’s gentle, forgiving, non-judgmental, someone who embraces those in pain—is important,” says Thibault.

‘People lose so much hope’

She was not alone in her desire for a faith-based outreach specifically for those grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide.

For several years, Christine Turo-Shields, a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker and licensed addictions counselor, has mentioned the need many times to Fatima’s associate director of operations, Cheryl McSweeney.

“Christine feels strongly that we need to do more to get ahead of” the call for ministry to survivors of suicide loss, says McSweeney, who serves with her and Thibault on the You Are Not Alone team.

That need is connected to the increase in suicides, says Turo-Shields, who has lost two extended family members to suicide. The member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis is co-owner of Kenosis Counseling Center, Inc., in Greenwood, serves on the AFSP board, and serves as a You Are Not Alone presenter.

According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, she says, suicide was up more than 30 percent between 2001-2017.

“In Indiana, suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15-34 year-olds,” she adds. “And the rate of suicide following another suicide is high because people lose so much hope.

“Many people are walking around with gaping wounds because someone died by suicide. There’s such complexity around it—stigma and the emotions of loss, guilt, blame and shame.” (Related: What the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about suicide and God’s mercy)

‘It’s not a normal death’

Fellow St. Barnabas parishioner Judy Proctor knows personally about the stigma surrounding suicide. It is the means by which her son Andrew died in 2008, and a nephew four years later. She started the Hope and Healing Survivors of Suicide support group in Indianapolis eight years ago, heads the annual AFSP fundraiser walk in Indianapolis, and is a You Are Not Alone team member and presenter

“The stigma makes it so hard,” says Proctor. “It’s not a normal death. People ask how someone died, and when you say suicide—you can even lose friends over it because they don’t know how to talk to you or deal with it. It’s very isolating.”

Such stigma, especially among Catholics, stems from outdated attitudes as a result of former Church teaching, says Proctor.

“In the [Hope and Healing] group, I can probably count on one hand how many Catholics actually came to the group,” she notes. “I think it’s the old belief that [those who lose their life to suicide] go to hell. I think some people have never learned any differently.”

The truth, says Proctor, is that

“90 percent of suicides usually have a mental health issue at the root of the problem. A lot of people still don’t get that.”

‘The spirit and mind break’

Fellow You Are Not Alone team member Father James Farrell agrees. The pastor of St. Pius X Parish in Indianapolis has experienced two losses to suicide in his family, 30 years apart.

“The change in the Church’s response between the two was very different,” he says.

It was his “passionate” reaction to the Church attitude at the time of the first death more than three decades ago that drove the priest to seek change. He has been involved in grief ministry “for many, many years,” says the priest, who serves as a team member and presenter for the You Are Not Alone program.

Father Farrell’s work in grief ministry has helped him understand the driving force behind suicide.

“Now suicide is seen as a sickness,” he says. “The spirit and the mind break, and hope is lost. The craving to get out of that space leads to life being completed by suicide.”

Thus suicide is not “committed,” he says, a term which implies a conscious decision by someone “in their right mind.”

His experience has also helped Father Farrell recognize the benefits of grief support groups. He notes that while still working through grief “is a lifetime process,” research shows those who participate in such ministry can “move the intensity of their grief by two years.”

Like Father Farrell, Sister Connie has experienced the loss of two loved ones to suicide. She has been involved in grief ministry for more than 40 years, and began offering grief-related retreats about seven years ago. She is a team member and presenter for Fatima’s new program.

“I firmly believe that grief is meant to be a solution in dealing with significant losses in our lives, and can become a life-long friend which helps me to heal,” says Sister Connie. “I also know that grief can be transforming and profound. Grief, such as that which occurs following the death of a loved one by suicide, can profoundly transform a person.

“And from my own experience, I know that a healing journey forward is much easier when not traveled alone.”

‘A sense of hope comes from healing’

The You Are Not Alone three-part series and retreat offer an opportunity for suicide loss survivors to not travel their journey alone.

“We hope [the program] gives people hope for their future to move on, to find purpose in their life again, and to find it by allowing God to be a part of that journey,” says McSweeney. “And also to bring knowledge to people, to remove stigma, and to help people understand what the Catholic Church believes about suicide.”

The July retreat, to be held on July 11-12, will involve talks on the emotional, spiritual and healing journeys of suicide loss grief; a panel discussion; witness talks by Proctor and Thibault; optional Mass; and large and small group discussions.

“No one is expected to share anything,” Turo-Shields reassures. “If they just want to be there in the presence of other survivors, that’s fine.

“The biggest thing we want to convey is there is a sense of hope that comes with healing. Individuals are forever scarred and will never forget. But I often tell survivors there will come a day when you will laugh again—some day, maybe not today, but it is possible.”

One reason the Mass is specifically listed as “optional” is because people of all faiths are welcome, with the understanding that the retreat will be presented through the lens of the Catholic faith.

Another reason is because the loss of someone to suicide can affect even the Catholic griever’s faith.

“Suicide and tragic death can either draw someone closer to God or drive them away from God, because that’s where you place the blame,” says Turo-Shields.

She says survivors ask God, “How could you let this happen? Why didn’t you do something? How can I believe in a God that would allow this to happen?”

“They need a place to unpack all of that, a place to realize it’s OK to have those thoughts and doubts and disillusionment,” she says.

“What’s really important is for survivors to recognize that how their loved one died does not overshadow how he or she lived. When you’re dealing with suicide and tragic death, often the journey is how to make meaning or sense out of what seems senseless, how to comprehend that which is incomprehensible.”

Hearkening back to her experience of loneliness during the widows’ retreat, Thibault also notes the sense of community the You Are Not Alone program offers.

“It’s so important for survivors to form some sense of community so they don’t feel isolated in their own grief,” she says. “Hearing from other survivors is crucial, to see that you can move forward and that this experience doesn’t have to define you.”

‘I could relate to all of it’

McSweeney says the hope is for the You Are Not Alone program to be offered “at least annually. We’ll see how this year goes then go from there.”

According to comments from those who attended the first two parts of the three-part series—moved from an in-person to an online format due to stay-at-home orders to stop the spread of the coronavirus—the You Are Not Alone program succeeds in its goals.

“I’m so grateful that this series is available!” wrote one attendee in their post-session survey. “Thank you! I could relate to all of it.”

Another noted that Turo-Shields “laid a firm foundation of solid material, and the panel shared their experience, strength and hope in diverse ways so as to reach all participants in some way.”

A third participant expressed their gratitude for the program on behalf of their family.

“Our family has found so much comfort from it,” the person wrote. “Thank you for talking about something that so many others will not talk about.”

The comments were rewarding to Thibault.

“Suicide loss survivors are part of the faith community, and they need healing and support, and to know that God is with us throughout our journey of grief,” she says.

And there is reward for the You Are Not Alone team members as well.

“I feel like this is my ministry, my calling,” says Proctor. “I feel like this is how I can honor my son. I can’t bring him back, but I certainly can honor him and keep others hopefully from having the same thing happen to them.

“Even just saving one person would be worth it.” †

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