August 26, 2022

Retreat for survivors of suicide loss emphasizes ‘you are not alone’

During the You Are Not Alone retreat for survivors of suicide loss, butterflies are placed in a memorial garden at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House. (Submitted photo)

During the You Are Not Alone retreat for survivors of suicide loss, butterflies are placed in a memorial garden at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House. (Submitted photo)

By Natalie Hoefer

Christine Turo-Shields has a poignant message for survivors of suicide loss. It comes not just from more than 30 years as a professional counselor, but from her own experience with loss by suicide.

“For you to be able to look into the eyes of someone else who just intuitively knows the depth of that pain is really like no other feeling,” she says. “No words have to be spoken, just to know that they know the depth of your pain. That can be so healing, to know that you’re not alone.”

The message “you’re not alone” is relayed time and again in an upcoming retreat Turo-Shields and others will present on Sept. 30-Oct. 2 at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis. The name of the retreat for survivors of suicide loss even bears the message in its title: “You Are Not Alone.”

The idea for the retreat, now in its third year, was born out of the agony suffered by Lisa Thibault after she lost her husband to suicide in 2017. She attended a widows’ retreat but found her type of grief “isolating.”

‘An isolating grief’

“Suicide loss is a different kind of grief,” says Thibault, a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis and mother of three. “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.”

With the help of Providence Sister Connie Kramer—a suicide loss survivor herself—a team was formed to design a retreat for those grieving the death of a loved one to suicide.

Sister Connie, Thibault andTuro-Shields are on the team. Two other suicide loss survivors are included—Father James Farrell and Judy Proctor, a member of St. Barnabas Parish in Indianapolis who created a suicide loss support group after losing her son to suicide in 2008.

The retreat focuses on three “journeys” of suicide loss survivors: the emotional journey, the healing journey and the spiritual journey.

Turo-Shields, a licensed clinical social worker (among other counseling licenses) who co-founded Kenosis Counseling Center, addresses the emotional journey.

“I talk about various feelings and emotions that go along with [suicide loss], because suicide is such a complex loss,” says the member of St. Barnabas. “It weights people with remorse, shame, regret.”

The spiritual journey can be a challenge too, she says.

“When you hit a point of trauma, spiritually we typically do one of three things: we turn toward God, away from God or against God,” she explains.

“Suicide loss is the cross that’s been laid on our shoulders. We don’t get to pick our cross. This [retreat] is a way to begin to make sense out of that which is senseless, and comprehensible that which is incomprehensible.”

‘Unique for every person’

As survivors themselves, the team understands that that those who come to the retreat will respond to each component of the weekend differently, says Turo-Shields.

“Grief is like a fingerprint, it’s unique for every person,” she says. “Especially with a traumatic death like suicide. We understand that.

“If a few hours is all someone can tolerate, we recognize and respect the timing of every person’s journey.”

This was true for the family of Tom Hayes. He and his wife Amy lost a son to suicide in 2021. They attended the You Are Not Alone retreat last fall.

“Our son came, then realized it wasn’t for him,” says Hayes. “They were very good, no pressure. Nobody thought less of him. From a dad’s standpoint, I appreciated that.”

“We absolutely want people to stay for the weekend,” Turo-Shields says. “But we understand that people can only do what they can tolerate and are responsive to that.”

For some sessions, she says, participants may prefer just to walk the grounds at Fatima. Attendees are also given their own room during the weekend where they can go to be alone or sleep, whatever they need in that moment.

Some people connect with various parts of the retreat differently. Hayes says he would attend the retreat again just for Father Farrell’s guided meditation.

In addition to the three “journey” sessions and guided meditation, the weekend includes talks from survivors, music, journaling, sharing of resources, the opportunity for Mass and a remembrance service in the memorial garden that Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House added to its grounds.

And there is the essential connection with other survivors, reinforcing the message that “you are not alone.”

‘The healing will come’

That message was a stand-out for Hayes.

“There are people [at the retreat] I wish we didn’t have to meet” because of the circumstances, he admits. “But it’s comforting to know others are experiencing the same emotions you’re experiencing, and being able to talk about it is a healing process.”

Other past participants echoed his thoughts. Post-retreat surveys note people appreciated “the feeling of being in a room with those who know exactly how I feel,” “hearing people’s stories and how they got through,” and “learning that suicide loss has been experienced by so many—I really feel less alone.”

Such comments are rewarding to Thibault, especially knowing how difficult it can be for survivors of suicide loss to come to a retreat.

“Doing something like this definitely is not easy,” she admits. “We want to turn from [grief].

“But this is an incredibly safe environment with those who’ve gone through the same thing. Taking the first step in coming is the hardest part. But from there, our team will welcome you and guide you through.”

She also notes that it’s “a big help taking time away from regular life to sit with your grief. There are so many distractions during the day. It really takes a forceful effort to not just be present with grief, but to have time to work through it—and work through it with others going through the same thing.”

Turo-Shields agrees.

“If you can be open to the experience, the healing will come,” she assures. “Even if you leave during the retreat, the healing will continue to come. Part of that is God’s grace and mercy—it will always come.”
 

(For more information about or to register for the You Are Not Alone retreat at Our Lady of Fatima Retreat House, 5353 E. 56th St., in Indianapolis, on Sept. 30-Oct. 2, go to cutt.ly/YANA [all caps] or call 317-545-7681.)

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