People who have lost someone to suicide feel the pain in a way that is different from that of other deaths. Suicide is a sudden death, often violent, with those left behind feeling guilt and shame and others not knowing how to talk to them about the experience.
“People need help after any kind of grief, especially after a suicide death,” said Barb Schimpl, vice-president of the Sunrise Grief Retreat Society which sponsors grief retreats for different types of grief, including a terminal diagnosis.
“In the suicide grief retreat, people all have something in common and they know they are not alone. They may have feelings of anger, rejection and blame for others. They have had no opportunity to say good-bye, there are unanswered questions and unfinished business and they are looking for some understanding and meaning in what has happened.”
After a suicide, family members may feel helplessness, shame and stigma and be at risk for a variety of medical problems, including migraines, stomach ailments and psychological issues, like depression and post traumatic stress disorder.
Andrea Hoye, president of the Sunrise Grief Retreat Society (formerly known as the Mara Station Grief Retreat Society), remembers her personal experience more than 30 years ago when her brother committed suicide.
“I know what myself and my family went through. Each one of us had our own feelings of guilt, I because I was a nurse, and my brother because he was a social worker and we should have known, but we had no blame and we were able to get through it as a family. I attended a one-day workshop and that began my healing,” she said.
The Sunrise Grief Retreat Society fall retreat for people who have lost a family member or friend to suicide takes place Nov. 2 to 6 at Cedar Tree Inn near Cherryville. The retreat is co-facilitated by Schimpl, retired RN, who specializes in grief counseling, and Brenda Bannerman, a social worker and counselor. The retreat is coordinated by Hoye, who is an RN who has a background in home care nursing and was active in the development of North Okanagan Hospice House.
The retreat begins Friday afternoon and ends Tuesday morning. Each day includes group sessions with professional counselors, an opportunity for one-on-one counseling and to try massage therapy, Healing Touch, Qi Gong and Expressive Therapy, also with professionals. There is also personal quiet time to walk on the trails on the wooded property, visit the pet llamas or use the sauna. Accommodation is in private rooms, and meals are included.
“We make sure people get everything they need,” said Schimpl. “There are many more suicides in the area than people know. There is so much silence around suicide and that compounds the impact. It is important that families and friends do not feel abandoned and that they are able to talk about their feelings and experiences. When people explore their grief, they can find ways to heal and hope.”
It is recommended that people attend the grief retreat at any time they feel ready. After application, participants are contacted by phone to help them decide if this is the right time for them to attend.
The Sunrise Grief Retreat Society is a registered non-profit society run by a volunteer board of directors with representation from the Thompson Okanagan Shuswap. Most of the retreat staff members are volunteers or receive only a small honorarium. The retreat runs Nov. 2 to 6. The retreat fee is $550 per person and $900 for couples with limited financial assistance available. For more information and pre-registration, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, call Hoye at 250-307-7850 or see www.sunrisegriefretreat.org.
Tracy will never know if her son committed suicide or not.
“He didn’t leave a note. He died of a drug overdose so we don’t know if this was despair or an accident. We had lived with a young adult son involved with drugs and depression and anxiety. We’re just not sure,” she said.
She heard about the Sunrise Grief Retreat Society from a nurse who is a retreat team member.
“It sounded wonderful. I’m interested in exploring the areas of regret and guilt and looking deeply at that loss with other people who have experienced this kind of loss and pain. I’ve done a lot of reading and that was helpful,” she said.
“At the time, family and friends helped so much. The first year, you’re covered with this fog of sadness and can’t explore anything too deep because you don’t have anything in you to do that. Now I feel stronger. The pain has changed — it’s more intense, in a different way. Now, it’s the reality. I’m aware that he’s not coming back.”
Tracy is looking forward to talking to others who have been through the pain of losing someone to suicide. She has approached other families who have lost a child to suicide but could not find someone who would talk about it and she often feels alone in her loss.
“There is the psychological and emotional pain for those who have lost someone dear to them. It’s an opportunity to express myself to understanding ears. I know I will learn things that I can pass on to help other family members and friends as well,” she said.
“I know I don’t go to the depths I need to to heal. I can rationalize and understand why I shouldn’t feel guilty but I think the group sessions will help me bring it out. I find that our society does not really embrace talking about death in any way. That’s sad, because it’s such a big part of our lives. Death, and particularly suicide, are scary things, but the more we can talk about them, the better we can understand and accept them.
“I’m looking forward to the retreat.”