Left behind: Support network helps those affected by suicide death in Nevada County
Have you been affected by a suicide death?
Call 916-392-0664 or visit http://www.FriendsForSurvival.org for information on local resources.
April 4, 1977 was a day Marilyn Koenig will never forget. It was the day her 18-year-old son, Steven, took his life.
Steven was the second oldest of seven children, and no one saw it coming.
“He was always the compliant, creative one I didn’t worry about,” said Koenig. “He was a high achiever — if he hadn’t left a note, I never would have believed it.”
Koenig said her son’s death was during an era when people didn’t talk about suicide, so families often felt extremely isolated during their time of grief. It took Koenig a full five years of mourning before she started to think about what other families may be experiencing. In her living room one afternoon, she and another mother — who had also lost a teenage son to suicide — began researching the resources available in Northern California for people affected by suicide death.
“We talked to county social workers, funeral directors and professors of death and dying,” said Koenig. “And that’s when we started Friends for Survival.”
Today, Friends For Survival, Inc. is a national nonprofit outreach organization available to those who are grieving a suicide death of family or friends. It also offers resources to professionals who work with those who are grieving a suicide tragedy. All staff and volunteers have been directly impacted by a suicide death.
“Today we have people calling us from all over the U.S. and a newsletter that goes out to 4,500,” said Koenig. “To date, we’ve helped over 7,000 families. I never thought it would become that huge — I just thought there would be a group of us in my living room.”
Because of the unique circumstances surrounding a suicide death, it’s not unusual for members to still be affected 20, even 30 years after the event.
“The grief doesn’t go away, and some people were never really able to talk about the event when it happened,” Koenig said. “For some, coming to our group has allowed them to talk about it for the first time, many years later.”
Three years ago, Grass Valley resident Candy Hershey established a South County chapter of Friends for Survival. She had lost her stepsister to suicide in 1972 — when she was just a teenager — and initially shared her story with a group in Sacramento.
“I started to cry and it really surprised me,” she said. “I thought I was over it, but clearly I wasn’t. The people who come to our Grass Valley group say that other grief groups are nice, but they don’t always understand. If you’ve lost someone in an accident or after a long disease, it’s a different kind of grief. With suicide death, you often experience anger at the person, and blaming yourself — all the ‘if onlys.’ ‘If only I had listened more closely.’ ‘If only I had paid more attention.’ ‘If only I had gone over to see them instead of calling.’ Families unfairly blame themselves and it’s something they have to learn to deal with.”
Survivor support meetings are like forums, meaning they are comprised of equals exchanging views. Group members are invited to share struggles with grief after a suicide death or offer coping suggestions. However some new members have been known to not speak at all, said Hershey. Others often share frustrations, ask questions and share personal victories over depression and grief. The goal is to offer support, encouragement and information through shared experiences in an effort to help each other cope.
Meetings are peer support, not therapy sessions. They are free and members are invited to attend open-ended meetings for as long as is needed. Meetings are scheduled in a variety of locations throughout Northern California, including South Nevada County.
In addition to monthly meetings, Friends for Survival publishes a monthly newsletter of sharing and information about grief after suicide, referrals to local resources, a lending library, a “Suicide Loss Helpline” staffed by volunteers who have shared the tragedy of suicide, volunteer training, chapter development and more.
Those interested can contact Friends for Survival for an introductory packet and current newsletter. Monthly newsletters are snail-mailed, “to provide people support and encouragement in the privacy of their homes and give them time to pore over the material,” said Koenig.
Holidays can be especially hard for those who have lost someone, added Hershey.
“You tend to think back on every holiday you spent together — I encourage people to focus on the good memories, and to change it up, make new traditions,” she said. “This time of year can be really hard for a lot of people. But I encourage them to not spend too much time alone, even if it’s just calling someone. But be kind to yourself, take the time you need to grieve, but by all means, reach out.”
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at Cory@theunion.com.
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