Founding a support group resulted from the complicated, isolating barriers that confronted my
family following the suicide of my 24-year old son, Roger Kent, in August, 1978. A loving,
sympathetic social community did not compensate for the terrifying void of knowledge and
understanding of suicides' aftermath from professional counselors, the lack of acceptance and
reinforcement from uncomfortable or condemning clergy and the total absence of healing
guidelines. My search for positive, healthy direction for my family's healing initiated
my membership in the American Association of Suicidology and on-going study of both suicide
and suicide grief dynamics.
During my first AAS conference, 1979 in Denver, I attended the only session offered for suicide
bereaved. There, for the first time, I met another mother who had lost her son to suicide.
We spent hours over coffee sharing our tears and torment, speaking unabashedly of the inexplicable
horror and anguish of our son's suicides, of our fear for our surviving children and of the smothering
despair of isolation. Those hours laid the foundation for HEARTBEAT. I returned home
strengthened, knowing that I was not alone, and recognizing I was very fortunate to have the father
of my son and our four surviving children to give me hope, love and reassurance of a future.
My new survivor friend was a single mom, alienated from her only surviving child and with infirm
parents and no extended family. This is when I knew I would live through my grief.
The relief I experienced from that sharing made me determined that future suicide bereaved in
my community would not make this grief journey alone. While involved in suicide and grief
related studies, I was also gaining knowledge, growth and experience as a respondent on a local
hotline talking with survivor callers who asked for help in coping with the suicide of a significant
other. I began to formulate a philosophy of healing I believed would have benefited myself and
my family after my son's death. I had my first awareness of the definition of a support
group … a gathering of people with a common difficulty, situation or need exchanging aid in an
effort to satisfy or resolve the conflicts created by the common situation, difficulty or need.
I knew that such a group would provide a source of acceptance, interaction and healthy role
modeling that was not available through existing social institutions or probably anywhere for that
matter. I also knew such a group would not/should not replace therapy but could be a healthy
adjunct when therapy was needed.
I wanted the group to provide a safe place where hurting people would heal by helping other
hurting people heal … and this became our organization's mission. I knew it must be more than
a 'sob' group but must offer opportunity for ventilating and validating feelings, for exchanging
comfort and coping techniques, for lightening the burden of grief by sharing the load. I wanted
the groups' name to acknowledge the anguish of suicide loss without labeling survivors. I believed
it must symbolize strength, courage and the healing power of love and understanding, extend the
promise of life's continuance and worth even as it identified the agonizing, almost concentrated
physical effort of making one heartbeat follow another during acute grief. As the philosophy took
form, the name, HEARTBEAT, evolved as an acronym.
I was convinced a support group would help many
people. Everything was in place to get a group started. Yet I procrastinated. A local health
agency agreed to sponsor the group but I could not find a mental health professional or clergy
willing to risk involvement in such a venture. T here was only my own grief experience and sparse
literature on suicide bereavement to guide me. I had been warned by a mental health professional
that bringing together this much distorted grief and this many 'dysfunctional' people could be
dangerous. What if that was true? Or, what if participation in the group caused someone
irreparable damage? Working at my desk one afternoon, discouraged, unsure and afraid, I put
my head on my arms and prayed … "God, if this is how You want to use my grief, please give me
a sign." That heart-prayer wasn't completely voiced when the telephone rang. It was a hotline
call from a suicide survivor who asked, "Do you have meetings?" Beware the one who tries to
tell me God doesn't use the telephone!
The first HEARTBEAT meeting in November, 1980, was
among the first three or four support groups for suicide bereaved anywhere. Coincidentally,
two other suicide bereavement support groups began that same fall, in other parts of the
country, unbeknownst to one another.
When I first explored the idea of a support group I
asked my husband for his help. He consented, but told me, "I don't want you to be hurt if
no one comes". But they did come! Within a few months of the initial HEARTBEAT meeting
survivors were traveling from Denver, the Kansas plains, from mountain communities, from
the sand dune area, from all directions, many traveling more than a hundred miles each
way to spend two hours once a month in the healing presence of others. About mid way the
second year a chapter was started in Denver, then northwest Kansas, Greeley, Boulder, Pueblo,
central Nebraska and so on.
As the number of chapters grew, a Board of Directors was assembled,
bylaws were written and application for incorporation as HEARTBEAT/survivors after suicide, inc.,
was made to the Colorado Secretary of State, with incorporation granted in 1993. I chose to use
survivors after suicide rather than the more often used survivors of suicide to differentiate
between those who survive after the suicide death of a loved one and those who attempt suicide
and do not die.
The Founding chapter of HEARTBEAT operated under the umbrella of two different
non-profit organizations; first, the Health Association/Pikes Peak Region and later, the Suicide
Prevention Partnership of the Pikes Peak Region. HEARTBEAT/Founding chapter applied for and
received its own IRS non-profit status, December, 2002.
One of the first and most frightening
things I read after my son's death was that those who grieve a loved one's suicide are at many
times greater risk of ending their lives than the general population. If this is true, do
survivors end their lives because of genetics, bad role modeling, extreme dysfunction, assumed
guilt or the traumatic experience of finding the mutilated body of a loved one? Or, could it
be because of the terrifying isolation with no one to understand the enormity of the loss and
its cause, to empathize and show them the way? no one to validate the compounded morass of
emotions and complicated grief needs? no one to offer the encouragement of, " I know the
anguish; I've been there" and no one to extend the assurance that they will not always hurt
this badly, that they can and will live through and beyond this savage emotional wounding?
HEARTBEAT, and other early groups for suicide bereaved, were grass root efforts to address
suicide bereavement by offering comfort, encouragement and direction to those left to mourn. Since 1980, the movement to provide reinforcement to suicide survivors has grown to hundreds
of groups, with a variety of names, available in every state. The healing achieved within a
suicide bereavement support group is analogical to the mythical Phoenix; a new, different life
rises from the ashes of tragedy, loss, despair and grief after suicide.
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