Suicide can be the loneliest death for those left behind. Kim Cunliffe lost her son, Darin Cunliffe, to suicide three years ago.
“He was incredibly happy, loving and funny, popular with everyone and involved in sports. He had a few difficulties with normal life challenges but he was just a regular teenager. He was everyone’s smile every day,” she said.
“It was a complete shock. There were no signs. I still look at his photo and think that of all people, he was the least likely to do something like this. I don’t think he understood the finality of it.”
The support of family and close friends helped Cunliffe even though she felt frozen, like she was putting on a mask each day.
“Family and friends held me up when I couldn’t hold myself up. My other children became my strength and my purpose,” she said. “Suicide is a grief unlike any other grief. I have lost other family members but it was not like this. I felt alone, even stigmatized. I realized I needed more help, and when I heard about a grief retreat specifically for people who have lost someone to suicide, I knew I had to go.”
The Sunrise Grief Retreat Society, which also holds retreats for other grief losses, is a non-profit society which offers the retreats with professional facilitators, many of them volunteers. Cunliffe attended the four-day retreat last fall.
“At first, I felt unsure and anxious but I knew it was exactly where I should be. I had so many questions and unresolved feelings. I knew I had been a good mother but I should have known, even though there were no signs. That was one of the hardest things,” she said.
Barb Schimpl, one of the retreat facilitators, said grief for suicide is one of the most complicated griefs.
“There can be more guilt, shame, blame and anger. There was no opportunity to say goodbye and it feels like total rejection. The survivors are left with so many unanswerable questions,” she said.
Cunliffe knew that the retreat would be part of the healing that would allow her to remember her son in a healthy way, honour his life and find a way to help others.
“I felt safe in this beginning of my walk through the wilderness to find a sense of peace. I was so relieved to find that I was not alone and I keep the connections with the people I met there. Family and friends are vital but there is a completely different feeling there,” she said. “There is fear. You don’t want to make that call but it’s the best call you ever make.”
She benefited from the group sessions and the expressive therapies with health professionals, as well as the massage therapy, healing touch and mindfulness meditation available to participants.
“The healing touch was so amazing and powerful. I felt connected and released. It was a gift to my soul. There’s such compassion in the staff. I also liked the letter writing to the ones we had lost,” said Cunlifffe. “I’m not sure what direction I’m going at times but it’s forward with my toolbox in hand and I don’t have to walk alone.”
People who are interested in attending the Sunrise Grief Retreat for those who have experienced a loss from suicide (Nov. 1-5) should contact Schimpl at firstname.lastname@example.org or 250-307-7850. She will talk with people to help them decide if it is the right time for them to attend. For more information, see www.sunrisegriefretreat.org.
Anyone who has had a loss through suicide can also consider attending the Healing After Suicide Loss support group hosted by the Suicide Prevention Committee of Vernon. Support groups are facilitated by trained professionals and peers and offer eight weeks of weekly support meetings at no cost.
“We felt there has been a need in the community and we were able to get the training this spring,” said Betty Bates, facilitator, with Sharon Durant, of the support groups.
“All of us who did the training felt it was profound and that we could bring that feeling of a safe place to come and share stories and healing to the groups. Each experience is personal and people can participate at their own pace.”
The groups will include expression exercises, writing and art, empathetic listening, all in a non-judgmental atmosphere. There will be information on what is normal in grief after suicide.
“Suicide can be such a silent grief with so much stigma and misconception around it. Survivors can feel very alone. Sometimes they find the second year after is even harder than the first but that is individual too. The support groups do not support professional therapy but are a healthy addition on a journey of healing. It’s a real honour to be able to offer this to the community,” said Bates.
For more information about the Healing After Suicide Loss support groups, running weekly Sept. 25 to Nov. 14, and to pre-register, call Durant at 250-542-3114 (ext. 212). For 24/7 support call the Crisis Line at 1-888-353-2273 or 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433).