Monday, February 13, 2017 - Updated: 9:03 AM
Karen Voss knows the pain of losing a son to suicide. But when it happened six years ago, she didn’t know of any support groups that she could turn to for help. There were many questions.
While any death is a source of grief, she noted, a natural death is often easier to comprehend. With a suicide, terms such as “unbelievable” and “unthinkable” are brought to the table. How could a person do this to themselves? The question of “Why?” can be excruciating.
Voss is now able to share her experiences as a facilitator for a suicide loss support group at St. Joseph Parish in O’Hara Township. The group is part of the Lifeline of Listening Friends program at the parish, which also provides bereavement support.
It offers help on the journey to healing by listening without judging, asking questions without advising and by the sharing of experiences.
Jack Shaw, a parishioner at St. Joseph, has been instrumental in Lifeline of Listening Friends at the parish. The seeds for it were planted in 2014 when Father Thom Miller, pastor of St. Joseph, asked him to attend a Mental Health First Aid program that educates people about the symptoms and facts involving mental illnesses. It trains people how to respond to and assist people under mental distress to receive professional help. Voss and her husband, Hank, also attended.
Shaw spoke of the stigma involving suicide. In noting that many people contemplating it won’t admit to the depression they are experiencing, he pointed out that 90 percent of suicides can be traced back to a mental imbalance or disorder, especially for those ages 18-25.
“The more we can talk about it and share our stories and our pain, overall it’s going to help with people getting help at its earliest stage,” he said.
Father Miller said he became concerned when he noticed the deaths of many young people in his area. In the space of a little more than a year, he noted, he buried some 10 people who had overdosed on drugs or committed suicide. And while he was able to offer support to their survivors, Father Miller saw the importance of being able to point them toward people with similar challenges.
“People who have gone through the same experience have been very helpful,” he said.
Karen urged those experiencing hurt through suicide to seek out a group. They don’t have to talk, she noted. They can just listen to other people and realize that they aren’t alone. There is no timeframe for healing, and it’s probably a lifetime journey for suicide survivors because of the memories that can pop up.
“Eventually, instead of crying with tears of longing, you’ll cry with tears of joy because you’ll remember the happy memories,” Karen said. “Don’t go through it by yourself.”
In addition to supporting those who have experienced suicide, she said, there is the need to reach out to those who may be contemplating it themselves. With the workloads and demands of today’s society, people can be one “wrong turn” from going over the top.
“We don’t know what our words can mean to them,” Karen said.
Shaw and the Vosses were so impressed by the Mental Health First Aid class that they asked Father Miller if they could schedule a class at St. Joseph. Some 35 people attended the first one in spring 2015. Subsequent classes have been held.
U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy addressed Mental Health First Aid participants in spring 2016. The congressman is the only practicing psychologist in elected federal government. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, he led a multi-year investigation into the nation’s mental health system. It led to the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646).
In recognition of Murphy establishing May as “Mental Health Awareness Month,” Shaw and the others developed a speaker series on mental health issues. One of the speakers was from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Father Miller covered the cost for Shaw, the Vosses and parishioner Celeste Wilhelm to be trained and certified as AFSP support group facilitators.
The Suicide Loss Support Group met for the first time in November. The “free and open” meetings are held the first Wednesday of each month from 7-8:30 p.m. A second group has been formed at the Seton Center on Pioneer Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Brookline neighborhood. It is set to begin March 15 and will continue the third Wednesday of the month from 7-8:30 p.m.
While offering support for those grieving from suicide, Lifeline of Listening Friends did not want to ignore the needs of those grieving from a natural death. A six-week Bereavement Support Group met in November, and a second will begin March 7 and run seven Tuesdays from 7:45-9 p.m.
Because of his involvement with a team offering centering prayer to inmates at the Allegheny County Jail, Shaw has been asked to conduct an eight-week suicide support program at the jail beginning Feb. 23.
Information on the suicide loss support groups is available by calling Voss at 412-963-8628 or Shaw at 412-508-5383. Bereavement group information is available by calling Shaw, or contacting him at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Resources and additional information can be found at http://mylifelinepittsburgh.org.