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New group offers support for bereaved families

Lucy Fraser (right), program director for Chilliwack Hospice Society, along with (from left) Fraser Health social worker Denise Armstrong, Joan Noel and Mari Okazaki are all part of the new Suicide Bereavement Support Group in Chilliwack. Noel and Okazaki both lost family members to suicide.  - JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS
Lucy Fraser (right), program director for Chilliwack Hospice Society, along with (from left) Fraser Health social worker Denise Armstrong, Joan Noel and Mari Okazaki are all part of the new Suicide Bereavement Support Group in Chilliwack. Noel and Okazaki both lost family members to suicide.
— image credit: JENNA HAUCK/ PROGRESS

A new bereavement support group starting up in Chilliwack this month is specifically to help those touched by suicide of a loved one.

One of the group facilitators, Joan Noel, lost her 29-year-old twin son, Dylan, to suicide in 2009.

"After my son died I had so many unanswered questions and so much guilt," she told The Progress.

"It is the most horrific thing I have ever tried to deal with and I knew I needed to talk to someone."

In her grief, she reached out to the Chilliwack Hospice Society at first and attended a supportĀ  group for those suffering the loss of a loved one. But still she had a burning need to share with others who had experienced the unique agony of losing someone who took their own life.

The grieving mother tried to find one nearby, but the closest group met in Surrey. She attended to a few meetings and was wholly transformed by the experience from the beginning.

"Suicide is such a hush-hush subject," she said. "No one wants to talk about it."

In fact, it happens more than one would imagine.

"I didn't know that it happened so much in our communities, until it happened in my life."

No one wants to see their friends and family suffer further, so they tend to keep mum. But it turns out, sharing with others in a similar situation seems to lighten the load.

"For me I needed to talk about it, to try to understand why he would do such a thing. I remember for months after my son died, I kept going over the last few days of his life. Trying to figure out what led to his decision.

"I felt like a detective, going over ever little bit of information hoping to find a answer. I shared this at the support group in Surrey and another lady said she had done the same thing."

Suddenly it clicked.

"I could relate to so many of the people's stories. Everyone's story was different, but I found that I connected to everyone there in one way or another," Noel said. "I learned so much from this support group."

It was a real education, too in the very basics of mental illness.

"I thought if you had mental illness you heard voices in your head and had no control over your actions. I have since learned there are many forms of mental illness, like anxiety and depression."

Hospice program director Lucy Fraser noted there is still a societal stigma attached to suicide deaths, that doesn't really exist otherwise, like in the case of a death by cancer or heart disease.

It can even impede people from seeking out that much-needed support.

"The stigma isn't even the biggest thing. It's the unanswered questions.

"When a family member ends their own life, the family is left with so many questions. What did we miss? What could we have done differently? Why didn't we notice?"

It's emotional pain heaped on top of pain, in layers, Fraser said.

Noel said she went through that exact process.

"For the longest time I was looking for a note from my son. But I never got that."

He did text a friend to say that he just couldn't live with the pain any longer.

"I did not know how much pain he was in, I just thought it was all normal life hurtles."

Noel decided to take decisive action to help assuage that pain. She called the Chilliwack Mental Health Centre to see if they could help her get a support group going here. She met social worker Denise Armstrong, who is the Mental Health Liaison to the RCMP, and they got the ball rolling.

Now the group is about to get started in Chilliwack.

"I think this group will be very important. It helped me tremendously to have that support, although support groups aren't for everyone."

Everyone's story is different. But Noel said was pleased to discover that it lessens the pain to share, and benefits her to help other people and hear their stories.

"It gets people talking. You can relate and you say, 'Ok, I don't feel so bad now.'

"The pain never really goes away. It pops up daily.

"But I found the more you share your story, the less it weighs you down."

Now the Chilliwack Suicide Bereavement Support Group is set to start shortly, and it will run for eight weeks, every Thursday night from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Hospice headquarters on Hodgins Avenue. For more details call 604-795-4660.

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