Starting a Suicide Bereavement Support Group
By LaRita Archibald, Founder, HEARTBEAT Support Groups
Your wish to offer support and encouragement to suicide bereaved in a group setting is commendable. As you proceed with your plan there are things you will want to consider…
DOING A NEEDS ASSESSNENT: Each suicide occurring in your community leaves about six intimate survivors; perhaps 20% of these would eventually attend a support group. The county coroner can provide you the number of suicides in your community to estimate the survivor population. How close is the nearest suicide bereavement group? A large metropolitan area can support active groups as close as twenty miles apart. Urban communities will have fewer survivors but they will travel longer distances to attend. To assure you are not duplicating services or creating animosity by invading what another leader believes is their territory arrange a meeting or phone call with the closest group leader. Discuss your wish to start a group, learn of their average attendance, when they meet, whether it is a ‘closed’ or open-ended group, age or relationship specific. Set a meeting time that doesn’t conflict with theirs, express you desire to work in tandem with them, asking their advice and assistance. Group leaders can be of great help to one another and therefore, to the bereaved…everyone benefits.
LEADERSHIP. Will this group be peer or professionally led? If you survive the suicide of someone close and wish to use your loss and growth in support of other survivors it is prudent to have eighteen months to two years healing since your loss. This timeline protects your well-being and that of attendees. If the group is to be professionally led there is need to guard against the group becoming a therapy group rather than a group of mutual support. What kind of training is needed? Whether survivor or professional leadership, leaders will need to be well-informed to identify suicide risk, understand suicide grief and the mourning process beyond their own experience, be able to recognize and refer survivors in need of professional help and have a good grasp of facilitating techniques. Who will help? To assure a group is constant and consistent it is productive to have co-leaders to share facilitating responsibilities, provide balanced support and assure meetings are on-going when one leader is cannot attend.
SPONSORSHIP. Many support groups operate under the auspices of an existing non-profit organization until they are solvent and stable enough to apply for their own IRS non-profit status. Churches and hospitals often agree to sponsor which allows the group to umbrella under their non-profit status, lends instant credibility to the group, provides meeting space and publicity.
BOARD OF DIRECTORS or a Steering Committee. A board of three or five directors will be necessary to obtain IRS non-profit identification but a working board (or steering committee) also provides the benefit of shared decision-making, funding and organizational responsibilities and assures perpetuation of the group should leaders need to be replaced.
PROMOTION. Once the meeting date, time and place is determined notices should be sent to law enforcement, funeral homes, the coroner’s office, hospitals, mental health agencies and the media. Brochures stating meeting information, the group’s mission and objectives are an excellent promotion vehicle. Brochures are often the community’s introduction to the group’s availability. They represent suicide bereaved everywhere and must do so with dignity. The cost of a professionally designed brochure printed on quality paper is a worthwhile.
FUNDING. Where does the money come from? Start up funds are usually minimal and the sponsor may be willing to help. Funeral homes often will make donations for purchasing brochures or books for a lending library. Anyone starting a group needs to be aware that there will be out of pocket money in the beginning. As the group grows attendee donations will help meet monthly meeting expense.
SUPPORT FOR SUPPORT GROUP LEADERS. For detailed guidelines for starting a support group you may visit www.heartbeatsurvivorsaftersuicide.org. There are other national organizations that provide direction for new leaders as well. To gain understanding of suicide grief dynamics and meeting survivor mourning needs, watch for a forthcoming book, After Suicide: Finding Peace Without All Of The Pieces by LaRita Archibald to be available by 2012.