Local hospice program will provide mutual support for those who have lost a loved one to suicide

November 12, 2012|By MARIE GILBERT |
  • Amanda Witmer is a bereavement care specialist with Hospice of Washington County. She helped to organize a local program to commemorate International Survivors of Suicide Day. The event is Saturday, Nov. 17, in Hagerstown.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

This year, about 40,000 people in the United States will chose to end their lives.

It’s a sobering statistic from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Equally sobering is the fact that it might be someone you know — a family member, a friend, a neighbor or co-worker.

The reasons for escaping this world will vary — from genetic predisposition to mental health issues.

But regardless of why the decision was made, the impact on those left behind will be tremendous.

There will be feelings of grief, guilt, anger and utter sadness.

There will be questions that might go unanswered.

And there is a sense of abandonment.

As time moves forward, the pain feels more distant. But it always will be there, said Amanda Witmer, bereavement care specialist with Hospice of Washington County.

“Survivors learn that they never truly get over a death,” she noted.

But dealing with the loss is sometimes made easier by knowing you are not alone —that others have experienced a loss because of suicide and are struggling with similar feelings and concerns.

That’s the purpose of the 14th annual International Survivors of Suicide Day on Saturday, Nov. 17, Witmer explained.

“The event is a healing conference, designed to bring people together who have lost a loved one to suicide,” she said.  “Survivors are provided both information and support.”

This year, for the first time, Hospice of Washington County will be hosting the observance — one of five sites in Maryland to be participating.

Witmer said Hospice offers a Survivors of Suicide support group and many of its members expressed an interest in being a part of International SOS Day.

“I took this request to our director of bereavement services, Eileen Stanzione, who agreed that hosting this event would help us to reach out to those in the community who could benefit from meeting other survivors,” she explained. “It also would help us to spread the word that Hospice of Washington County is a resource for those in need of support.”

Witmer said the event will be held at Hospice’s office on Northern Avenue in Hagerstown from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 17 and is open to residents from the Tri-state area.

The event will include the viewing of a 90-minute DVD, which covers topics pertinent to survivors, and small group discussions, allowing for survivors to meet one another and provide mutual support.

“We also will offer a small remembrance ceremony for those interested in participating,” Witmer said. “Educational materials and professional follow-up support also will be offered to anyone who would be interested.”

Witmer said suicide deaths happen everywhere.

“You hear less about these deaths often because we have not broken the stigma that is attached,” she said. “It often has been viewed as a crime or a sin.”

This stigma can result in survivors feeling shame and embarrassment and less comfortable talking about their loss, she said.

For years, Witmer noted, programs directed at those who have lost a loved one to suicide were scarce in Washington County.

“Therefore, Hospice of Washington County began a Survivors of Suicide six-week support group in January of 2011,” she said. “It then expanded to a monthly support group for those choosing to continue with the ongoing format.”

Witmer said the group came about after several people who had received individual counseling felt isolated in their grief.

“Many survivors had expressed interest in a group format but didn’t feel comfortable joining ‘Healing Hearts,’ a grief support group designed for anyone who has had a loss of any nature,” she added. “They felt their loss was quite a bit different, involving different emotions, concerns and even stigma.”

The current monthly group has 10 registrants, Witmer noted, and another six-week support group is expected to begin early next year.

According to Witmer, survivors often experience an overwhelming amount of guilt, wondering if they could have done something to prevent the death. They also have feelings of confusion about how they were so unaware of the level of their loved one’s pain and despair. 

“Many survivors who I have met were completely blindsided by their loved one’s suicide, while others were not as shocked, given the individual’s extensive mental health history and, maybe, previous attempts,” she said. She added that  “why” questions are common, “as family members often never have a thorough understanding of what their loved one was going through or thinking at the time they ended their life.”

Anger is another issue.

“Many people feel angry as they try to process their loss,” she said. “Sometimes, they are angry at their loved one for their decision to end their life and making them feel abandoned; and sometimes, they might have anger toward someone who they feel may have contributed to their loved one’s distress. A suicide death leads survivors through a more complicated grieving process and almost always takes more time and work for a person to feel a sense of recovery.”

Witmer said survivors eventually learn to live their life with less pain by remembering and focusing on their loved one’s life and not the nature of their death.

International Survivors of Suicide day is sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ( The DVD, which covers such topics as “Why did this happen?” “How do I cope?” and “Where can I find support?” will be shown from 1 to 2:30 p.m. by each site.

Witmer said, “Survivors find it emotionally powerful to know they are participating in this conference simultaneously with other survivors across the nation and world.”

If you go ...

WHAT: International Survivors of Suicide Day, a day of sharing and support

WHEN: Saturday, Nov. 17.  Refreshments will be served at 12:30 p.m., followed by the program.

WHERE: Hospice of Washington County, 747 Northern Ave., Hagerstown

MORE: Registration is required.  To register or to receive more  information, contact Hospice of Washington County’s Bereavement Department at 301-791-6360.

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