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Healing for suicide loss survivors

Sister Connie Kramer, SP, wasn’t looking for a new ministry opportunity, but a new opportunity “found her.” She has been leading retreats for widows for seven years, bringing hope and healing to those who suffer the loss of their spouse. It was in 2019 at one of those retreats that she was approached by a woman whose husband’s life had been completed by suicide. This widow expressed her wish for a retreat for suicide loss survivors. Thus, Sister Connie’s new ministry was born. And one might say that Providence made it happen. That woman had approached the right person!

Sister Connie reads during a worship service at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods

You see, Sister Connie is no stranger to suicide loss. She is a survivor herself, having suffered the loss of her niece in 1984 and her grand-niece in 2019, one the niece of the other. Sister Connie knew well all the emotions and pain families endure when a loved one’s life is completed by suicide. She was also aware of the stigma attached to suicide in our society.

Retreat for suicide loss survivors

So, she along with Father Jim Farrell, a trauma therapist, and two family-suicide-loss survivors put together: “You Are Not Alone: Hope and Healing for Survivors of Suicide Loss.” Together, they created three two-hour online presentations on the emotional, spiritual and healing journey of suicide loss survivors. Along with it they created a two-day retreat comprised of prayer experiences, a presentation on post traumatic growth, two witness talks, a forgiveness guided meditation and a session on how to grieve gracefully. Despite COVID-19, 28 persons attended this retreat (held Sept. 26-27 at Fatima Retreat House in Indianapolis), providing strong evidence of its need.

Sister Connie Kramer, at right, in her retreat ministry. Here, pre-Covid, she stays in touch four years later with women who attended her grief retreat.

During the retreat, Sister Connie referenced the work of Father Ron Rolheiser, “Bruised and Wounded.” In that book, Father Rolheiser posits that “suicide is a disease and generally the most misunderstood of all sicknesses. It takes a person out of life against his or her will, the emotional equivalent of cancer, a stroke or a heart attack … Death can happen suddenly or after a long struggle that wears a person down. Either way, it’s involuntary … Suicide is an illness and, as with any sickness, we can love someone and still not be able to save that person from death … The victim of suicide (in most cases) is a trapped person, caught up in a fiery, private chaos that has its roots in his or her psyche and in his or her biochemistry. Suicide, in most cases, is a desperate attempt to end unendurable pain …”

Healing after suicide loss

Not only is the person bruised and wounded, but so also are the suicide loss survivors. Often, the survivors feel some responsibility for the suicide. “I should have seen the signs.” Or “I should have gotten help for the person.” Or “My love wasn’t enough for them.” This retreat helps survivors to see that no matter what they might have done, if the craving to get beyond the unendurable pain is strong enough, it will consume the person who is struggling.

Sister Connie Kramer, at left, with Sister Mary Ann Lechner at a community gathering in 2015.

Sister Connie advises those who are suicide loss survivors to focus on three things:

1) Resilience. Ask yourself each day: “What were the ‘wins’ in my day today?”

2) Finding meaning and purpose for oneself. Ask yourself, “What lessons did I learn and what legacy did my deceased loved one leave me to carry on?” and

3) Forming enduring bonds. Ask “How can I form an enduring bond with the person, perhaps by journaling or writing letters to him/her?” She also believes that it is very important to keep a special memory of your deceased loved one in your heart, and use your sacred imagination to see him/her in the warm embrace of someone they loved who is with them in eternity. Because as St. Paul has said, “In death life is changed, not ended.”

Be more, do less

And to those who walk with those who suffer suicide loss, her advice is this: Be more and do less. You cannot fix it … but you can walk with the bruised and wounded. God promised not to abandon us — and we can be God’s providence by accompanying the bruised and wounded loved ones in their journey of hope and healing.

A prayer for survivors of suicide loss can be found here.

(Originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp

Sister Jeanne Hagelskamp has been a Sister of Providence since 1975. She currently serves on the Congregation leadership team. Previously she ministered as a teacher and administrator at the secondary and university levels.

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