Life After Murder, Life After Suicide
By Diane Schachter
On July 19, 2005, the unthinkable happened. Marlyn and Ian Ferguson’s 27 year old son Graeme was murdered. To lose a child to murder is devastating, and for Marlyn and Ian, moving through this proved to be the biggest challenge of their lives. Marlyn went through an array of feelings: Shock, disbelief, anger, disappointment, confusion, regret.
Despite her pain, Marlyn was open to talking to others about Graeme’s death. She found that talking about it eased her pain and gave others who had also lost a child, strength. Marlyn soon came to realize that although regular grief groups are helpful, there is a unique set of feelings for those whose loved ones have died because of homicide. Marlyn explains, “The Homicide Group came out of a need to offer something that wasn’t happening.” In 2009, through Valley View Funeral Home in Surrey, British Columbia, Marlyn launched support groups for Homicide and Suicide Loss. She can be reached at 604-506-8866.
Marlyn is no stranger to death and grief. “My husband Ian was a Funeral Director and I feel I have been doing grief support work from the end of my kitchen table for many years. When my sister died 18 years ago, I talked to others and learned that I didn’t have to grieve alone.” Recognizing the need for bereavement support, Marlyn and some friends from her church took some bereavement training from two local hospitals. Soon after, she and a few others began a general bereavement group at her church. Then, she became the co-ordinator of the BC Bereavement Helpline. She also has taken unique courses on children’s grief, and on grieving for someone who has died of AIDS.
Now her focus is on facilitating unique groups for homicide, as well as suicide bereavement. “A bereavement group designed particularly for Homicide Loss or Suicide Loss is very unique, because of the trauma many have experienced. Many who come to the groups may have witnessed the death, or were the first on the scene when the death occurred.”
Marlyn explains the different issues in each group.
“A homicide death leaves many unanswered questions and challenges, such as who is responsible, why did this happen, dealing with police investigations which in some cases can be lengthy, and if brought to court – having to listen to the details of how their loved one died, while watching the process of the justice system unfold. And in a Homicide death – often a family feels that they aren’t being told the truth, or for that matter anything, by the investigators or Coroner. They are traumatized by the invasion of privacy from the media. When the Media Calls They feel shame when finding out that their loved one may have been involved in a criminal activity when they were murdered.”
Marlyn continues. “A number of families, who have attended the Homicide group, tell us that the person/people responsible for the death are still at large, and that they are very frustrated waiting for news from the police on how the investigation is progressing. Due to the nature of their investigation, the police have to be very careful not to give too much information, even to the family. It is the facilitator’s duty to always keep that hope alive — to try to tell them to be patient.”
Marlyn recounts how one person was very distraught about not hearing anything from the police; her son had died two years previously and there had been no word from them for a long time. She arrived at the group on the fifth week and said, “Marlyn, you were right, every week you said just keep hoping, the police will be in touch, they have to protect the case; well, they came yesterday and they have the person in jail. I will always keep hoping now.”
Marlyn elaborates on suicide loss.
“For those who have someone who has taken their own life, there are different obstacles to face. They may have journeyed with the person through many years of mental illness and previous suicide attempts. They are left struggling with feelings of rejection, embarrassment, stigma and flashbacks, to name a few. When there is a death by suicide, questions like: What do we tell everyone? Can we spend time with the body? Is it viewable? Why did they not take their medication? He told me he would never take his own life. How will the children cope, should we tell them? haunt them.”
Both the homicide and suicide groups have experienced similar tragic experiences. Marlyn explains how the focus of both groups is to share their story–“A Love Story,” as it is called.
Each week, participants are encouraged to tell more and more of that story of their relationship with their loved one. Handouts are used to identify feelings such as guilt and anger, and the 10 most destructive reactions. The 10 Most Common Destructive Reactions. On the first evening, participants are asked to choose a wooden puzzle piece and paint it, describing their feelings or something that reminds them of their loved one. These puzzle pieces, when placed together, form a heart.
“This is symbolic of the broken heart,” Marlyn says, “and for a short time, we try to put that heart back together while being with people who understand what we are going through.”
On the second evening, the group is asked to bring a picture or a memento of their loved one. These items get passed along as they begin to introduce the person who has died. On the final evening, called Memory Evening, participants are asked to bring a piece of music or poem, picture etc, and there is a little closing ceremony.
I asked Marlyn how she avoids being swallowed up by all the grief and sadness she witnesses. Surprisingly, Marlyn says that the people who come to these groups actually give her strength.
“I watch their faces in those first two or three weeks when they attend the group. I see as the weeks unfold a lightness come into their shoulders and their eyes. I know I cannot take away their pain, but for the two hours they are in the group they can lay that pain down and we can hold it for them for a while. She is encouraged when she hears participants say comments like, “I don’t know what I would have done without this group, “or “You saved my life” or “I could never tell anyone else what I have just shared in this group” or “this is the safest place for me to be right now”. Marlyn has a faith community who pray for the good work that she and her colleagues do. To avoid burnout, facilitators check in with one another regularly, and laughter is commonplace. Marlyn adds, “After the group, I go home in the car, I turn the music up loud and sing along. Chocolate also helps!”
I asked Marlyn if people can be normal or even thrive after experiencing suicide or homicide losses.
“Can we be normal if we have experienced a death of a loved one to homicide or suicide? What is normal? Can it go back to the way it was before…no. It’s like a tsunami or an earthquake; no matter how much money and construction work is put into putting that community back together, it will never be rebuilt the way it was before the disaster struck. Everyone says, ‘time heals all wounds’ – I believe it is not just that the time passes, it’s what we have done to actively heal our grief.” She calls it the “good work of grief”. Marlyn believes that when we work through our grief we can re-engage in life – gradually, we find ourselves laughing again, and fond memories of our loved ones start to replace disturbing images.
In terms of resources and reading to help process loss, or how to facilitate a bereavement group, she highly recommends: “Alan Wolfelt’s How to Start and Lead a Bereavement Support Group”, “Living with Grief After a Sudden Loss” by Kenneth Doka, and handouts based on insightful material by LaRita Archibal. “Hope and Healing; a Practical Guide for Survivors of Suicide” booklet, developed by the Calgary Health Region, is another valuable resource.
They also direct participants to a number of good websites:
www.Canadian-health-network.ca. (search Grief Therapy)
In talking to Marlyn, I began to feel that the type of work that she and her co-facilators do is holy. Marlyn finds her work rewarding and sees it as a calling. To date, suicide and homicide groups, sponsored by Valley View Funeral Home, have assisted almost 100 people. The groups are non-denominational. She gives kudos to Valley View Funeral Home manager, Justin Schultz, for his support and recognition of the need to do community outreach in these areas of bereavement.
I asked Marlyn, “What message of hope would you like to give our readers who have lost a loved one to homicide or suicide?” Here is her answer.
“In my office, I have a little Willow Tree ornament; I have a number of them at home, but the one I brought to the office is the smallest of all of them. It’s a little guy with a balloon held way above his head and the balloon says “HOPE.” For a few years after our son died, I struggled with finding hope in all of the mess. There were seven people responsible for our son’s death and it took five years to bring them all to court and be sentenced. Finding hope every day in this process was very difficult. Not just hope that they would be caught and brought to trial and sentences, but hope that our family would be able to heal our grief and come through this tragedy healthy.”
One day while attending church, Marlyn’s Pastor’s quoted St. Augustine:
“Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at
the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”
Marilyn says, “This made complete sense to me — only I can muster the courage to change how I feel. I didn’t die. I want to live and live well. I want to pass this hope onto others. I want to hold that balloon of hope.”
Diane Schachter Bio:
Diane Schachter is a retired social worker and freelance writer who lives in Surrey, British Columbia with her husband Yale and three rescue dogs.
She has a special interest in pet bereavement and provides counselling through “Forever Loved Pet Bereavement”. She can be reached at email@example.com
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