Below is the history of Heartbeat as told by our Founder,
Founding a support group resulted from the complicated, isolating barriers that confronted my family following the suicide of my 24-year old son, Roger Kent, in August, 1978. A loving, sympathetic social community did not compensate for the terrifying void of knowledge and understanding of suicides’ aftermath from professional counselors, the lack of acceptance and reinforcement from uncomfortable or condemning clergy and the total absence of healing guidelines. My search for positive, healthy direction for my family’s healing initiated my membership in the American Association of Suicidology and on-going study of both suicide and suicide grief dynamics.
During my first AAS conference, 1979 in Denver, I attended the only session offered for suicide bereaved. There, for the first time, I met another mother who had lost her son to suicide. We spent hours over coffee sharing our tears and torment, speaking unabashedly of the inexplicable horror and anguish of our son’s suicides, of our fear for our surviving children and of the smothering despair of isolation. Those hours laid the foundation for HEARTBEAT. I returned home strengthened, knowing that I was not alone, and recognizing I was very fortunate to have the father of my son and our four surviving children to give me hope, love and reassurance of a future. My new survivor friend was a single mom, alienated from her only surviving child and with infirm parents and no extended family. This is when I knew I would live through my grief.
The relief I experienced from that sharing made me determined that future suicide bereaved in my community would not make this grief journey alone. While involved in suicide and grief related studies, I was also gaining knowledge, growth and experience as a respondent on a local hotline talking with survivor callers who asked for help in coping with the suicide of a significant other. I began to formulate a philosophy of healing I believed would have benefited myself and my family after my son’s death. I had my first awareness of the definition of a support group … a gathering of people with a common difficulty, situation or need exchanging aid in an effort to satisfy or resolve the conflicts created by the common situation, difficulty or need. I knew that such a group would provide a source of acceptance, interaction and healthy role modeling that was not available through existing social institutions or probably anywhere for that matter. I also knew such a group would not/should not replace therapy but could be a healthy adjunct when therapy was needed.
I wanted the group to provide a safe place where hurting people would heal by helping other hurting people heal … and this became our organization’s mission. I knew it must be more than a ‘sob’ group but must offer opportunity for ventilating and validating feelings, for exchanging comfort and coping techniques, for lightening the burden of grief by sharing the load. I wanted the groups’ name to acknowledge the anguish of suicide loss without labeling survivors. I believed it must symbolize strength, courage and the healing power of love and understanding, extend the promise of life’s continuance and worth even as it identified the agonizing, almost concentrated physical effort of making one heartbeat follow another during acute grief. As the philosophy took form, the name, HEARTBEAT, evolved as an acronym.
I was convinced a support group would help many people. Everything was in place to get a group started. Yet I procrastinated. A local health agency agreed to sponsor the group but I could not find a mental health professional or clergy willing to risk involvement in such a venture. T here was only my own grief experience and sparse literature on suicide bereavement to guide me. I had been warned by a mental health professional that bringing together this much distorted grief and this many ‘dysfunctional’ people could be dangerous. What if that was true? Or, what if participation in the group caused someone irreparable damage? Working at my desk one afternoon, discouraged, unsure and afraid, I put my head on my arms and prayed … “God, if this is how You want to use my grief, please give me a sign.” That heart-prayer wasn’t completely voiced when the telephone rang. It was a hotline call from a suicide survivor who asked, “Do you have meetings?” Beware the one who tries to tell me God doesn’t use the telephone!
The first HEARTBEAT meeting in November, 1980, was among the first three or four support groups for suicide bereaved anywhere. Coincidentally, two other suicide bereavement support groups began that same fall, in other parts of the country, unbeknownst to one another.
When I first explored the idea of a support group I asked my husband for his help. He consented, but told me, “I don’t want you to be hurt if no one comes”. But they did come! Within a few months of the initial HEARTBEAT meeting survivors were traveling from Denver, the Kansas plains, from mountain communities, from the sand dune area, from all directions, many traveling more than a hundred miles each way to spend two hours once a month in the healing presence of others. About mid way the second year a chapter was started in Denver, then northwest Kansas, Greeley, Boulder, Pueblo, central Nebraska and so on.
As the number of chapters grew, a Board of Directors was assembled, bylaws were written and application for incorporation as HEARTBEAT/survivors after suicide, inc., was made to the Colorado Secretary of State, with incorporation granted in 1993. I chose to use survivors after suicide rather than the more often used survivors of suicide to differentiate between those who survive after the suicide death of a loved one and those who attempt suicide and do not die.
The Founding chapter of HEARTBEAT operated under the umbrella of two different non-profit organizations; first, the Health Association/Pikes Peak Region and later, the Suicide Prevention Partnership of the Pikes Peak Region. HEARTBEAT/Founding chapter applied for and received its own IRS non-profit status, December, 2002.
One of the first and most frightening things I read after my son’s death was that those who grieve a loved one’s suicide are at many times greater risk of ending their lives than the general population. If this is true, do survivors end their lives because of genetics, bad role modeling, extreme dysfunction, assumed guilt or the traumatic experience of finding the mutilated body of a loved one? Or, could it be because of the terrifying isolation with no one to understand the enormity of the loss and its cause, to empathize and show them the way? no one to validate the compounded morass of emotions and complicated grief needs? no one to offer the encouragement of, ” I know the anguish; I’ve been there” and no one to extend the assurance that they will not always hurt this badly, that they can and will live through and beyond this savage emotional wounding?
HEARTBEAT, and other early groups for suicide bereaved, were grass root efforts to address suicide bereavement by offering comfort, encouragement and direction to those left to mourn. Since 1980, the movement to provide reinforcement to suicide survivors has grown to hundreds of groups, with a variety of names, available in every state. The healing achieved within a suicide bereavement support group is analogical to the mythical Phoenix; a new, different life rises from the ashes of tragedy, loss, despair and grief after suicide.