For individuals who have lost loved ones to suicide, a group at McGill provides a haven of support
By Victoria Leenders-Cheng
In the wake of the emotional turmoil that follows losing a family member to suicide, individuals who have lost their loved ones find understanding and guidance from Family Survivors of Suicide (FSOS), a self-help group based out of McGill.
On Oct. 3, FSOS marked its 25-year anniversary with a reception at the Faculty Club, bringing together decades-long veterans and newcomers alike.
FSOS was founded in 1988, by four members of different families who had each lost a family member to suicide. Twenty-five years on, Caroline Smart, whose husband was one of those four founding members, continues to coordinate the group’s activities, in conjunction with School of Social Work professor Estelle Hopmeyer.
Hopmeyer speaks with all first-time participants for an initial phone intake conversation and the group’s bi-monthly meetings generally see between eight to 10 people attending every session. Many new members are referrals from Suicide Action Montreal, while others come to the FSOS through its website, www.suicideaftermath.com.
One member, Josée Lake, recalled how Smart’s presence at the group meetings is a source of hope and consolation to newer members.
“Hearing her story the first night I attended gave me hope that I would survive. And I did,” Lake said. “I knew that if she could survive, I was going to be able also.”
Lake now works in a CSSS in Laval, focusing her time on children who have expressed thoughts of suicide. She attributes this passion to her participation in FSOS.
“Estelle Hopmeyer was a great teacher for me in class and outside the classroom and she helped me find my life mission,” Lake said.
Paul Kepron lost his brother. For him, FSOS’ bi-monthly meetings give him an opportunity to push back against a constant barrage of poorly informed media reporting on suicide.
“There is a total misunderstanding as to what people see of what we go through and how they talk about it,” he said. “People who have not gone through it don’t know what it is like and they often want to talk about how someone committed suicide.”
“It doesn’t matter how a person committed suicide,” he added emphatically. “What matters is that that life is gone, period.”
In an attempt to raise awareness about suicide and to bring more nuance to the conversation, Kepron developed a photo series through his course work at Dawson College, in which he photographed family survivors with a memento of their loved one, and asked the individuals he photographed to write something about the person they lost.
“It was a tearful night, opening those emails and photos,” Kepron recalled. “But maybe this is a way to reach people who don’t realize what we go through.”
Working through grief with art was a recurrent and powerful theme during the FSOS anniversary event.
Yehudit Silverman, a professor of creative art therapies at Concordia, spent a year with the group in 2009, learning about their experiences and working with them to create masks that represented the silencing of discussion on the subject. The resultant documentary film, The Hidden Face of Suicide, has been shown around the world and Silverman thanked the group for helping to open avenues of discussion about a subject that is often treated as taboo.
“At the end of the film, people always stand up and say, ‘I have never talked about this before and I am sharing how I feel for the first time,’“ Silverman said.
“Sometimes people come to our group and their family still refuses to talk about suicide; they still deny it happened because it is so stigmatized,” Smart said. “But survivors live in the shadow of those they have lost and breaking the silence will help them regain hope and go on to lead meaningful lives.”