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Originally published: 2014-05-14 14:40:16
Last modified: 2014-05-14 14:41:00

Loved ones left behind are finding hope after suicide

by Sherrie Norris

It's not secret that suicide leaves a painful void for loved ones left behind. Many survivors of suicide victims struggle with guilt and try desperately to find answers that are often unattainable. 

When Kim Winebarger was forced to deal with the unexpected death of her son's father with whom she had shared 20 years of life, she searched "everywhere in this county for support," she said, "and came up empty-handed." 

"After praying about the situation, talking about it with people close to me -- and receiving a lot of encouragement -- I decided to get a support group going for our county, for those of us who have been left behind," she said.

Winebarger said it's important to note that the group is not designed for those who may be contemplating suicide. 

"We are not the experts and are not here to give advice," she said. "We are just here to support each other who have survived a great loss and to provide a much needed resource for our community." 

"Finding Hope" meets from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month in the conference room of the Hunger and Health Coalition in Boone. 

From the first gathering, Winebarger said, she began to experience healing. "It's a safe, confidential place where people can meet. Our stories are different, but we've all lost someone in unnatural way," she said.

When losing a loved one to suicide, Winebarger said, the grief is much more complicated. "Often times, we feel out of place at regular grief meetings in a group setting, but being with others who can related to your specific pain is important to healing," she said.

Up to this point, Winebarger said, she has been "very private" in her grieving process, but adds, "I am finding it easy to open up, surrounded by other survivors."

Carrie Hodges, who Winebarger said has been one of her greatest supporters through her journey, serves as the group's moderator.

Hodges and Winebarger have been acquainted since childhood, growing up and attending school together at Green Valley Elementary School.

Through their sons' prekindergarten orientation in 2010, the two women were reunited. 

Hodges' son, Mac, who she described as "really shy around other kids," was befriended by Winebarger's son, Zach, and the two became instant friends.

"I'll always believe that God put us together that day for a reason," Hodges said.  

In later calling the Winebarger residence to invite Zach to a special July gathering, Hodges said, she learned that Zach's dad had ended his own life a short while earlier.  

Winebarger accepted the invitation for Zach, thinking it would be good for her son to be with other children. "It turned out good for me, too," she said, "to be with someone who took time to listen and to care."

At the gathering, Zach accidentally got hit with a plastic bat, "not hard enough to hurt bad," Hodges said, "but enough to cry, and he began screaming for his daddy." 

Hodges said she had never witnessed anything so heartbreaking. "Kim, the awesome mama she is, handled the situation so well, while hurting as badly as her little boy, from the inside," she said.

Winebarger admits that she hadn't been open with her grief, but "for some reason," she said, she was able to talk to Hodges. 

"I'm so thankful that I was able to be there for her, but it wasn't easy," Hodges said. "Kim talked to her immediate family, but I think I was the only friend she was able to open up. I had no idea what I was doing or if I was saying the right things, but I tried."

Hodges referred to the "many stages of grief," that people go through. "And watching someone you love go through each one, over and over, and mostly inside, while hiding it on the outside, is so hard to explain," she said.

Grieving over suicide, both women agree, is different. 

"Not worse, but different," Hodges said. "All grief is terrible, but with suicide, stages are just different."

Hodges described Winebarger as "one of the strongest women I know," and applauds her for having the compassion for others to start a support group.

"I was shocked to learn Watauga County didn't have such a resource," Hodges said. "When she asked me to help her, we prayed about it and began taking the necessary steps together to make it happen."

The first meeting was held on Thursday, March 13.

"It went well," Hodges said. "There's something freeing in just being able to talk, and not worry about who's hearing you -- and to know that what you are sharing is held in confidence." 

Hodges, who serves as moderator, described her role as "a learning process."

"We are beginning to work through the different stages of grief -- and the different, though common, feelings related to suicide," she said. "We take the last hour of our meetings to just talk. It is helpful to simply have someone else who understands your pain -- and feels it, too." 

According to Winebarger, one participant, whose father committed suicide when she was 13, is now in her late 50s and just now telling her story. "She told me that after her first meeting with us, she was able to sleep the entire night for the first time in many years," she said.

People are coming back to the meetings, Winebarger said, adding, "It's not just a one time thing. Healing is happening."

Winebarger and Hodges invite anyone who has lost a loved one to suicide to join them for these meetings. 

"Being with others who can relate to the pain you feel after losing someone to suicide is of great help," Winebarger said. "We want people in this community to know they don't have to go through it alone."

To offer further assistance in the grieving process, the group leaders are currently seeking the expertise of a licensed therapy for counsel.

Finding Hope meets at 141 Health Center Drive in Boone. 

For more information, call Winebarger at (828) 262-1628 during the day; Carrie Hodges (828) 262-3580 at anytime before 9 p.m. or email (wcssg14@aol.com)