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Bloomington sisters form support group for people who have lost loved ones to suicide

Those grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide often feel left behind.
Those grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide often feel left behind.

For Cortney Rathbun and Caitlin Halihan, the grief over their brother’s death is still raw. Halihan looks down as she speaks, seeming to steady herself before pronouncing the words.

“Our brother died of suicide six months ago.”

In sharing their story, the sisters promised to honor a request from their parents not to share their brother’s name or the details of his death. But the family does support Rathbun and Halihan in speaking out about a need for more resources for those who’ve lost loved ones to suicide.

As they attempted to process the reality of their brother’s sudden death, Rathbun and Halihan realized there were no support groups in Bloomington-Normal focused specifically on people left behind after suicide.

“There’s some in Champaign and Peoria, but it would be nice to have a community here that understands,” Halihan said.

Understanding is critical, added Rathbun, because losing a loved one to suicide triggers a very complex and particular grief.

“It’s not just the tragedy of the loss. There’s unanswered questions, and guilt, and multiple layers of shock,” she said.

Rathbun said she wasn’t able to navigate all the dimensions of her grief in spaces that dealt with general loss, realizing her experience needed to be specific to suicide. So, she began combing resources across a variety of platforms, eventually zeroing in on support provided by the American Federation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

In her research, Rathbun learned the best way to cope with her own grief was to help others cope with theirs. She and Halihan decided to form their own support group for those struggling in the wake of suicide.

Rathbun stresses that she is not a mental health professional, but she is undergoing the work to become a support group facilitator with resources available through the AFSP. Working with Halihan to form the group while navigating their own grief has been a complicated journey.

“We have spent time learning what it means being a facilitator to this group. However, this is alongside learning how to grieve ourselves,” Rathbun said.

The sisters are working with Eastview Christian Church that has agreed to provide space for the support group. Rathbun said the room will be cozy and intimate, complete with a fireplace and couches. It’s important the space be conducive to conversation because Rathbun has found that just talking with people who have experienced a similar loss is what seems to help most.

Rathbun and Halihan have outlined 12 weeks of discussion topics and hope to begin bi-weekly meetings on Jan. 13. And though the sisters’ group will focus on support for those who have been left behind, they recognize that sometimes people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide struggle with thoughts of suicide themselves.

Halihan said anyone with thoughts of suicide should know that they are wanted and there is hope. And she asked that people remember the love that exists for them in this world.

“There’s so much love that would be left behind. Love that would get you through it,” she said.

For more information about Rathbun and Halihan’s support group, email SuicideSurvivorsBN@gmail.com. For immediate support regarding thoughts of suicide, contact the PATH crisis center by dialing 211 or texting 898-211.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.