Restorative Response – talking circles for those impacted by suicide.

From the April 20, 2011 River Falls Journal

A forum last spring opened a dialogue about suicide after an unusually high number in and around River Falls led authorities to hold the public meeting and say, “What can we do to help?”

That led to a local remembrance walk, more discussion and the formation of a committee.

Police Chief Roger Leque and many others in the community have played key roles in creating a Restorative Response.

Two local women shepherding the effort are Kris Miner, director of the River Falls-based St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice Program, and Lesa Woitas, a UW-River Falls police officer and SCVRJP volunteer.

The new community program aims at dealing openly with the trauma that follows a death by suicide, homicide or car crash.

Miner explained that the goals of Restorative Response include prevention, intervention, and post-trauma support.

RR operates on Restorative Justice principles, which include repairing harm and rebuilding relationships among communities, as well as providing opportunities for dialogue.

Debbie Griffin photo

Leque said the effort originates from good collaboration and cooperation among many different groups.

“The more we can gain by working together with other professionals in the field, the better off we will be,” said Leque.

Pages for preparedness

Woitas and Miner said the group will produce in May one of the things it identified as a need: the “Grieving Family Guide.”

It gathered input for the small publication from families and friends of victims, mental health professionals, coroners, funeral directors, law enforcement, EMTs, school counselors, psychologists and others in the community.

With a week or two left before printing, Miner said input on it is still welcome.

Many professionals who work death scenes said they sometimes wish to be more helpful to people, maybe offer some of the basic information officials know they will need.

Survivors agreed an informational resource would be good to have at a time when people aren’t thinking straight, but there is a lot of information coming at them.

One survivor said all she had when everyone left was a coroner’s number scrawled on a scrap of paper.

The 16-page booklet-style publication includes a place to write the responding agency names, a case number, investigator’s name and other need-to-know details. It gives tips on what to “do now” and about some things to expect and anticipate.

It lists resources for support and gives logistical information about contacting a funeral home. The booklet makes suggestions about locating important paperwork and managing household tasks plus includes information survivors may need.

Miner said about the guide’s reviewers, “They all said this is really good.”

They like it because it puts several resources into one place for bereft, overwhelmed survivors. To get started producing a guide for use in Pierce and St. Croix counties, the group said Minnesota State Troopers shared a similar resource it could use as a model.

Circling around

Miner and Woitas have also conducted “talking circles,” a key technique of the 10-year-old SCVRJP, about sudden-death trauma. They agree it is shocking to see and learn how many people have been affected by it and how many still need and seek healing decades after the trauma.

The women say there is still a stigma attached to “talking about it,” especially suicide. They conducted some circles right after the forum last year then again in the fall; they began a new series recently and plan to hold more in the future.

Woitas says the circle response is staggering noting, “When you ask them the question: Has suicide ever touched your life?”

Miner said, “We didn’t have to look too far to find resources for the circle.”

She said the feedback after last year’s circles was “overwhelmingly positive.” Many of the people who came said they either couldn’t find local resources and/or didn’t feel like they fit into the ones they found.

Miner said each person in the circles had some kind of experience with suicide and has a little bit different perspective.

She says their stories “blew her socks off.” Woitas, whose husband of 22 years took his own life, said, “It changes you when you hear people’s stories.”

They say some of the people in circles had survived suicide attempts. One girl said after seeing how it affects those left, she was glad she hadn’t succeeded.

“It impacts a lot of people in a lot of different ways,” says Woitas, later adding, “Each time you tell your story in circle, a piece of your own pain goes away.”

She and Miner say Restorative Response will also include pairs of people who work as a team visiting survivors, possibly giving them a Grieving Family Guide if an officer hasn’t already.

In time, the group might organize a team of peer counselors and/or a crisis support team who can be help survivors.

Miner said she sometimes sees people involved in the Restorative Justice Program, a DUI offender for example, have troubles in their life as a result of being affected by the trauma of suicide or another kind of sudden death.

“I think people realize there is a need in the community,” said Miner.

She said she’s applied for some grants and hopes to hear a positive response on them. Some community organizations have given funds to support the new program, and Miner says interest and need are driving the Restorative Response, so funding will likely follow.

Miner says people can get more information about SCVRJP and about scheduling for the next series of Restorative Response talking circles by looking on the organization’s website at www.scvrjp.org