Organizer Spotlight: Karen Heisig, Rochester, NY

“So many people have that aha moment of realizing they are not struggling alone. They may not speak up in front of the group, but in the quiet conversations that follow during lunch, there are always knowing smiles and kind words exchanged between strangers. It brings me joy to hear and see people finding those connections as I am keenly aware of how vital they’ve been to me.”—Karen Heisig

Karen Heisig became involved with AFSP in 2010, 5 years after her husband, Maurice (“Mo”), an Army veteran, died by suicide after a year-and-a-half-long battle with depression and PTSD. His younger brother died by suicide in 1999 but was never diagnosed with a mental illness.

Karen is a board member of AFSP’s Western New York chapter, where she oversees the Survivor Day Committee. At the 2014 Survivor Day event in Rochester, New York, Karen and a small group of dedicated volunteers hosted 45 survivors of suicide loss, many of them first-time attendees. Here’s what Karen shared with us about the remembrance ceremony at the event and about dealing with the holidays in the aftermath of a suicide loss:

img_3488-183x300We always try to end the day on a positive but respectful note by honoring
those we have lost. This past year we had a remembrance tree with messages handwritten on paper stars. Our tree was actually a small Christmas tree, something of a Charlie Brown Christmas tree, really, with white lights, but when it was lit up with our loved ones’ names, it was, like all of us, imperfectly beautiful.

Before people read their loved ones’ names and came forward to put their star on one of the branches, I shared my own story of struggle from a Christmas past. Not wanting to face the boxes of ornaments my husband and I had collected over the years, I put a post on Facebook asking friends and family to send me img_34841-224x300some new ornaments. Nothing fancy, even a paper plane would do. I was desperate for the holidays to be different. Their love blew me away! For weeks, new ornaments would show up in my mailbox or at my door, each package containing something hand-picked to symbolize strength, peace, and love. Some made me laugh, others made me cry happy tears, but by the time Christmas rolled around, there wasn’t room on the tree—my Friendship Tree—for anything else. In fact, we had to put up a second tree for my kid’s ornaments! Now, I look forward each year to opening that box of ornaments, remembering who sent each one, and counting my blessings.

My Friendship Tree was the inspiration behind the little tree we used at our Survivor Day event. It was not only a beautiful way to remind each of us that our loved ones will always have a place in our hearts, but also that in reaching out, we are giving others the chance to be a part of our healing journey.

Thank you, Karen, for your dedication to helping survivors of suicide loss and for sharing your story.

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