The First Nations and Inuit Suicide Prevention Association of Quebec and Labrador (FNISPAQL) recently held its annual conference in Montreal. This year, the Dialogue for Life 2011 Conference marked the 10th anniversary of the association and brought together hundreds of frontline workers from Aboriginal communities across Quebec, Labrador and the north as well as individuals and families who have been personally impacted by the suicide of a friend or a loved one.
The focus of the conference is to provide education for frontline workers who work directly with individuals at risk in their communities, as well as family members.
“We have people come to Montreal and get that five-day intensive suicide prevention training. Many of these workers have become master trainers and offer workshops to anyone who wants it,” explains Thelma Nelson, FNISPAQL’s interim director.
“This training is so important for workers to help people in need. Before my training, I wasn’t able to ask someone ‘Do you want to commit suicide?’” said Nelson. “With the training, I was able to ask instead of running away. And when you are working with someone who is so down then you ask and if the answer is yes, then you find someone to deal with it.”
In addition to a number of workshops that focus on skills development for frontline workers, Dialogue for Life also offered sessions that focused on grieving, the healing process and the important role that spirituality plays in both.
“There are a lot of reasons why there is suicide in our communities,” said Nelson. “This year when we were planning this conference, I asked the Creator to help me decide what kind of training do we need; what kind of training do they need to help their people.
“In the beginning, the association was for frontline workers, but now families are coming to grieve.”
Indeed, the conference program is filled with sessions that focus on grieving and healing. One such session featured a tree built from paper placed in the middle of a healing circle. On each sheet of paper was the name of a person who had been lost to suicide. These sessions are intensely personal, emotional and spiritual, and may be difficult for some people to experience.
Nelson agrees. “Not everyone makes it. It can be overwhelming for some. And the grieving process for people who have lost someone to suicide or other sudden loss takes a long time. But these trainers, the people running these sessions are really powerful – they bring out what needs to come out.”
One of those trainers is Dennis Windigo, a well-respected trainer and psychotherapist in the areas of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders and Complex Trauma. He is also the founder of Aboriginal Peoples Training Programs, based in Thunder Bay. At Dialogue for Life 2011, Windigo presented a workshop called “Grieving Through the Holidays After a Suicide”.
While the workshop is structured around helpful tips and counsel on how to cope with grief during the holiday season, the real focus of the half-day session was on the many individuals in attendance who shared their stories of loss and grief with those around them.
Whether as a result of suicide, accident or illness, the loss of a loved one can have a profound impact for years on those who are left behind. During Windigo’s session, people, both young and old, told the stories of who they lost, how they were lost and what they have done to cope. Not everyone who shared during the session felt that they had coped well. Some spoke of the importance of building closer bonds with family, while others talked through tears about how their loss had torn apart their family or taken them down the road to substance abuse, violence and other self-destructive behaviour. Some spoke of the importance of spirituality as they worked through their grief while others talked about how the best way forward for them was to seek out others in need and help them.
But all who shared their stories and experiences, shared one thing in common – the desire to heal and to move on with their lives.
“To go through a healing process, to help people who have a trauma in their bodies, it paralyzes them and they are unable to move on with their lives,” explained Windigo. “There are many things that contribute to trauma, for example residential-school experience. It is about getting those parts of the body unstuck and releasing the trauma. People are really connected to their trauma and react to their trauma. The key is to get them connected to the self and not the trauma, and get them to realize they are bigger than the trauma and get them the resources that they need.”
A survivor of residential school, alcohol-and-drug abuse and family violence, Windigo speaks frankly about his troubled past and the personal journey he has taken that has enabled him to develop programs that foster healing, such as the one he delivered at Dialogue for Life 2011.
“I call that my period of darkness,” said Windigo. “I was suffering from the fallout of residential school, the trauma of what happened in my life afterward. I struggled with alcohol, drugs, violence and a very unhealthy lifestyle. In 1989, I started to come out of that darkness and started to realize a lot of things about life; that I am not the only one in that pain.
“When I was living in that darkness I thought I was the only one and I felt so alone. When I came out of that, I realized that there are a lot of people who are suffering. And I want to make a difference. I want to see if I can help. I want people to have a place to go to and have someone to talk to.”
Not surprisingly, Windigo believes that personal spirituality plays a major role both in the suffering people experience and the healing process that they must go through to get on with their lives.
“Even with the trauma, when people carry trauma, it is a very spiritual thing. But it is heavy, it is full of fear and when you get that release it is like a spirit comes through your body and releases it and gives it to the Creator or God or whatever people believe in,” explained Windigo.
“Everybody has a spiritual side, a connection to something greater than themselves that is helping them. I would say I am a spiritual man, but during my period of darkness I was very confused and I didn’t want to believe in anything. But spiritual things did happen and I saw signs that I was in the right place at the right time, especially when I was in detox and my body wouldn’t stop shaking and a spiritual thing happened. I connected with a spirit in the sky and a great calmness came over me and told me that I am exactly in the right place that I needed to be at that time in my life.”
The holidays are not only a difficult time for people grieving a loss. It can be a difficult time for the people close to those who are grieving. Quite often, people are unsure as to how to best comfort and meet the needs of people who may not be viewing the holiday season as a joyful time.
Windigo offers some simple advice for those who wish to comfort friends and loved ones in pain.
“The most important thing is human contact – the human touch. And to include those who are grieving in various ways, to be with them. Sometimes it is just a handshake, but show people that you care,” he said.
“I always go for connection. Make the connection, build the connection. Even with people who are grieving and don’t want to celebrate the holidays, make the connection to them. Connect to them as to how the world is for them at that moment.
“And be respectful.”