2015 Survivor Retreat
Those Left Behind, Memories of a Lifetime
Written by: Jeff Dill, Founder
Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) recently held their first annual retreat for family members left behind by firefighter and EMT suicides. The event was held in Savannah, GA from May 21-24, 2015. My wife Karen and I met eleven of the most courageous people who came from IL, OH, KY, NY, NJ and FL. There were mothers, fathers, sisters, sister-in-laws, brothers, daughters and son-in-laws, but they were much more than that. These were people still reeling from the shock and pain of losing a loved one that ranged from four months to five years ago. I am positive that each family member that attended was feeling apprehension as to what emotions would play out to strangers they had just met on Thursday night. Karen and I had the same feelings.
When FBHA was first founded in 2011, one of the three main goals was to create a weekend retreat to let people know that they are not alone. To assist us, we invited Sarah Gaer, a mental health expert from CT, and Lt. Jerry Meddock Jr., a firefighter and Chaplain from OH. Both Sara and Jerry are also suicide survivors.
We wanted more than just workshops for our group. We wanted people to interact as well as enjoy the wonderful and historic city of Savannah. A trolley tour, riverboat cruise, restaurant dining and quality family time to go out and explore were also on the agenda. Yet nothing was more heart warming than what Karen and I observed from our Carriage House room that overlooked the courtyard on late Friday night. There were the families who just met 24 hours ago, talking and laughing with each other. They were strangers brought together by tragedy and now by there own choice, brought together to create friendships. It was one of the most rewarding feelings we ever have experienced in our lives.
On Friday night we held the first “WE REMEMBER” night at Savannah Fire House Station #3. For one minute the SFD ran their emergency lights as our families held candles to express, “we will always remember our lost loved one”. In fact, we were joined by fire and EMS organizations all over North America who joined us by running their lights and holding candles.
Although tears flowed during our emotional sessions there was laughter as well, and bonding that we could ever describe in this article. When Sunday morning arrived, Karen and I found that we actually did very little in getting people together. They found a spirit deep within themselves to reach out to each other and create memories and relationships that will last a lifetime. As one member said during a courtyard chat, “it felt good to feel normal again”. Another found himself expressing that because of this weekend he felt “hope” again for his healing process.
It’s now Monday afternoon and we are back in Arizona readying for the week. Yet these families still face their emotions on a daily basis. We carry the belief that for one weekend, one very special weekend our new family,(yes not only friends but family members), can reflect back to a time when they felt laughter, felt hope, felt normal and will reach out to talk with each other when needed.
Final thought: Reflecting back on the title of this article, “memories of a lifetime,” we were referring to our own memory. Our newest family members have created memories that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. For that, we will be forever thankful.
God Bless and Stay Safe,
A Weekend of Healing
Written by retreat participant, Joe Bellucci
Last week Leanne and I had the privilege of being invited to and attending a retreat sponsored by the Firefighters Behavioral Health Alliance in Savannah, Georgia. Fifteen people attended with most not knowing anyone else in attendance, other than reading some of their stories and understanding what they are going through. However, this group of strangers related by terrible circumstances soon realized they were no longer alone, and sadly part of a family no one would purposely chose to be part of.
Although I have talked about losing Scott with family, relatives, and close friends, unless you have lost a child you can imagine the pain and despair one is going through. From the first moments of this retreat, I was speaking about Scott to people I have only known for a little over an hour, and feeling free and easy to do so. These people, now considered family, have been through the same sad circumstances that my family and I have been through. This allowed us to speak freely to each other, share stories of our lost loved ones, and truly understand how each other felt.
Losing Scott was and still is the saddest time of my life. We carry burdens of; what did I miss, could I have prevented this, and continuous what ifs. While preventing suicide is the ultimate goal, sadly for some of these instances it was inevitable. I too have asked these questions to myself countless times and never felt as though this would ever pass. Yet, after spending an extended weekend with our new family and friends, for the first time I felt inner peace begin to build from the inside.
If it were not for Karen and Jeff Dill, founders of the FBHA, I do not know whether this inner peace would have ever been possible. The long weekend was comprised of group sessions, remembering our lost loved ones, sharing stories, shedding tears, prayers, happy times, fond memories, and of course food. Each day began with a breakfast cooked by famous chef, Joe Bonanno, someone who I was truly able to bond with and spent most of my free time with. Chef Joe and I shared stories about our lives, family, and of course, our losses.
Each of us came to Savannah with questions about what to expect, stories of grief, and apprehension. Karen and Jeff welcomed each one of us with open arms upon our arrival and introductions were made. While for some of us the losses had been over the past few years, for one family, their loss was only a few short months. We saw a grieving mother who could not mention her son’s name without completely breaking down on day one, share stories and laugh while remembering the good times on day two.
Karen and Jeff did not want this retreat to be about the sad times, but to rather reflect on the good times, bring them to the forefront, and remember the kind and loving souls that our lost loved ones are. They were able to do that and so much more, as I went from just listening and wondering what to expect, to going first when a question was asked and sharing “Scotty-isms” with everyone. Towards the end of day one, I spoke of a story that I wanted to share with the group; however, I was not completely sure that I wanted to. That however changed as we stood on the apron of a Savannah firehouse while we honored our lost loved ones at 9:00PM. The Savannah FD pulled out Engine 3 from the bay (guided by Scott I am sure), and turned on its emergency lights. We lit candles, and stood silent for one minute in solidarity. I then realized I needed to share my story with my new family.
The next morning I shared the entire story of my father’s dream and the readings we had with Barbara Soriano. To me and anyone who knows the entire story, it was a clear validation that Scott is truly in a better place and is also with us everywhere we go. I shared my story knowing that the comfort I get from knowing Scott is always with me, and is also in Heaven, as a way to make others understand that our loved one’s souls were not committed to eternal damnation and suffering. Instead, they have arrived at Heaven’s gate for an eternity of bliss and living under God’s grace.
To sum it up, this retreat was an amazing and uplifting experience for everyone in attendance. The transformation over those four days was both evident and inspiring as tears led to smiles and laughter. I cannot thank Karen and Jeff enough for putting this together and changing so many lives in four short days. For Sarah and Jerry, you have been more supportive then you probably realize, and two people I will never forget. Your words and encouragement mean so much to me, as I am certain they mean to every one of us in attendance.
God bless Karen and Jeff Dill, their commitment to “saving those who save others” and the FBHA. I encourage everyone to donate whatever they can to allow the FBHA to continue to spread the word, train others to detect the signs, and prevent future loss of life.