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New Greenfield group provides support to those who lost a loved one to suicide

  • Donald Brooks and Jennifer Matoney, who founded the Greenfield Suicide Loss Support group, prepare materials for their next meeting, to be held Monday. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Donald Brooks and Jennifer Matoney, who founded the Greenfield Suicide Loss Support group, prepare materials for their next meeting, to be held Monday. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Donald Brooks and Jennifer Matoney co-founded the Greenfield Suicide Loss Support group. Recorder Staff/Dan Little

  • Jennifer Matoney shows her daughter old photos of her family, including ones of her late mother, Lynn Matoney, at their Amherst home. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • A photo on Jennifer Matoney’s mantle shows her late mother, Lynn Matoney, brushing her hair when she was a child. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • Jennifer Matoney shows her daughter, Cassie, old photos of her family, including ones of her late mother, Lynn Matoney, at their Amherst home. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • Jennifer Matoney shows her daughter old photos of her family, including ones of her late mother, Lynn Matoney, at their Amherst home. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • Photos on Jennifer Matoney’s mantle show her late mother, Lynn Matoney. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • Jennifer Matoney shows her daughter, Cassie, old photos of her family, including ones of her late mother, Lynn Matoney, at their Amherst home. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon

  • A series of family portraits from Jennifer Matoney’s childhood include her late mother, Lynn Matoney. Recorder Staff/Joshua Solomon



Recorder Staff
Friday, June 08, 2018

Sitting in the Dunkin’ Donuts on the Mohawk Trail, chatting over iced coffees, Donald Brooks began to talk about the fairly public suicide of his close friend that happened at the Franklin Recovery Center’s lobby nearly a year and a half ago.

“My path started with the loss of my friend, Dan Dowd,” Brooks, a Turners Falls resident, began. “I want to say the reason I got there was partially because of guilt. There’s a lot of times you think, ‘would’ve, could’ve, should’ve,’ and you feel really guilty about how you didn’t know or how could I have helped. In the case of Dan, he had called me a couple of months earlier to go fishing because he knew he had an alcohol problem and he knew that I was recovering. That’s what brought him to suicide, trying to get help and he couldn’t get the help he wanted. There was a point where I had said, ‘If I had taken off from work and gone fishing with him a couple of times, could it have changed?’ Maybe it could’ve, but it didn’t. What I wanted to do is, I wanted to help the next family, the next people who feel the way I feel now, the next people who have that loss. I want to help them.”

Jennifer Matoney of Amherst listened to Brooks’ story before sharing her first memory of going to a suicide loss support group after her mother, Lynn Matoney, took her own life.

She was living on the border of South Dakota at the time and joined a group in neighboring Iowa. It was held in a funeral home. Every time they walked in, the facilitator gave them a big hug.

“It was very hard to be in the group, talking about my loss,” Matoney said. “But overall, it was very beneficial to me.”

Knowing the people of Franklin County could benefit from a suicide support group, too, Brooks and Matoney started one of their own in Greenfield.

A safe space for expression

Every second Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m., the Greenfield Suicide Loss Support group meets in a conference room just past the lobby at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. This Monday will be the group’s third meeting since forming, while similar groups have run for the past several years in Northampton and more than 20 years in East Longmeadow.

The free, no-registration-needed group is for people who have lost loved ones, and is a peer-led group that helps facilitate the healing process.

“We’re not mental health professionals, we’re survivors, like the participants,” said Matoney, who also works with the Western Massachusetts branch of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “We’re peer facilitators, so we share some about our experiences, but we’re mostly just there to support people and the conversations, make sure the place is safe for people and their conversations.”

The group meets for about an hour and a half, giving whoever comes a chance to talk about what’s on their mind.

“If there’s a good discussion, it’s not like there’s an egg timer and it goes off and it’s like ‘Hold your thought to the next meeting,’” Brooks said. “We really want everybody to express themselves.”

He continued, “We want everybody to have their time to remember their loved one.

“In that hour and a half, there may be some silence, there may be some heavy talking, there may be a lot of crying, there could be laughing and remembering who that person was — in the moment, you don’t want to cut it off.”

Origins

The story of how Brooks and Matoney connected and formed the Greenfield Suicide Loss Support group is one of the type of resolution that the group itself is all about.

Brooks met Matoney at a suicide prevention workshop she was presenting called safeTALK. From there, they noticed a need for a group in Franklin County, not just the ones in Hampshire County.

Brooks had been used to these types of meetings, even though he hadn’t been to one regarding suicide before.

“I’m a recovering alcoholic and I would’ve never known what a recovering alcoholic in AA was all about until I could identify with being an alcoholic,” Brooks said. “Until you know the loss of suicide, you don’t know how it feels. You can talk all you want, but until you’re sitting in those shoes, you just don’t know.”

Now Brooks is co-leading the Greenfield-based group, learning as he goes, as are his friends.

Lending an ear

The death of Brooks’ friend, Daniel Dowd, a beloved local musician and veteran, roiled the community on social media. There were posts on Facebook, including the note Dowd wrote before his death, all while the healing process played out. Over time, Brooks took a stance to explain to his friends that it’s OK to grieve.

The desire to grieve with support groups has helped him understand the role the groups play in living with pain. This is where he sees himself as useful, by having the opportunity to help others from across the county with what they’re going through and show them that anyone can openly navigate the grieving process.

“A lot of people want to hide and put themselves in this shell because they may feel they’re inconveniencing people by crying about it,” Brooks said. “Myself, as a guy, I want to say I’m not a big crier, I’m not a big guy that shows emotion. In a lot of family atmospheres, there may not be the support at home where people are searching for that — to be able to break out of their shell and be able to talk to somebody.”

Having a support group, Brooks continued, helps those who are grieving realize “there is somebody out there that will listen, somebody that can relate to what I’m saying.”

“For me, talking about my friends that took their lives, a lot of it I like to say I can flip the emotional switch,” he said, noting that men in particular are often more apt to push emotions away. “I think groups like this are needed and it’s a matter of knowing that people are out there that will bring you in.”

Suicide, Matoney added, isn’t something that loved ones necessarily get over; rather, the healing process is continual.

“When people lose someone to suicide, I don’t think it’s something they ever get over,” she said. “I think they learn to live with it. I know, personally, I learned to live with it one day at a time.”

Fine-tuning the conversation

Language is a part of support. Matoney and Brooks made sure the right wording was going to be used, not just in a news article or in a support setting, but even just casually talking at Greenfield’s Dunkin’ Donuts.

“I actually just lost another friend a couple of weeks ago, out in Colorado,” Brooks said to Matoney.

“To suicide?” Matoney asked.

He took his own life, Brooks explained, noting that you don’t say someone “committed suicide.” Brooks interjected to explain “committed is usually associated with a crime.”

As the conversation wrapped up, Matoney took to one last point: “You may have heard suicide described as selfish.”

“I don’t feel like its a selfish act,” she said. “I feel like it’s an act of desperation — people who are desperate to escape from the pain they feel.”

“In the case of my mom, she was really the most giving person I had ever met in my life ... She took care of three generations, her parents, my sister, my brother, myself. She was married to my dad for 38 years and they were still married when she died. She had grandkids she loved so much, she was active in her community, a master gardener and just a very giving person,” Matoney continued. “When people who haven’t lost someone, when they hear about someone dying by suicide and think, ‘That’s so selfish,’ I really didn’t feel my mom was selfish at all. My mom was really the most giving person I had ever known.”

Staff reporter Joshua Solomon has worked at the Greenfield Recorder since 2017. His beat includes health, welfare and education. He can be reached at: jsolomon@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 264.

Fast facts and resources

Local suicide rates: Franklin County has the highest rate of suicides in the state, according to data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, with 12 suicides in 2014, a rate of 16.9 suicides per 100,000 people. It is the only county in Massachusetts with a rate higher than 13 suicides per 100,000 people; the state average is just under nine and the national average is around 13.

Franklin County also has the highest rate of annual youth suicide (ages 10 to 24) in Massachusetts from 2011 to 2015, the most recent time frame analyzed by the state Department of Public Health, making for a rate of 10 suicides per 100,000 people.

Meetings: The Suicide Loss Support Group in Greenfield meets the second Monday of every month, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in a conference room at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, 164 High St. in Greenfield.

Walk: The annual Out of the Darkness Franklin County walk is Sept. 29 at Energy Park in Greenfield. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hosts the event and is trying to raise $15,000 for the purpose of investing in new research, creating educational programs, advocating for public policy and supporting survivors of suicide research.

Help: If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK), contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741, or go to SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for a list of additional resources.