Local nonprofit SASS offering alternative holiday options for people who lost someone to suicide

The ‘Hope for the Holidays’ memorial service is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 15 at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission.

Recognizing that winter holidays can be a difficult time for someone who has lost a loved one to suicide, local nonprofit Suicide Awareness Survivors Support (SASS) is hosting its 12th annual memorial service to help families cope this season.

The “Hope for the Holidays” service will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16 in the Rodgers Conference Center at AdventHealth Shawnee Mission, 9100 W. 74th St., Merriam. The conference center is on the north side of the hospital by the helicopter pad.

“The holidays are not a joyous time of year for a lot of people who have lost a loved one to suicide,” said Tom Phillips, vice president of SASS. “There’s a lot of anticipatory anxiety that goes along with it. There’s one less sitting at the Thanksgiving table. There’s a missing person at the Christmas or Hanukkah celebration.”

Phillips said the annual memorial service started out as a way to give people tools for getting through the holidays, “giving permission” to people to think outside the box and switch up their holiday traditions if necessary, like going on a trip, for example.

The service is often a very casual space for people to gather. There will be moments of reverence, with music by harpist Juli Sackman.

Special guest Oscar Polk, who has also experienced a loss of his own, will perform more upbeat music with his saxophone as well. Phillips noted that Polk’s performance will be exemplary of the nature of support groups — there are times when it’s sad, but other times when members find joy, humor and relief.

“A lot of people think support groups are like this really sad downer,” Phillips said. “Support groups are not like that at all. A lot of times, there is heavy conversation, but it’s really conversational, just dealing with day-to-day life, and there are some times that we just laugh.

“And of course — I don’t mean this to be taken in a wrong way — but there’s a little bit dark sense of humor that only people that have experienced that loss. They find humor in things that are sometimes irrelevant for other people or are really not appropriate for people that haven’t experienced that loss. But it’s their way of just dealing with it. It’s just floods of emotion.”

And there will be moments of inspiration, with messages from Mark Fenton, a chaplain and licensed grief counselor, will also discuss “Honoring our Loved Ones during the Holidays.”

And the guest speaker for the service will be Beth Sarver, an educator and founder of Breathing Room KC, a local nonprofit promotes a healing-centered approach for building resilient communities. As a trauma and suicide survivor, Sarver will share her story duing the service. Her program is called “Life is Practice & Healing is Our Nature.” She specializes in trauma-informed care, trauma-sensitive schools and resilience education.

The service also includes candle lighting and a slideshow of loved ones lost to suicide. Anyone interested in sharing digital photos may send them in JPEG format to Joe Spiller at joe.spiller68@gmail.com by Friday, Nov. 15.

Phillips said he wants to invite anyone interested in learning more about the nonprofit and people in this community to come to the service or attend a support group — even people who haven’t had a direct loss in their lives.

“We have people who come and are just curious; sometimes people apologize for coming, they say oh I’m so sorry I don’t have a direct loss,” Phillips said. “Overwhelmingly, people who have lost someone to suicide don’t want an apology. They just are saying we’re so glad you’re here. We’re so glad that someone is interested enough, that wants to learn.

“There’s nothing you can say that’s right or wrong. Just your presence means the world to us.”

Fellowship and refreshments will follow afterward. The event is free, and donations will be accepted.