When Bronwyn Gray lost her son Liam to suicide, she had nobody to talk to who could understand what she was going through.

“There are support groups for people with cancer or alcohol and drug problems but nothing for people bereaved by suicide,” Bronwyn says.

She and her husband Ian live in the small settlement of Stillwater, near Greymouth on the West Coast.

“I felt like there was nobody around who really understood how I was feeling. It’s hard to talk to somebody who hasn’t lost a loved one to suicide because it’s hard for them to understand,” Bronwyn says.

“I needed to find other people to talk to or a support group with people who had been through a similar thing but I couldn’t find one,” she says.

So Bronwyn put the word out via an article in the local newspaper that she wanted to start a support group.

Newspaper article kicked off new support group

“The paper interviewed me and Ian for an article about Liam’s suicide and I mentioned I wanted to start a support group and one thing led to another and over 30 people came along to the first meeting.”

That free support group has been running since February, 2016. They meet once a month and alternate the meetings between Hokitika and Greymouth, with some people travelling an hour and a half by car to attend.

The Mental Health Foundation recommends people wait a minimum of one year (two to three years is preferable) after losing somebody to suicide before they set up a support group, so they have time to process their loss.

However, Bronwyn set up the group within the first year of losing Liam because of her very strong need to talk to other people who understood what she was going through.

“It was a bit mind-boggling thinking about setting the support group up but I’m really glad I did. It’s helped us through the worst part.”

Relaxed, informal get-togethers

The group doesn’t sit around formally in a circle on chairs as many people might think, Bronwyn says.

“We always have a pot-luck dinner and it’s pretty informal. It starts at 6.30pm and runs until whenever people are ready to go. We can have anything from three to four people showing up or 10 or more. It depends on the day and what people have got on.”

Bronwyn says the support group has been instrumental in helping her deal with her loss.

“It’s been really good for me. We’re all at different stages of grieving… I’ve met people who lost a child five or 10 years ago, and I can see that they’ve made it through and it gives me hope. It makes me realise that if they can get to where they are, I can get there too.”

Bronwyn, a contract postie, says it’s also good to have support from the group at difficult times like anniversaries and Christmas.

No pressure to share story of loss

“We talk about everything and anything. New members can share their suicide loss story if they want, but they don’t have to. It’s not structured at all.”

The Cancer Society provides a free venue in Greymouth for the meetings and in Hokitika, Poutini Waiora do the same.

“It’s really helpful to have somewhere free for us to meet… I’ve become good friends with the people in the group. We’ve all bonded because of this one thing we have in common.”

Bronwyn attended the Mental Health Foundation’s two-day Support Groups for Suicide Loss Workshop in Wellington this year. “It was great and the resources and handbook have been helpful.”

Her advice to others thinking of setting a group up: “Just give it a go. You’ve got nothing to lose and so much to gain.”

Read about Suicide bereavement