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By Cindy Butler Focke
Virginian-Pilot correspondent
© April 3, 2012

Elaine Roberts’ world came crashing down Feb. 29, 2004. Her only child, Kaila Roberts-Lysaght, took her own life at the age of 15.

Roberts described the first year following Kaila’s death as “raw.”

“I couldn’t stand being in my own skin,” she said. But she tried to move forward. “You do what you can to comfort yourself,” she said. “You dig deep.”

After eight years, she’s still standing; thus the name “Still Standing: Surviving Suicide Support Group” she has organized for adults 21 and over who have lost a loved one to suicide. The first meeting was March 13 at Spring Branch Community Church.

“This support group is not to take the place of seeing your own therapist, but to give survivors a place to be with other survivors who understand,” the Chesapeake Beach resident said.

Roberts said her minister, Michael Simone of Spring Branch, told her “to find the redemptive value in losing Kaila.” After successfully making it through treatment for breast cancer last year, Roberts said it was time, and things fell into place.

“I felt that God wanted me to do this,” she said.

She met Laurie Dawson of Alanton through “I Need a Lighthouse,” a local nonprofit founded by Kathleen Wakefield, who lost a son to suicide in 2001. It’s been a difficult year for Dawson and her three children, ages 16 to 20, who lost a husband and father. Tom Dawson battled depression and took his own life last July. The family asked that expressions of sympathy be made to several causes, including Wakefield’s organization dedicated to depression and suicide education and awareness.

When Wakefield informed her about Roberts’ desire to start a support group, Dawson asked that the donated funds be directed to help cover the cost of a licensed clinical social worker to facilitate the meetings with Roberts.

“I’m so glad it worked out,” said Dawson, who attended the group’s first meeting, which she described as “an extremely compassionate setting.” Dawson said she witnessed connections being made, which would hopefully prove to be invaluable to those involved.

Roberts said she is grateful to the Dawsons. She is confident the Virginia Beach support group can help others, just as a Portsmouth support group helped her after the death of her Kaila. She described her daughter as “genuine and kind and fun and funny, a great surfer and artistic.” The teenager with dark brown eyes wrote wonderful poetry and loved to create abstract designs on an array of media, including clothing and handbags, she said. “To see her things, you’d say, ‘Wow,’ ” her mother said.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, more than 34,000 people a year in the U.S. die from suicide. Survivors experience a wide range of grief reactions, including shock, guilt and symptoms of depression such as lack of energy and loss of appetite.

The goal is to develop the ability to cope and thus begin to heal. For some, a crucial part of the healing is connecting with other survivors.

“These groups provide a safe place where survivors can share their experiences and support each other,” said the foundation on its website, www.afsp.org.

“This is the group you wished you didn’t need, but glad it’s here,” Roberts said. “It’s about helping each other, and by doing that we help ourselves.”