University of Washington
Need help now?  Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255
Need Help Now? Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 1.800.273.8255

Forefront Cares volunteer has a heart that is ready to listen

Forefront Cares volunteer has a heart that is ready to listen

Living and grieving through her own loss has prepared Forefront Cares volunteer Kristen Spexarth to be there for others who are bereaved.  Photo by Katie M. Simmons

It’s been more than 13 years since Kristen Spexarth’s son, Colby, took his own life at the age of 22.  Tears still cloud her eyes when she talks about him—a gifted, loving, young man suffering intolerable physical pain—and the hole his loss ripped through her very being.

The hole is still there, but it has created a space for heightened awareness, compassion and forgiveness. Gifts she shares with others through her poetry and essays, public speaking, private listening and participation in Forefront Cares.

Photo by Katie M. SimmonsGrief is a paradox, she says at the end of her workday as a Seattle Parks Department gardener. “Of course, of course we don’t want to lose our loved ones. As I live through this loss, I can see that it has taught me so much that has profoundly altered as well as benefitted my life. Everything I had built up and believed in was laid to waste. I had to start over from the beginning to discover who am I, what is important.”

Today what’s important is being there for others as they experience similar losses. “It’s an experience you just have to go through to understand,” she says, recalling how even her family and friends’ deep love and attempts at support failed to bridge the gap she felt between them and her deep, visceral pain. “It’s hard to witness someone in pain. People want to fix it or make it go away. They didn’t understand that you have to go through it. If it was this hard for me, who was so loved, maybe I can help others bridge the gap,” she says.

She knows the value of simply sitting—being—with someone in grief. “I don’t have any answers. All I have is a heart that’s ready to listen.  And that’s enough.”

Kristen also helps by sharing her own journey through the poetry and prose in her two-volume Passing Reflections: Meditations on Grief and The Journey Through Grief. Her publisher has donated copies of her books for inclusion in Forefront Cares packages for people recently bereaved by suicide. Best read aloud, a few at a time, her poems speak not only to readers who are grieving, but also to those who want to better understand and support someone else.

The poems grew out of her sense of isolation and withdrawal following Colby’s death. “I couldn’t be with people.  I felt like they couldn't hear me, and what they had to offer wasn’t serving me, so I resorted to the poems, thinking ‘maybe they’ll hear me if I write it down.’” Always a writer, Kristen believes writing and mindfulness (being fully present and aware of her body’s physical and emotional messages) literally saved her life after Colby died.

When the time was right, she also found support in the Survivors of Suicide drop-in bereavement group at the King County Crisis Clinic, the only free (small suggested donation) group in Seattle.Kristen Spexarth loves the plants she tends for Seattle Parks & Recreation, but her passion is helping others who have lost loved ones to suicide.  Photo by Linda Williams

She believes access to other survivors is essential; whether in a group or one on one, everyone needs someone who can listen with real understanding and without judgment or fear.  The timing and needs are individual. Kristen waited six months, some find a group right away, others wait as long as 20 years.  Not everyone can handle a group situation or even has one in the community. Forefront Cares has more information on support groups and other resources for loss survivors.  It also offers one-on-one phone peer support from a trained volunteer who has experienced a similar loss.

Nothing in our culture prepares us for this kind of wrenching, physical grief —or, indeed, the pain and grief that is part of the human condition. A lifetime of mediation and mindfulness has helped Kristen lean into her grief instead of denying or running away from it. When those deep, uncomfortable feelings engulf her, she carefully acknowledges what’s happening in her body without attaching a storyline of “why” or “what if” or “if only.”  That’s how she can embrace grief without wallowing in it, and listen to others without being totally drained.

“It’s not an easy journey,” she warns.  “It requires help, it requires community, but for me there’s nothing outside this journey. If we learn to be truly present with each other, we will have accomplished something profound.” The journey has taken her to a life more beautiful than she ever imagined, and new opportunities to help others find their way through Forefront Cares. — by Sue Lockett John

See and hear Kristen read her poems, “Death Came and Undressed Her” and “As If,” at Fault Lines Poetry, Gig Harbor, WA