Although grief is a universal experience, no two people process the emotions the same way.
For example, while some cultures encourage the public expression of raw emotion, others expect a subdued response.
“From what we know, the ‘western’ culture, for the most part, has ‘cleaned’ up the grieving process,” explains David Mathews, co-founder and executive director of Spark of Life Grief Recovery Retreats, a Searcy-based nonprofit that provides help for those who are grieving loss or losses. “This culture typically states, not in so many words, but implied – ‘OK, grieve. Get it over with – now get back to normal.’ The average business in America gives three bereavement days to its employees when they have an immediate family member die, which is unrealistic and woefully inadequate.
“Our goal at Spark of Life is to give hope to those grieving, that though life can never be the same after devastating loss, life can be rich and fulfilling, that those grieving can live forward,” he says. “Living forward is living with hope and purpose. Existing forward is living because you have to.”
This help comes primarily in the form of three-day grief recovery retreats. There is no charge for anyone to attend; all food, lodging and materials are given as a gift.
As of December 2016, Spark of Life has conducted 70 retreats in nine states serving 982 people. Participants have come from 38 states and several foreign countries. Limited to around 16 participants, retreats are open to all adults 18 years and older.
Deva Javellana of Searcy is one such beneficiary. She had a long history of grief, beginning at age 13 with losing her mom to breast cancer, followed by her maternal grandfather’s death 10 months later. Then, her aunt – with whom she was very close – died suddenly when Javellana was a sophomore in college. The tipping point was her 30-year-old sister’s sudden death due to a heart attack in 2012.
“I first heard about Spark of Life right after my sister died,” she says. “At the visitation, a family friend handed me a brochure for Spark of Life. I remember thinking: ‘It’s just too soon… I can’t process this yet!’ About four to six months later, my grief became overwhelming, and I went to see a counselor. It helped me cope at the time. About a year later I was struggling again, so I looked up Spark of Life. I wanted to go and meet my dad there. My dad wasn’t crazy about the idea, so I put it on hold.”
She and her husband eventually attended an Arkansas retreat in February 2016.
“Spark helped me feel less alone in my grief,” she says. “They guided us through a series of writing exercises that we discussed in small groups to help come to terms with our loss. Most of all, they said, ‘It’s OK not to be OK sometimes.’
“Since the retreat, I am more aware of triggers and have learned to just be in the moment and then move on. I stop and cry when I need to, and I do my best not to allow my hurt to affect the way I treat my children or husband.”
Javellana says she would recommend Spark of Life Retreats to anyone who has experienced loss, which does not only mean death.
Mathews says the retreats are relevant to those who are grieving loss of any kind – including loss of children, spouses, parents, siblings, etc. and also including non-death losses such as divorce or loss of children to addictions – though the children might still be alive. “These losses could be recent or could have occurred many years ago,” he adds. “We have had participants come a few weeks after a major loss, and some who have come 25 to 30 years after a major loss.”
Most retreats fill up quickly – each individual or family unit is required to secure their spot with a $500 fully refundable deposit.
In 2016, Spark of Life provided 17 retreats. The availability of retreats is based on funding, and there are currently at least 15 planned for 2017. Fundraising events are held in Arkansas and around the country; the Sixth Annual Little Rock Gala was Nov. 17.
“If we can raise $100,000 from now to the end of the year, that amount, $100,000 – will be matched by three generous donors,” says Mathews. “This will allow us to help more people who are grieving. Simply go to www.sparkoflife.org to give or to register for a retreat.”
“I think one of the biggest things that the retreats and the whole Spark of Life foundation does is point out the importance of recognizing and validating grief,” says Javellana. “It gives a sense of community and normality to something we all experience but no one ever wants to talk about.”