After their husband and father died by suicide in November 2017, Kim and Noah Ovikian felt lost.
“Noah and I were so alone,” Kim said. “Not just when Thomas died, but also after that. After a suicide, you don’t have that many people to talk to about what happened. It feels like you just don’t have that much in common with other people anymore.”
Kim tried to find support through a widow’s group, and while the women there were kind, she soon realized that they had little in common beyond losing a spouse.
“I found that almost all of the women there were older than I was,” she said. “I’m 46. I was 44 when my husband died. It was also hard because the women in the group had all lost their husbands to things other than suicide.”
Eventually Kim found another support group, this one specifically for women who’d lost their husbands to suicide. The group was a balm for her, and when organizers passed around information about Camp LIVIN, a new weekend retreat for families who have lost a loved one to suicide sponsored by the LIVIN Foundation, Kim eagerly filled out an application form for herself and Noah, then 15.
The idea of going to a camp for suicide survivors felt exciting, Kim said: “I didn’t know what to expect, but I was really hopeful. I was thankful to learn that Noah and I could do it together.” Since Thomas’ death, the two like to stay close, holding each other up through hard times. “It is nice having your family member with you, knowing that at least in that way you’re not alone.”
When Kim and Noah arrived at Camp LIVIN, it was just six months since Thomas’ suicide. Held at Camp Courage in Maple Lake, the retreat had a classic summer-camp feel, with woodsy cabins, a sandy beach and plenty of room for group events. Still in recovery mode, Kim and Noah admit they had low expectations for the weekend. The best they could hope for was an understanding group of campers — and a quiet place to rest.
“I was kind of numb and in a fog,” Kim recalled. “I was taking one day at a time and focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.”
But it didn’t take long for Kim and Noah to realize that Camp LIVIN was filled with people — from campers to counselors — who understood exactly where they were coming from. Everyone involved in the camp has been touched by suicide. A few hours into the first day, Kim and Noah felt less alone than they had in months.
“Even though you you’ve never met, you don’t feel like strangers,” Kim said. “You feel like kindred spirits. You have this common bond.”
Noah tends to be reserved in new situations, his mother said, but he quickly warmed up to the fact that other campers shared a painful but common bond.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kim said. “When we got to Camp LIVIN, Noah was right at home, participating, interacting with people, talking to them. He loved it. I was so excited to see how much he got out of it.”
Noah explained that he talks openly about his dad’s suicide, but usually kids at school don’t know how to react. Young people often feel uncomfortable talking about death, and suicide is even harder to face.
“I’m somebody who doesn’t have a filter,” he said. “At school, when I say what happened to my dad, kids will give me a look. It’s normal that they do, but still, if someone’s dad dies by cancer, they aren’t as creeped out about that.”
At Camp LIVIN, no one gave Noah that look when he talked about his dad’s death. That was a welcome relief. “It was nice to have people who can relate to what we went through,” he said.
That’s exactly the experience LIVIN Foundation founder Paul Thomas “PT” Hohag was hoping for when he created Camp LIVIN. In 2013, Hohag, morning DJ on local country radio station FM 102.9 The Wolf, lost his own father to suicide. The experience led him to form the LIVIN Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing discrimination around depression and other mental illnesses and preventing suicide through activities, events and outreach.
While Hohag felt his foundation was making an impact through large events like the Get Busy LIVIN Music Festival, he wanted to do more. He saw how families like his own continued to struggle to find places where they felt truly supported.
With the help and encouragement of his fiancé, Brooke Byrd, a program director at other area camps, Hohag decided to create a camp experience designed specifically around the needs of families experiencing suicide loss.
“Making a connection and making a friend, that’s something that grieving people need,” Hohag said. “They need to feel like they have advocates and supporters.” He felt a camp experience would be a great way for people who’d experienced suicide loss to build a network of support and understanding, if even only for a weekend. And maybe those bonds could extend beyond camp. “You need to create your own community, and a camp experience like this can be a good start.”
Like Kim and Noah, Hohag and his family felt lost and alone after his father’s suicide. They wished that they knew other people who’d experienced the same kind of loss. Creating the LIVIN foundation helped Hohag build a community for himself and his family, but it took a long time.
As he became an outspoken advocate for suicide-loss survivors, Hohag heard too many stories like the Ovikians’. He decided to create a space where families could come together and share stories, make friends and hopefully form lasting bonds that could carry them through the grieving process.
In order for the experience to feel truly safe, he decided, Camp LIVIN would be staffed by volunteers who had firsthand experience with suicide.
“Most people involved in our cause have suffered a loss in some way shape or form,” Hohag said. “It is a lot of like-minded people who can all speak on a real level about what this is like. We don’t have people working at camp LIVIN as a job. They are there because this cause is important to them. Everybody at camp is a potential friend or outlet for healing.”
While having a suicide loss in common with all the campers was a sad reality, Kim said that she and Noah found it freeing. The common bond meant that campers could be open and relate to one another without having to explain themselves or their situations.
“Noah loved it so much that these people all understood each other,” she said. “We knew where everyone was coming from. Just being together and knowing you’ve lost someone to suicide, there is a weird bond there that you typically don’t have. We can share everything because they get it.”
Kim recalled having meaningful conversations with Hohag’s mother when she was at Camp LIVIN. The two had both lost a spouse to suicide and they felt like they could quickly begin a dialogue that went straight to the heart because their lives had taken such a similar path.
“Having those kinds of conversations was a relief,” Kim said. “At home, you are surrounded by your friends and neighbors, people who live nearby but have absolutely no idea what you went through. Their life goes on but yours doesn’t. People at camp got it.”
Because it carries so much shame and fear, suicide has a way of isolating survivors from the rest of the world, Hohag said. He hopes that spending a weekend at Camp LIVIN can break down some of those walls and show participants that they are not alone.
“When you lose someone to suicide, I think there is a natural feeling of feeling like you and your family are the only ones in the world that are going through this. When you go to camp, you realize that other people have felt the same things you felt or had similar questions or confusion.”
While the focus of Camp LIVIN is support, the camp experience is not a weekend-long support group, Hohag explained. It’s designed to be more of a retreat, a place for people to relax and unwind. Activities offered are more typical camp fare.
“The camp is families doing activities like yoga and music therapy, a boat ride, a pontoon ride, ropes courses, archery, building birdhouses. It’s not a direct support group type of thing.
“If it’s therapeutic, the hope is that happens naturally.”
Kim and Noah participated in most Camp LIVIN activities. That made for a busy weekend, but somehow Kim said she felt rested by the time they packed up to head home.
“I felt pampered,” Kim said. “They were really good at planning activities, but the whole weekend was a time to get away and rest. I needed that so bad. The timing was perfect. It forced me to be intentional, to care for myself and let myself grieve and let go.”
For the whole family
Initially, Hohag thought that Camp LIVIN would be a summer camp for kids who’d lost a parent or other family member to suicide. But he quickly realized that it could actually be a good experience for all members of a family.
“When I sat down with our executive director and a couple of other mental health professionals we came to the conclusion that after a loss by suicide the struggles a family goes through are not unique to children,” he said. “If you’re an adult, you face just as many questions, struggles, stigma that the kids do. We thought, ‘Why would we want to restrict it to a kids camp?’”
His own family — his mother and two adult siblings — attended Camp LIVIN together last year. The experience turned out to be significant for all of them in different ways.
“Everyone goes through the grief process in a different time frame,” Hohag said. To be able to have his whole family together in one place felt healthy. They could talk about their father and husband all they wanted, but they also had the distraction of activities and fun. Families can get segregated in their grief, he said. A weekend camp setting allows them an opportunity to come together and bond with each other in a way that’s not a funeral or a memorial service.
Camp LIVIN campers must be over age 6, but otherwise there are no age restrictions. And how campers define family is up to them.
“We have a loose description of family,” Hohag said. “We don’t want to limit anyone. Whatever the campers decide is their family, that’s who we want to be there.”
Last year was the camp’s first year, and campers’ experiences ranged across the board. One good prospect for the camp, Hohag said, would be a family that has never done therapy or resisted seeing a therapist to deal with their loss.
Camp, he explained, “is a good opportunity to bring people in and show them that therapy doesn’t have to be difficult or rigid and can happen in a natural way.”
Before he arrived at Camp LIVIN, Noah worried that his weekend would feel like a three-day therapy session. “I was wondering if it would be too intense,” he said. “Would the whole weekend be focused on grieving and suicide? Not that I don’t want to talk about that stuff, but it’s more like I wondered how it was going to feel.”
In the end, Noah said, Camp LIVIN just felt like a regular camp — with an added perk: “People there understood — and that felt great.”
A growing need
Last year, around 10 families attended Camp LIVIN. Hohag said that enrollment for this year’s session is filling quickly. The camp can hold up to 50 people, so there is room for anywhere between 10 to 14 families, depending on their size. While interest is growing, Hohag would like to keep the camp small, because he feels that the strong connections it fosters has a lot to do with the intimate size.
Hohag got word out about the camp through social media and LIVIN Foundation outreach. He’s also formed a partnership with Eden Prairie-based Brighter Days Grief Center. The center provided activity support at camp last year, and will also provide grief support this spring.
As interest in the camp grows, Hohag imagines expanding to more than one session, maybe one in the spring and one in the fall. He also said he sees how the Camp LIVIN model could be expanded to other parts of the country.
“We’ve done a lot of research, and from what I can tell, I don’t think there are a lot of camp experiences that are specific to losses by suicide. I don’t want the demand for what we do to increase, but I feel like it is, unfortunately. More and more people are in this category of having lost someone to suicide.”
The camp costs just $50 for the entire family, with grants for financial assistance available through the LIVIN Foundation. Hohag explained that the $50 is really just a registration fee, a way to confirm that applicants are committed to attending.
“We wouldn’t want to hold a spot and then have a family find out they can’t do it and we could’ve had room for others,” Hohag said. Beyond the $50 fee, Camp LIVIN is free for all participants. “We have generous supporters and sponsors that allow us to put this on.”
This was a key element of the camp’s design. “By no means is financial strife the only reason why a family would lose someone to suicide, but that is an important one,” Hohag said. “We never want to prevent families from participating in the things we offer based on cost.”
Kim and Noah said they appreciated that Camp LIVIN was affordable. The experience left them feeling inspired to open up about their own story. They now regularly speak up about their loss at their church and on their new YouTube channel, called “Mother and Son.”
“We want to talk about suicide, mental health and other subjects,” Noah said.
“People often put on a façade that everything is great,” Kim added. “That’s sad because it actually makes them more unhappy. The more you talk about it the better you feel.”
Though it may feel like holding on to trauma, an open approach like the Ovikians’ is actually a way of letting go of the pain caused by suicide loss, Hohag said. When a close family member dies, grief will always be part of your life, but letting go of some of that loss is important. It frees you up and makes room for the next chapter.
At Camp LIVIN, many participants say that the high-ropes course is a good illustration of the importance of letting go.
“There are some aspects of the course that require a combination of trust and a leap of faith or a jump into a new normal,” Hohag said. “During the course, some people, including my mom, started to literally let some things go.” This is a difficult-but-central part of the grieving process, that’s particularly hard for people who’ve lost a loved one to suicide, he explained.
On the ropes course, as in life, letting go of negative feelings like anger and guilt is, he said, “a big leap, both physically and emotionally. When you realize that you can do it, you feel stronger, you feel freer, like you can keep moving forward and you are no longer held back.”
For more information about Camp LIVIN, go to www.livinfoundation.org or email camp director Maria Schugel at firstname.lastname@example.org.