It can happen in a heartbeat.
One minute, a loved one is a vibrant, vital presence in your daily life, and the next they’re gone, and your world is changed forever.
Dealing with the death of someone dear is always sad and difficult for those left behind, even when illness or a medical condition makes the inevitable outcome dreaded, but expected.
When death happens suddenly, though, it can be especially devastating for traumatized survivors, robbed of the chance to prepare for it or steel themselves against the pain. Sorrow often draws families closer as they cling together to support and help each other cope.
But when the victims are visitors far from home and family, they have no one to turn to for comfort and their grief can be overwhelming. They desperately need something, or someone, to help them move through the layers of loss they are facing and experiencing.
Fortunately, according to Gina Kaulukukui of Life’s Bridges, there is help available on Kauai and people dedicated to continuing the services started by Kauai Hospice’s former executive director, Kathleen Boyle.
“She was such a guru in terms of death and grief and what was happening,” Kaulukukui said. “People were asking her for more support for visitors who don’t even know where to begin or what to do when an unexpected death occurs.”
Kauai Hospice created the Beeper Team in 1992 to meet the needs of visitors following a sudden and unexpected death. In 2007, Kaulukukui established Life’s Bridges to provide the continuum of this service and the BEST (Bridges Emergency Support Team) was born.
“Our goal is to support both our local residents and visitors following a traumatic or unexpected death,” she said. “Through our partnerships with, fire, police, EMT and the emergency rooms, we go directly to the scene or wherever we are needed to begin immediate support to surviving family members.
“We work with other agencies so we can be there offering the family support and they can continue to do their job,” she said. “It is a relief for the providers because they know the family’s immediate needs are being met.”
Recognizing that most people are overwhelmed and trying to grapple with the fact that their loved one died, Kaulukukui said, “Their hearts are heavy with grief and they may not understand, know what they need or what’s next to come.
“Our organization’s goal is to meet the special needs that arise from a sudden death and support these families as they embark upon this very sacred grief journey,” she said, adding that BEST shows up in a non-intrusive, compassionate way.
“We also take into account the ripple effect this death can have in our community and offer support when appropriate to churches, employers, schools, etc.”
Volunteers try to help families recognize their safety net of support as they shift from how their loved one died to how they lived. Support and referrals are available for as long as they desire.
BEST is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and averages 100 calls a year.
“In eight years we have received close to 800 calls,” Kaulukukui said, which she considers “phenomenal.”
Life’s Bridges is a grassroots, nonprofit organization with an administrative assistant who works 20 hours a week. There is also a board of eight volunteers.
In addition to the grief support work done by the BEST volunteers, Life’s Bridges offers several other services at no charge.
The Good Grief Club is Life’s Bridges’ unique service that addresses the special needs of bereaved children.
Often the “forgotten grievers,” Kaulukukui said, “Children are so in the moment and their feelings can shift very quickly, going unnoticed. We wanted to provide support to these children and give them a safe place to do their grief work.”
The Good Grief Club was established for children in kindergarten through fifth grade. It started with 10 children at Wilcox Elementary. Currently, Wilcox has 45 children in the project and King Kaumualii School has 20.
The club is a peer-to-peer support group that uses art to teach children about grief, their feelings related to grief and tools for coping.
“Our goal is to help build resilience in these children so they can cope with future losses,” she said.
Unresolved grief can lead to future self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse, cutting and thoughts of suicide, she said.
KLAS (Kauai Leaders Against Suicide) is a teen program established to help prevent suicide among Kauai’s youth. KLAS trains youth leaders to teach other youth about suicide, how to recognize someone at risk and where to turn for help.
“BEST sees the devastating impact that a suicide death has on all of us and we wanted to do our part in saving lives,” she said. “We know that most suicides are preventable and we wanted to take a step towards prevention.”
Life’s Bridges offers free training to anyone — businesses, clubs, organizations, churches, etc. — that wants to learn how to recognize someone at risk for suicide.
“We believe that everyone can be a lifesaver,” she said.
The crisis line of Hawaii can be reached at 1-800-753-TALK (6879).
Anyone can call Life’s Bridges for support and services, which are free. If you are interested in learning more about Life’s Bridges, to volunteer or to make a donation, call 651-6637.
Rita De Silva is former editor of The Garden Island and a Kapaa resident.