Tree Honors the Victims of Suicide
Scott Smith/The Gazette, 1998

From afar, it’s an ordinary-looking pine tree. Twelve feet tall, maybe 13. Bushy branches, with slightly upturned, forest-green needles. Festooned with multiple strings of colored lights, it looks like just another Christmas tree. Nice. Festive. Ordinary.
But look again. Look closely. The tree is blanketed with 115 weatherproof note cards, each one tethered to an adjacent light. The 3-by-5-inch cards bear the names of two types of suicide victims: people who took their own lives and the people they left behind.
“It’s a Memory Tree,” says Brenda Flowers, who with her husband, Ed, decorated the sparkling sentinel that stands in front of their Colorado Springs condo.
For Flowers, the special tree is more than a way to honor her daughter, Kimberly, who committed suicide seven years ago at age 18. It’s also a tribute to Flowers’ legion of new friends - people who, like herself, have lost loved ones to suicide but have found comfort and strength through online support groups.
These people are connected by more than the Internet’s vast labyrinth of Web sites and chat rooms. They are linked by grief, emotion and the singular horror of suicide. They’re in pain, and they want it to cease.
For some, the path to wholeness winds its way through keyboards, computer screens and a sea of coast-to-coast camaraderie. They are souls seeking solace in others’ words, experiences and friendship.
“We’re like a flock of geese flying in our own formation,” says Flowers, 46. “We help each other, take care of each other and ride each others’ energy and pain and sorrow and optimism. It’s so nice to have comfort and support from people who understand what you’re going through.
“And you know, I don’t need to see their faces. Their words are expressions of their hearts.”
There’s no doubt the 250 or so members of Flowers’ favorite support groups—SOLOS (Survivors of Loved Ones’ Suicides) and PS (Parents of Suicides)—have forged a genuine bond. Dozens of members responded to Flowers’ offer to memorialize their lost friends and family via her “Memory Tree of Lights.”
It’s an eclectic group, and the names, ages and relationships listed on Flowers’ tree cards reflect that: Many have lost children or grandchildren. Some have lost parents or grandparents. Some have lost other family members, friends or classmates. Some are straight; some are gay. The victims range in age from 9 to 77; many are teens.
But all of the survivors, from Oregon to Florida, have received an emotional boost by knowing someone cares enough about their losses to have organized the Memory Tree of Lights display. She feels it’s important to do something during the holidays, when seasonal depression is not uncommon.
“Everybody needs to establish their own pace,” says Flowers, who works for The Christian and Missionary Alliance. “We all grieve in different cycles, with various intensity, and we have different ways of expressing it.
“What’s wonderful about these groups is that there’s always someone there, even at 2 in the morning. These people aren’t doctors-they are people who have been there, and are there.”
Flowers has been there, to the depths and beyond. She’s heard the knock on the door in the middle of the night, wondered why the policemen wouldn’t make eye contact with her, and felt the devastation unleashed by their words: Your daughter’s dead. Suicide.
Flowers has been there. She’s wailed and sobbed and struggled to go on. She’s read and re-read her daughter’s suicide note, an eloquent last will and testament written in cursive on a blood-spattered piece of yellow notebook paper. She’s interrogated herself again and again, jousting with guilt and asking questions that can’t be answered: Where did I go wrong? How did I fail? What should I have done differently? What shouldn’t I have done? Why did it happen?
Flowers has been there. Still is, on some days. Sometimes, when she “needs a good cry,” she’ll remove the lock of Kimberly’s hair from its hiding place and remember the good times—the dance performances and horseback riding and clowning around.
And on some blue days, Flowers might notice a teen-age girl with long, brown hair walking along the side of the road. That looks like Kimberly, she thinks; she’s disappointed and relieved when the girl turns around and reveals the face of a stranger.
There are plenty of days when Flowers needs to cyber-chat with someone who can truthfully say, “I know just how you feel.” Sometimes, she needs a boost; sometimes, she’s the one providing the soothing, compassionate words.
Flowers has been exploring suicide-related Web sites for the past three years.
After Kimberly’s death, Flowers first sought support through more traditional, face-to-face methods, such as counseling and grief support groups. After limited satisfaction, she decided to try another healing avenue.
“What’s great about Internet support groups is that you can specify exactly what you need and find it,” she says. “Nobody (in traditional groups) could identify with me, losing an only child. That puts me in another category. But online, I’ve found others with similar experiences.”
Now, she spends about an hour a day on the computer. She’s a survivor buoyed by the kindness of strangers-turned-friends, and she has become a true believer in the power of the Net. It’s accessible, inexpensive, safe (support-group members must register via list servers) and has fulfilled her emotional needs.
But Flowers and some mental health-care professionals warn that Internet support groups shouldn’t be used in lieu of traditional treatment and therapy, especially during the early stages of grief. The possible hazards, therapists say: misinformation, lack of confidentiality, unrealistic expectations, limited face-to-face contact with people, and online addiction.
“It might be a great place to connect and survive,” says Bill Parks, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the Pikes Peak Mental Health Center. “But it isn’t necessarily a place you’re going to make changes and grow. You need some balance. You need to see real people in the daytime, too.
“However, if you can find people who have been through the same experience and have survived and seem to be thriving, that can give you a sense of hope that, although you may be in a mess now, there may be someplace to go. And that’s good. But you can’t get a hug online.”
Not so, Flowers says. Members routinely exchange cyber-hugs—denoted by names surrounded by parentheses, braces or brackets—and kisses (XXXs).
As far as contact with other humans, Flowers’ tree seems to have become a connecting force. One night last week, a group of about two dozen children and adults gathered in front of it and sang Christmas carols. With tears flowing, Flowers and her husband rushed outside, joined in a rendition of “Away in a Manger,” and then explained the tree’s significance to the group.
After the emotional experience, Flowers dashed off an e-mail to her fellow support-group members. She wrote: “It was beautiful and so touching . . . all these children . . . sang to our departed children, and the colorful ’Memory Lights’ danced and twinkled in merriment to their rich little voices . . . and the warmth and love from their spirits, I’m sure comforted our loved ones . . . yes, each one of them is remembered . . .”
Flowers hopes the Memory Tree of Lights will inspire others, especially teens, to establish their own traditions—such as trees of their own in schools, churches or homes—in memory of departed friends and family.
“It doesn’t have to be about suicide,” she says. “Just something that shows we remember.
“One of the gifts we can give to lost loved ones is to go forward with our lives and not live in the past. That’s what we’re all trying to do.”

To contact Brenda Flowers, send e-mail to founder@memorytrees.org.
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