Susan Smith, Grief Support and Life Legacies Manager with GenCure, to address general session of AATB Annual Meeting in Dallas

As the 40th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre approaches, Smith’s deeply personal story contributes to development of unique program at GenCure
October 9, 2018
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Forty years ago this fall, Susan Smith was in her first year of college when news began to trickle out of an obscure South American country called Guyana.

A congressman on a fact-finding trip had been murdered. Other members of his group, including journalists and staff members, were killed or injured.

And then, more news. Hundreds of members of a religious/political cult led by Rev. Jim Jones had died, most by suicide, at a commune called Jonestown. They were a part of 909 deaths on Nov. 18, 1978, the single largest loss of American civilian life until Sept. 11, 2001.

Three of Susan Smith’s cousins were among cult members who died at the Jonestown Massacre that day.

“It was horrific,” she says. “People didn’t know what to say. I had no one to talk with about it, and my family was wrapped up in its own grief.”

“Things were different 40 years ago. You just went on – you could be sad for a little while, and then you carry on. As I look back now, that was the seed that was planted: I don’t want anybody to have to go through a grief journey like that by themselves.”

That seed led to education, self-awareness, programs and ultimately her position today as Grief Support and Life Legacies Manager at GenCure.

Smith’s unique program, originally formed to support families of posthumous tissue donors, has expanded to reach anyone suffering with grief, including employees of BioBridge Global and its subsidiaries, which include GenCure. It also has grown to those dealing with “compassion fatigue," as she recently worked with hospital staff working in the burn unit at the San Antonio Military Medical Center.

Smith will be making a presentation about the GenCure Grief Support and Life Legacies program to a general assembly at the American Association of Tissue Banks (AATB) on Wednesday, Oct. 10, during the AATB Annual Meeting in Dallas.

Her presentation is called “How Grief Affects Us,” with an emphasis on the “us” part of the title.

“It’s my firm belief that those of us who work with others who may be going through grief need to know what our triggers are,” Smith says. “We need to know that we’re OK so we can take care of other people.”

The presentation also will serve as an introduction to the GenCure Grief Support and Life Legacies program, which includes:

  • Monthly “Living with Grief” programs open to the public
  • A legacy garden on the BioBridge Global campus
  • Butterfly trees commemorating tissue donors and their families
  • Collaborative events with local organizations
  • Participation in a local bereavement group
  • Compassion fatigue sessions

Like all of her programs, it came from 20 years of experience in dealing with feelings often considered taboo or dismissed. She worked in many jobs related to dealing with grief, and after joining the Children’s Bereavement Center of South Texas, Smith became a certified bereavement facilitator.

“But a lot of it was self-taught, and a lot of it is a calling,” she says. “Some of this stuff you can’t teach. You have to ‘get it.’ It’s innate. The majority of people who do this work with grief and bereavement have some sort of personal story that led them to do the work.”

That, of course, includes Susan Smith.

Video: Susan Smith, on her AATB presentation at https://youtu.be/HSJ_hlzDc4c

Video: Susan Smith, on losing three cousins at Jonestown: https://youtu.be/Z_8DKFumSDQ

Video: Susan Smith, on developing her programs for grief: https://youtu.be/U0SMFV7vJg8