CALIFORNIA—What was pioneered from personal tragedy and a little bit of goodwill has since become a nationwide network for grief recovery, providing services, as well as compassion and understanding to anyone who needs it—and all for free.

Spark of Life is a non-profit based in Little Rock, Arkansas; it is funded by private donations, and serves to instill hope that though life is never the same after loss, it can still be “rich and fulfilling.” The organization was co-founded in 2007 by David and Debbie Mathews when they experienced the pain and confusion of loss themselves: their first grandson, Josiah, was born, and died just seven minutes later.

“But that’s not why we do it anymore,” Debbie Mathews told Canyon News. “You see the devastation—these people need help.”

The Mathews were trained as certified grief counselors and led Spark of Life’s first retreat in 2009. Sincmathewse then, the organization has hosted 70 retreats across the country—in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, Colorado, Montana, Connecticut, Virginia, Minnesota, and Alaska—which have collectively provided more than 1,000 people from 38 states and several countries, including Nigeria, Canada and Australia, with hope, compassion and healing.

“Our goal is to expand so that any person who needs our help won’t have to drive more than six hours to reach a retreat location,” Mathews said.

This year—for the first time ever—Spark of Life will bring its services to Southern California, and is inviting anyone who may be struggling with grief, or finding hope after loss, to attend its Oceanside, California retreat – scheduled from Thursday, April 20 to Sunday, April 23. Your only expense: transportation.

The retreat—made possible by donations from former Spark of Life participants living in California—will be hosted at a four-story, 11-bedroom, 11-bath, beachfront estate, equipped with amenities, like a rooftop deck and private spa. “Water has proven to be particularly effective in easing grief,” Mathews said.

One of 11 bedrooms in the Oceanside estate.
One of 11 bedrooms in the estate.
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Oceanside estate living area.

The first night of the retreat—Thursday—is typically the hardest: at dinner, the group discusses the losses that brought them there. However, it gets easier, Mathews said; on Friday and Saturday, participants can expect an itinerary comprised of “dynamic” group interaction, as well as personal time to reflect – each and every activity, discussion and friendship made is ultimately part of “a proven action plan for grief recovery.”

There is no gauge to measure grief. Tragedy, as well as the pain that accompanies it, is unique to the person it affects, which is why Spark of Life provides support for all types of loss – even positive, like empty nest syndrome, or financial, like being laid off. “Grief is the change in a familiar pattern of behavior,” Mathews said. “No one knows what you’re feeling, but you.”

Anyone who is, or knows anyone who may be, struggling to cope with loss is invited to register for a retreat at Spark of Life’s website; while it is free, spots are limited and fill up quickly, thus, there is a $500 deposit charge required for registration, which will be returned 7-10 days after the trip.

Spark of Life also provides services aside from its retreats, like an AfterCare Program for funeral homes, which comes equipped with a number of resources, including a grief hotline and personal counseling sessions. It also offers Grief Recovery Workshops, which are led by a team of facilitators—all who have overcome loss themselves—and adapted to meet the specific needs of the client, which is typically a business, church or school.