Sometimes I feel like such a guy. One of those moments came when I arrived at the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk opening ceremonies at a downtown Brooklyn park a couple of weeks ago. Soft music, tearful speeches, a presentation about the multi-colored “honor beads” that participants wore (a different color for each kind of suicide loss), the T-shirts with personalized messages and photos of loved ones lost to suicide. I wanted to turn around, run to the nearest bar, order a beer, and crawl under a table (which is not anything I’ve ever actually done). It was all too much—too much emotion and too many people having their emotions at the same time.
When I think about my dad and how he died—something I do often despite the passage of forty-one years since he took his life—I generally do it alone. On occasion, because of my work, I talk about my experiences with fellow survivors. And over the years I’ve talked about my dad with my long-time therapist (who has heard every story around my father’s death a dozen or more times). For me, dealing with Dad’s suicide has never been a group activity. If not for the fact that I’m on the national board of the Overnight’s sponsoring organization (the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention—AFSP), I wouldn’t have been there. But as a board member I felt that it was my responsibility to see how the Overnight Walk was done, to offer my physical presence in support of the organization’s work, and to help raise the money AFSP uses to assist survivors like me and to help prevent more people from having to join a club—the survivor’s club—that they wish they’d never heard of.
I could have quietly slipped away from the crowd of 2,000 people without anyone noticing, but leaving wasn’t really an option. My partner and I were meeting Kevin, a former neighbor and his three kids, ages eleven, thirteen, and sixteen. His ex-wife, the mother of his three children, killed herself nearly two years ago. I’d been in touch with Kevin about the Overnight Walk in case it was something he wanted to do and he said that his oldest daughter had already found out about it and registered. Did they want to walk with us, I asked? They did. So there was no turning back.
We found our friends as the opening ceremony got under way and quietly reintroduced ourselves to Daniel, Sienna, and Gabriella. We hadn’t seen the kids in the six years since their parents divorced. The girls were almost unrecognizable, but Daniel was just an elongated version of the little boy I’d seen last on his dad’s shoulders before they moved to Brooklyn from our quiet Manhattan neighborhood. Their grandmother was with them, too, as she had been routinely since the death of her daughter.
Watching Daniel’s reactions to the opening ceremonies and the experience of being surrounded by so many fellow survivors, it was impossible not to see myself in Daniel’s shoes. At first he snuggled with his grandmother and then curled up in his father’s lap, tears streaming down his face. I remember when. But all those years ago when suicide was unspeakable, my father’s death was kept secret and attending a public gathering of survivors and supporters with my family was unimaginable. It still is.
As we all stood to prepare for the start of the walk (the two youngest children planned to head home with their grandmother before the Overnight walkers crossed the Brooklyn Bridge), Daniel and I talked. Mostly Daniel talked, telling me how painful it was when his mom died and what that experience has felt like over the past two years. I struggled not to burst into tears as he shared memories and feelings (oh, not feelings!) that I remember all too painfully. I told Daniel that I had a pretty good idea of what he was going through because of my dad, promised it would get less painful with time, and noted how lucky we were to be with so many other people who had been through the same kind of loss. “At least we’re not alone,” I said.
Over the course of the next hour, as we made our way through Brooklyn Heights to the Esplanade high above New York Harbor (such a gorgeous view at sunset!), I watched Daniel play tag with his sisters, talk with other walkers (one man in particular, whose son died just months before, made a lovely connection with Daniel in a conversation that lasted no longer than a minute), hold his grandma’s hand, smile, laugh, and clearly have a good time. And, much to my surprise so did I.
Maybe that’s the message to take away from the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk when you leave aside the official purpose of the event. Yes, we gathered to raise money and to remember. But despite the sadness that brought us all together to raise money to help survivors and prevent more suicides, we came together and had a good time, and felt very much alive in the company of others who have suffered as we have. And, as I discovered despite myself, you can do that even if your first instinct is to crawl under a table or curl up in your dad’s lap and cry.
Next year’s AFSP national Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk will be in San Francisco. I’m thinking of going.
About This Blog
Welcome to my blog, which grew out of my experience as a suicide survivor and my experience writing Why Suicide? (see below). On occasion I’ll be posting an essay based on something I’ve read, someone I’ve met, an experience I’ve had, or just a memory of someone in my life who took his or her life. If you have a thought on something I’ve written, I hope you won’t hesitate to join the conversation by leaving a comment.
- Rick on We May Think We’re Alone, But We’re Not. New List of Famous Suicide Survivors Just Released.
- Cindy Johnson on One Man’s Grief: A Story
- Jesse on Dharun Ravi: The Punishment Fits the Crime
About Eric Marcus
Eric Marcus is the author of several books, including Why Suicide?, Is It A Choice?, and Making Gay History. He is also co-author of Breaking the Surface, the #1 New York Times bestselling autobiography of Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis. Eric lost his father to suicide in 1970. His sister-in-law took her life in 2008. (Photo Credit: Dixie Sheridan.)