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.

 

7 Responses to AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk from A Guy’s Eye View

  1. Cindy Olson says:

    Eric,

    Your message really said a lot about what I feel but find very hard to put into words. I lost my brother to suicide in 2007. I have done the AFSP community walks since then and the overnights in Chicago, 2009 and Boston, 2010. My first walk was very emotional but as you put it, good for me, fun even. Being with others did relieve that feeling of being alone that I have and had when coming home. There was even a let down that it was done and then I did the Boston walk and was better prepared. Emotional but not as emotional as my first. I plan to walk in San Francisco, too.

    I am organizing a community walk in Willow River, Mn this year. It will be September 10. I was wondering if I could quote your article during my speech. Please let me know if it is alright. It would be great to have you come and speak but this is a smaller community. Last year, our first, we had about 60 participants. I hope we have more this year.

    Contact me at rocrun_99@yahoo.com

    Thank you!
    Cindy Olson

  2. Meryl Kessel says:

    I totally agree about the Overnight. I lost my son Brandon almost 6 years ago. My daughter, brother, niece and I attended to commemorate Brandon’s life in the city he last lived and loved in.
    I prepared myself for the enormous emotional tsunami as the opening ceremonies started and I stood shoulder to shoulder with 2000 other people affected by suicide. But it never really hit.
    And as the night turned to morning it was apparent that we were there not to grieve but to take steps toward our own recovery.

  3. lisa says:

    great to have another outlet and source of information. i lost my brother Chris in 1977 and my daugbter Felicia 2010 bo
    th to suicide

  4. carrie millon says:

    thank you for writing this. I came up to the event from VA to walk with my best friend and her family in memory of her sister who took her life at seventeen five years ago this coming Friday. during opening ceremony I was overwhelmed with emotion as well. tears were flowing and I wasn’t sure what the rest of the night would be like. I found it to be one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life and have signed up for San Francisco. such a sense of community and support for something that tends to be kept quiet.

  5. Kimberly says:

    I will be in San Francisco!

  6. Susan Trumbauer Brocato says:

    Hello,
    I was the first speaker at the overnight’s Opening Ceremonies. I lost my Dad 24 Years ago and participating in this walk and sharing my story with all of you changed my life. I was always hesitant to join things like this because I thought it would always revolve around the” deaths” but I discovered that this was a celebration of the lives of real people, who matterede, who loved and were loved….and that was such a healing experience I never dreamed of gaining from this. I also suffered in silence for many years and now that is over. I have already signed up for San Francisco and plan to participate in the community walk here on Long Island in October. I will keep participating and raising money and awareness for our cause until people start to listen and until” suicide” is not a dirty word, only to be whispered. Our community of survivors is huge in number and if all of us can fight through our pain to stand up and help the new generation of survivors, our numbers will be too large for society to ignore. Thank you for the honesty in your story and for the beauty of the revelation you experienced in walking with us. God Bless, Susan

  7. Kathy Niejadlik says:

    I was also there to support my children who were walking for their cousin who committed suicide 9/2010. I was so moved my the crowd, the speakers and just the ambiance of being with people who understand what we are all going through. Unfortunatley, this is the 3rd time our family has gone through this. We have lost 3 nephews under the age of 30 and you would never have guessed it. Wonderful young men. Thank you!

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