On June 29, 2016, I lost my oldest child Richard to suicide at age 24. I was overwhelmed by a grief more powerful than I could have ever imagined. I felt like I was caught in a hurricane, disoriented and confused, with nowhere to shelter from the storm.
I had no idea what to do, how not to hurt. I felt broken beyond repair. How do you survive in the world of “suicide loss survivors?” “After such an unfathomable catastrophic loss, how do you survive at all?
Having two children here on earth, I knew I had to be a true support for them. In the depths of it all, how would I manage this? I couldn’t abandon myself to the grief, but I couldn’t suppress it either. To do so would have been to suppress my love for Richard, and that was impossible. The only way out was through.
The first promise I made was to get up, take a shower, and put on sweatpants every day. In those early days of acute grief, it was a big goal.
Next it was fresh air: a need to take deep breaths of fresh air. At the cemetery, which I visited daily, I started to walk around: not far, so I could still see my son’s resting place. Gradually my walks grew longer, and I found moments of peace listening to all the sounds in nature.
I learned about the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention through friends who had lost children or grandchildren to suicide. Pulling up the website, I saw photos of suicide loss survivors gathering and walking. It felt like a community I could be a part of.
The next Overnight Walk would be in May 2017. Richard was born in May. The location? San Diego! Richard’s father is from San Diego, and we spent summers there. It was one of Richard’s favorite places, where we’d made many wonderful memories. It felt like Richard was nudging me to do this. An 18-mile walk seemed impossibly long, but this goal started to give me focus. The walking made me feel like I was practicing self-care while also honoring my son.
Three months after Richard’s death, I met with a suicide grief therapist. This would end up being a pivotal move. My therapist supported me in my planning, as did my family. Richard’s five aunties enthusiastically got on board and decided to join the walk as well. Now I wasn’t just a solitary walker; I was part of “Team Richard.”
I went into full training mode in November 2016. I walked through the winter: first three miles, then up to five, then six. I was reminded of Forrest Gump—Richard’s favorite movie—as I walked through my grief. I felt like Richard and Forrest were with me every day. I could see Richard’s big handsome grin, so proud that I was out walking, and hear the last thing he said to me: “Mama, if I could cook for you for three months, you would feel 10 years younger. I love you, and just want you to live forever!” Richard was a vegan and wanted me to try this lifestyle.
Eventually my walks took me from the woods near my home, all the way to the beach on Lake Michigan. As the snow melted and winter blossomed into spring, my body grew stronger. 18 miles didn’t feel impossibly long anymore.
In May, Team Richard – a group I organized to walk together for The Overnight – gathered in San Diego in matching t-shirts printed with our mascot, Snoopy’s alter ego “Joe Cool.” Richard had gotten a Joe Cool tattoo several years earlier, to honor St Paul, Minnesota, the city where he found sobriety and lived for three years, which was the home of Snoopy’s creator, Charles Schulz. Along with Richard’s four aunts, my father (Richard’s namesake), came for moral support. He was our biggest fan!
We walked past places we had been as a family—through the Gaslamp Quarter, past Petco Park Stadium, and up to the San Diego Zoo, where the walk organizers had set up a “rest stop” and I was flooded with memories. The zoo had always been Richard’s favorite. We then trekked all the way back down past the Navy ships to the Marina, through a lane of lights, a luminaria that had our loved ones’ photos front and center as we crossed the finish line. It was grueling, invigorating, and incredibly powerful. We were surrounded by love every step of those 18 miles. In every neighborhood, we were met with supportive signs and people cheering us on.
I am so grateful to AFSP and the Out of the Darkness Walks that support us survivors, giving us hope, courage, and the knowledge that there is still beauty and joy in living this life here.
Richard did great impersonations, and one of his favorites was Forrest Gump: “Mama always said, life is like a box of chocolates – you never know what you’re gonna get!” Yes, Forrest and Richard, indeed, you never know what you’re going to get! The grief is never over, but working every day to put one foot in front of the other has brought me further than I ever thought possible.