May 17, 2017 – I used to try to avoid the memories surrounding the day my brother Mark died by suicide. It’s was too painful to relive it. My heartbreak was too intense.
It took me a long time to be able to discuss his death. We were both in our forties when it happened. My inner circle knew the truth, but acquaintances tended to get some “version” of it. I just couldn’t bear the look I would get if I told the truth: variations on an “I wish I hadn’t asked” or “What do I say now?” look. Worse yet was knowing my loss made for gossip, and being aware of the cruel misconceptions that often surround the loss of a loved one by suicide.
“How selfish,” I imagined people thinking about my brother. “What a coward.” It was easier to avoid the issue. I felt myself sinking into a darkness I feared I would have to live with forever. The old me, the one who laughed and embraced life, was replaced by a sadder version. I knew I needed to find a way back to life.
I remember sitting down at the computer and Googling the word, “suicide,” searching for answers. I found one: The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I was intrigued by The Overnight Walk. That year, 2013, the Overnight was in Washington, D.C. There was no community or campus walk in Akron, Ohio, where I lived. I wasn’t sure I could raise the thousand dollars required to participate in the Overnight, but I told my husband, “I’ll pay it myself if I have to. I need to go.”
On my brother’s birthday, March 6th, I decided to tell my story via Facebook.
I was overwhelmed by the support I got. I raised the required money, plus a lot more, so off to D.C. I went.
Somewhere on the dark streets of our nation’s capital, I felt my heart begin to heal. I met amazing people who shared my type of loss. I wasn’t alone. I finally felt free to talk about it. I felt the old me reemerge. My experience at the walk changed everything for me. I knew I needed to make sure one happened back home in Akron.
I began searching for a venue, and people willing to help me. Due to what can only be considered fate, I met a student, as well as a professor, Dr. Scott Palasik, who shared a connection to suicide and wanted to support the cause. We decided to start a campus walk. That was four years ago. Since its inception, the University of Akron Out of the Darkness Campus Walk has been one of the top 10 campus walks every year.
Why is our walk successful? I like to think it’s because we focus on people and what will make the day as healing as possible. We know why we all gather but our intent is to focus on who our loved ones were. We focus on how they lived. Nothing makes me more proud than to see a sea of faces, and knowing that our little walk may help to mend their broken hearts like the Overnight did for me.
I feel our Campus Walks are especially important. Young people are under so much stress and at such risk. We need to let them know that help is available and that they don’t need to be afraid to seek it out. College students represent our future and our hope. They are our chance to reduce suicide rates at a grass roots level. Students are our future teachers, counselors, policy makers, parents, and doctors. They will soon be in positions to speak openly about mental health issues just as we speak openly about cancer, heart disease and diabetes. They are also especially adept at using social media, which has endless reach. They can turn the tide and be the change we all hope and pray to see.
With four (soon to be five) Overnight walks and three (soon to be four) campus walks under my sneakers, I can now tell my brother’s story without hesitation. Mark wasn’t just someone who died by suicide. He was fiercely loyal, stubborn, sentimental, clownish and protective: my best friend, bodyguard, and fellow caregiver to our parents. His life was so much more than how he died. I walk and live for a day when we can #StopSuicide.
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