On June 26th, 2010 my family and I walked 18 miles in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Boston. A year later, I see that aspects of that experience planted the seeds of chutzpah that helped me launch this blog a few months ago.
The following story is a piece that I wrote a week after the event and shared with those who donated to the walk.
Close to midnight on August 17, 2007, a few hours after we learned the horrific news that my brother Jeff died, my oldest brother Chuck arrived from Chicago to join my mom, my dad, my brother Kevin, and me at my parent’s vacation home in the woods of New Hampshire.
There are too many details about that night that I’ll unfortunately never forget but there is one moment that I would choose to preserve, if only memory were a matter of picking and choosing. Chuck entered the candlelit living room, landed on the ottoman that was floating in the middle of the room, and declared, with a startling strength, a calm before a storm of grief, “I’ve never been as proud to be a part of this family as I am right now.”
He was referring to the collaborative and heroic effort that we’d made to help Jeff over those few months before he died. We’d pulled together fiercely, suspending old patterns and interpersonal struggles, in a desperate attempt to reach Jeff.
I think Chuck was also forecasting how we would survive this devastating loss in the years that followed, refusing to participate in the silence of shame that surrounds suicide.
As I unwound from the experience of traveling 18 miles through the night with my family, in honor of Jeff, and in commitment to suicide awareness and prevention, Chuck’s words of nearly three years prior echoed through my mind. I have never been as proud of my family as I was on June 26th, 2010.
Tears fill my eyes as I remember glancing back at my dad, soldiering on, mile after mile, despite arriving to Boston on a red eye flight from Scotland that same day, a one hour nap, and an aching back held in a wrap.
I was overwhelmed with admiration watching my mom walk five miles over the course of the night. Less than six months prior she’d had major surgery for lung cancer and less than three months earlier she’d landed in the hospital with painful chemotherapy complications. She was willing to do whatever it took to remain a part of the Overnight experience, including relinquishing her pride to accept the assistance of a wheelchair, which we drummed up en route. (I contacted the hotel where my parents were staying to deliver a wheelchair by taxi to Copley Square at 11 pm.)
Watching my two brothers, Chuck and Kevin, and my boyfriend Jim, despite their own fatigue and discomfort, carry my backpack or gladly take turns pushing my mom in the wheelchair, moved me beyond words.
We walked among hundreds of other survivors through Back Bay, along the Charles River, Fenway, South Boston, the North End, and back to City Hall. The walk was an apt metaphor for the dark night we’ve travelled through since Jeff died.
As with the ever-changing process of our individual and familial grief, sometimes we walked closely together and at others, Team JPF thinned out into smaller groups of rotating membership along the route. But we never strayed too far from one another. It felt like there was an invisible tether that kept us connected, no matter how far one of us drifted from the epicenter of the group.
Around 4 am, my family rejoined tightly, the wheelchair being pushed without anyone in it. After leaving the final rest stop, Team JPF, deliriously tired, walked the final mile together, concluding our all night journey by walking into a field of luminarias (decorated bags honoring the hundreds of precious lives lost).
I anticipated that this walk would be about connecting with other survivors. Turns out that it was about connecting more deeply with my survivors, the people who knew and love Jeff as much as I do. We showed up as a collective, in spite of our respective fears about surrounding ourselves with hundreds of other survivors, who would remind us for twelve hours the tragic way that Jeff died.
I’m awed that my dad, Kevin, Chuck, Jim, my sister-in-law Rebecca, and my cousin Robin walked the entire 18 miles. I’m proud of my mom and I for using our creativity to stay on the path and in the experience, despite our physical challenges.
Despite the serious context of the night, we were able to laugh and playfully rib each other the way we’ve always done so well. Even in the middle of the night in Boston on a suicide prevention walk, we are still a family of loving smart asses.
I felt the deepest love I’ve ever felt for my family, as a unit, on this night.
In my original fundraising letter, I revealed publicly for the first time, my own chronic struggle with depression. That was the first of many moments during this experience to practice brave self-acceptance, one of the elusive keys to recovering from chronic depression.
I walked only 7 miles of the 18 mile course. For some, finishing the course was a victory. For me, not finishing the course was the bigger victory. Historically, I would have pressured myself into doing the whole thing, despite consequences for my joint problems, or shy of completing the whole thing, I would have berated myself and dwelled in disappointment for not achieving a goal.
But instead, on that night, I was able to simply celebrate that I individually raised $18,000 (!) for suicide prevention, and that I was able to walk 7 miles in spite of my physical challenges.
Team JPF was the fourth highest fundraising team for the walk, raising nearly $26,000 for suicide prevention! The entire event raised 2.2 million dollars.
When my brother Chuck overheard me describe the experience as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, he chimed in with his big grin and laugh, “Damn straight, it’s once-in-a-lifetime. Don’t even think about trying to get us to do this again next year.” I giggled. No comment.
If you’re on Facebook and you’d like to see more photos of our experience, click here.
One person dies by suicide every 16 minutes. If you feel moved to make a donation to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, please click here. Thank you.