In the early evening of June 7, nearly 1,200 walkers and more than 300 crew members gathered in Brooklyn for the start of the walk. Our wounds, generally hidden, were made public for one night by colored beaded necklaces. Those who had lost a child to suicide wore white beads. Survivor spouses wore red. Siblings, orange. Supporters, blue. I wore gold beads signifying the loss of a parent, purple for the loss of another relative or friend, and green as a sign of my personal struggles with depression.
I was surprised by the intense emotions I felt as I saw clusters of people wearing a single face or name on their matching t-shirts. The colors of their beads announcing that this walker was the mother, this the sister, this the husband, this the friend… The concentric circles of devastation wrought by just one suicide were made palpable by far too many different groups. Our grief, often shared only privately, was openly acknowledged and made visible. It was difficult to process it all.
In the twenty years since my father’s death, I have reached a certain understanding about that loss. But the walk made it clear to me that I haven’t begun to process the immeasurable pain and loss caused by the fact that every 16 minutes someone else dies by suicide. Every 16 minutes the miracle of life is extinguished. And every 16 minutes new circles, pulsating with grief and rage and what ifs, are formed around each of those deaths.
The tragedy is heightened as this suffering is largely unnecessary: Ninety percent of the people who die by suicide have a diagnosable and treatable psychiatric condition.
At the opening ceremonies, Bob Gebbia, the executive director of AFSP, highlighted that psychiatric illness must be recognized as a disease in order to prevent suicide: “We are walking tonight to state loud and clear that depression and other mental illnesses are just that – illnesses. Not weaknesses. Not character flaws. These illnesses of the brain are nothing to be ashamed of. And like so many other illnesses they can sometimes be fatal. Those suffering require – and deserve – understanding, treatment, and the same compassion as people afflicted with any other illness.”
We also heard from a mom who lost both of her twin sons to suicide. On the third anniversary of her eldest son’s death, she placed a memorial ad in her local newspaper. The tribute apparently included the cause of his death and some information about mood disorders and suicide. The next day a coworker who had known the mom and the sons for 20 years approached her and asked, “When are you going to stop doing this?” “Doing what?” “This whole suicide thing. When are you going to just get over it and move on?”
I’m not exactly sure how the mom responded to her coworker, but I imagine it was some form of what she told us: “I’ll stop when suicide stops. I’ll stop when no other parent, friend, spouse, or family member has to live my nightmare. I’ll stop doing this when there is mental health parity and anyone who needs it can get treatment for depression just like they can for any other illness.”
Her resolve buoyed us, and we filed out of Cadman Plaza, silent or speaking in hushed voices. The beauty of the Promenade and the Manhattan skyline at sunset felt surreal. Then we began the half-mile ascent to the crest of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Watchtower clock announced that at 8 PM, even with the breezes from the water, the temperature was 88 degrees. We were only at the beginning, and as we slogged upward through the thick air, the obstacles to a world without suicide seemed manifest.
I was grateful though for the demanding conditions that evening, thankful for the physical effort and discomforts. They served to balance the emotional aspects of the walk. I walked with a few women I had met earlier in my training. Among us we had lost a father, uncle, sister, brother, and two dear friends. Lizzie, pictured here with me, lost her brother to mental illness in November.
After walking around the tip of Manhattan (punctuated by a brief but impressive thunderstorm), up to Central Park, and back downtown again, my group crossed the Brooklyn Bridge for a second time. It was 4 AM, and the clock showed the walk’s lowest temperature: 78 degrees. As we entered Cadman Plaza we were greeted by the sight of a thousand luminaria leading the way to the stage. Before the event, each walker had been given a white bag on which to detail why they were walking. The bags were now filled with lights and bore the names and pictures of individuals lost to suicide, messages to loved ones, cries for an end to this tragedy, and prayers of hope for those struggling with mental illness.
As a result of my fundraising appeal, many of you shared with me that you and your families had also been touched by suicide and mood disorders. Your stories made very concrete the scope of this problem, and I was truly honored to pay tribute to your loved ones’ memories and to acknowledge their suffering by placing a luminaria for each of them and by wearing their names on the back of my shirt.
I walked to honor my dad, Norman Clark, and my uncle Brad. It was a balm for me to also walk in memory of the following:
Portia’s dad, Saint Elmo Cribbs
Jenny’s mom, Mary Ellen Gee
Jenny’s uncle, Justus Eddy
Adrian’s cousin, Robert Levy
Quentin’s dad, Glen Curtis
Kristi’s grandfather, George
Scott’s aunt and cousin
Nuria’s dad, Luis Pereira