Monday, March 28 will mark the third anniversary of my son Gabriel's death by suicide. Instead of wallowing in the grief that continues to haunt my life, I've decided to walk it off this year.
Not literally, of course, because one doesn't shake this kind of loss, but in real ways that do me and others good I am walking off the stigma and ignorance that suicide inspires.
Right now I'm in training. Come June, I'll join thousands of other suicide survivors to walk 18 miles from dusk until dawn at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's annual Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk.
As the name suggests, the walk is a fundraiser that seeks to bring the issue of suicide "out of the darkness and into the light." This year, it will be held in New York City on June 4-5. If you've lost a loved one to suicide or just want to support efforts to prevent the 11th leading cause of death in the United States, I hope you'll join me!
When I was in high school back in 1980, a mother whose child was killed by a drunken driver decided to do something about it and founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Soon other mothers joined her and this group of passionate activists not only changed the law, they changed society's perception of drunken driving. I don't see why suicide survivors can't do the same thing so that those struggling with suicidal thoughts can get the help they need and fewer families will have to face the horror of suicide death.
Denise Wegeman is a licensed clinical social worker who began collaborating with educators and other community leaders in the Manasquan area after a spate of suicides began rocking the community in 2008. She is a big fan of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS), which was founded in 2006 by two New Jersey fathers whose children died by suicide within months of each other.
Wegeman said these fathers, Don Quigley and Scott Fritz, have been instrumental in confronting the situation in the Manasquan area. Through SPTS, they poured resources into Manasquan High School, said Wegeman, and helped the school's crisis coordinator Susan Tellone-McCoy write a $250,000 grant that has funded a variety of services and programs at the school.
"Through this Project Serve grant they were able to bring in some other programs for any of the students who were considered at risk," said Wegeman.
The grant funded projects like an anonymous peer reporting system, a stress management group that Wegeman runs, individual counseling, and resiliency testing that was used to screen students to determine who needed support.
Tellone-McCoy and SPTS's clinical director Maureen Underwood also trained local hospitals, hotline providers, police, therapists, educators, and clergy about suicide and suicide contagion, said Wegeman.
"Manasquan has obviously gone through a very, very difficult time, but there have been some really great things that have come out of this," said Wegeman.
"There's been a lot of community connection and trying to address the problems and help provide the kids with a safe place and people that they can speak to," she said.
AFSP reports that someone dies by suicide in the United States every 15 minutes. That's 34,000 people a year or 90 every day. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people ages 15-24 and for every female suicide, four males take their own lives.
Consistent with these statistics, Gabriel was the fourth local young person I knew who died by suicide within a span of a few years, but the third male.
If you have lost a loved one to suicide or just want to support prevention efforts, I'd like to invite you to join my Overnight Walk team. I named it Team Life is Good because anyone who has lived through the death of a loved one by suicide knows it can be a daily challenge to remember that life is good. Together we want to affirm the goodness we experience each day despite having lived through something so devastating and we want to help those who are at risk for suicide to remember that life is worth living, despite its many challenges.
Gabriel was the last person anyone would have expected to kill himself. He was outgoing, funny, successful, and incredibly loving, but he also faced several risk factors for suicide and exhibited warning signs that his loved ones missed.
Don't make the same mistakes we did. Take time to educate yourself about suicide and most importantly, don't believe that it can't happen to you or the people you love.