I’m writing to share my profound experience of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s “Out of the Darkness” Overnight Walk, which my family and I completed a week ago today. If you conceive of the following as a traditional blog post, there’s a chance you’ll duck out early because it would be an awfully long one. If you think of it as a short story, you just might make it to the end. Best of luck.
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 home in the woods of New Hampshire. There are way too many details about this tragic 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 house, then came into our circle in the candlelit living room, landed on the ottoman that was floating in the middle of the room, and declared, with a surprising sense of strength, like the 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 efforts that we’d all undertaken and would have taken for the rest of our lives to help Jeff. He was referring to the way that we’d pulled together as a team, suspending old patterns and interpersonal struggles, in a desperate attempt to reach Jeff. And I don’t know that any of us could have forecasted it at that moment, but I believe that he was also talking about the ways in which we would go on to survive this devastating loss in the years that followed, refusing to be ostracized into the silence of shame that surrounds suicide.
As I unwind from the experience of traveling 18 miles through the night with my family last weekend, in honor of Jeff, and in commitment to suicide awareness and prevention, Chuck’s words of nearly three years prior echo through my mind over and over again. The continuity of pride reverberates. The clearest thing I can say today about the “Out of the Darkness” Overnight walk is that I have never been as proud of my family as I was on June 26th and 27th, 2010.
Tears fill my eyes as I think about glancing back at my dad, soldiering on, mile after mile, despite a red eye flight from Scotland that day, a one hour nap, and an aching back held in a wrap. I was overwhelmed with admiration watching my tenacious mom walk five miles over the course of the night. Less than six months ago she had major surgery for first-time lung cancer and less than three months ago she landed in the hospital with painful chemotherapy complications. On this night, she was willing to do anything it took to remain a part of the Overnight experience, like letting go of her pride to accept the assistance of a wheelchair, which we drummed up en route. (The hotel where my parents were staying delivered a wheelchair by taxi to Copley Square at 11 pm!)
Watching my two dear brothers, Chuck and Kevin, and my boyfriend, Jim, despite their own fatigue and soreness, carry my backpack or gladly take turns pushing my mom and me in the wheelchair, moved me beyond words. Seeing my cousin, Robin, trudge to the finish line in her custom made t-shirt covered with Jeff photos, and my sister-in-law, Rebecca, wearing the special honor beads that she and her teenage son created for all of us, made my heart smile. In addition to our Jeff photo buttons and honor beads (all walkers wore honor beads which connote our relationship to the cause: e.g. orange beads = losing a sibling; white beads = losing a child; green beads = struggle with depression, etc.), we all wore heart buttons that I made from a blue plaid shirt that Jeff wore to nearly every semi-formal occasion for twenty years.
We were such a TEAM on this night. On the one hand, the surreal experience was such a departure from any other experience I’ve shared with my family, as 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. On the other, the walk was a modified metaphor for the dark night that we’ve walked together since Jeff died almost three years ago. Just like 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 to me like there was an invisible rope that kept us connected the entire night, no matter how far any one of us may have drifted from the epicenter of the group.
Around 4 am, my family team rejoined tightly, the wheelchair being pushed without any one in it, as all of us were determined to enter the candlelit City Hall Plaza assisted only by the company of each other and determined to evade the 4:30 am sweep van that picks up stragglers to bring them home in time for the closing ceremony. After leaving the final rest stop, my entire team, deliriously tired, walked the final mile together, concluding our all night journey by walking into a field of luminarias, illuminated, decorated bags honoring the hundreds of precious lives lost.
I anticipated that this walk would be more about connecting with other survivors. But it turns out that for me it was about connecting deeper with my survivors, my people who knew and love Jeff as much as I do. I am proud beyond words that we showed up as an entire family, in spite of our respective fears about placing ourselves in an intense environment of hundreds of other survivors who would remind us for twelve hours straight the painful way in which we lost Jeff. I’m so proud that my dad, Kevin, Chuck, Jim, Rebecca, and Robin walked the entire 18 miles. I’m so proud of my mom and myself for doing our best and using our creativity to stay on the path and in the experience despite our physical challenges. And while it was a physically and emotionally painful experience on many levels, I’m also proud that as a family we were able to laugh plenty and to be sassy and playful with each other the way we’ve always done so well. It’s good to know that even in the middle of the night in Boston we are a family of loving smart asses. I felt perhaps the deepest love I’ve ever felt for my family, as a unit, on this night.
In my original fundraising letter, I revealed my chronic struggle with depression. This public revelation was the first of many scary steps along this journey that gave me the chance to practice genuine self-acceptance, which I’m starting to believe may be the most imperative quality to integrate in order to heal from long-term depression. Talking about suicide without talking about depression would be like talking about cooking without talking about food. So again, with some trepidation, I reveal here one of the personal and profound aspects of my Overnight experience, in hopes that doing so gives others the permission to share, to feel less alone. The better acquainted and less fearful I become of my own depression and the more privy I am to hearing the stories of others who struggle similarly, the more I realize that depression is most tenacious when it marinates, alone, in an inner environment that lacks gentleness.
On June 26th and 27th, as I walked with my family, I experienced what felt like the beginning of the unraveling of my long-term relationship with 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 a bigger victory. Historically, I would have quietly scolded myself into doing the whole thing, despite the certainty of long-term consequences for my longstanding joint pain, OR shy of completing the whole thing I would have silently berated myself and dwelled in disappointment for not being able to do what I set out to do. But instead, on this night, by some miracle I was able to genuinely celebrate my ability to walk 7 miles, in spite of my physical challenges! And to raise $18,400 for suicide prevention! Completely uncharacteristic of depressive tendencies, I focused on what I was able to do instead of what I wasn’t. This kind of self-gentleness is such an inexplicable departure for me that it’s hard not to believe that Jeff had something to do with it. Granted, I like to ascribe just about anything positive and inexplicable to Jeff. He’s getting a lot of credit up there.
As I wrap up this story and this four month personal fundraising journey, I feel mostoverwhelmed with pride for my team member who couldn’t walk, my brother, Jeffrey Parker Freeman. I love and miss him fiercely. I’m proud of him and who he was in the world, for a million reasons. I’m especially proud of him for hanging in with us as long as he possibly could. When I look at the family photos from the walk, I see a giant gaping hole. Jeff should be there. No matter how much time and healing takes place, it will never be fair that we lost him. We were a team. But now we’re a team whose job it is to carry Jeff’s legacy of unrivaled thoughtfulness and passion for a kinder, gentler world, into our selves and our lives.
Towards that end, I’m proud to report that 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. That’s a lot of money, and a lot of hope. On behalf of my whole family, thank you again for your contribution to this cause. Thank you also for sharing with me, along the way, your private stories about how your life has been impacted by depression and suicide. Here’s hoping that our collective efforts make it so that fewer and fewer people have to experience the devastation of either one.
When my brother Chuck heard me describe the experience to someone else as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, he chimed in with his characteristic 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.
Through this experience, I’ve discovered my inner relentless fundraiser so if by some chance, you’re inspired to donate, it’s not too late! The coffers remain open for a few months after the walk. Click here to make a donation!