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We Did It – The Experience of Traveling 18 Miles for My Brother

6 Jul

Team JPF Before the Walk, at City Hall

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.

L-R My brother Kevin, Me, My brother Chuck

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.

Me with my brothers and mom - seriously, only 1 mile so far?!

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.

My brother Kevin and my mom

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.

If you’d like to see photos of our experience, there are two options.  If you’re on Facebook, click here.   If you’re not on Facebook, click here.

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!

Team JPF, after the walk, at City Hall


Please Stop Saying “Committed” Suicide

20 May

Jeff & Me - Neither of us like getting much sun.

Before my brother Jeff died by suicide, I never thought about the language used to talk about suicide.   Immediately following his death and for a long time after, I was so shocked that the terms used to describe how he died mattered little.  But as time passes, and the shock subsides, I’ve discovered that I bristle each time I hear the expression “committed” suicide.   Historically, in the United States and beyond, the act of suicide was deemed a crime.  Until as recently as 1963, six states still considered attempted suicide a criminal act. This is so insanely absurd to me that I’m not going to expend any more energy on the history of the topic but if you’re interested, here’s a link.

Thankfully laws have changed, but our language has not.   And the residue of shame associated with the committal of a genuine crime, remains attached to suicide.  My brother did NOT commit a crime.   He resorted to suicide, which he perceived, in his unwell mind, to be the only possible solution to his tremendous suffering.  If I was telling you about a friend or loved one who actually did commit a crime, chances are that I’d feel at least a little embarrassment or shame on behalf of that person.  But I don’t feel even the tiniest bit of shame about how Jeff died.  Of course, I wish with every fiber of my being that we had been able to successfully help Jeff and that he was alive today.   But shame, nope, I don’t feel that about my brother.  I focus on how proud I am of who he was in his life – passionate, thoughtful beyond words, brilliant, determined, and braver than most people I know, for enduring his pain as long as he did. Yes, Jeff Freeman was a brave, brave man.   As is any person who grapples with deep emotional distress day after day, year after year.

So to say that someone “committed” suicide feels offensive to me and I’m not easily offended.  The offense is in the inaccuracy. With that said, I don’t judge people for using this expression – until August 17, 2007, I did the same.  But now I don’t.  And I humbly ask that you consider the same.  When you have occasion to talk about suicide, please try to refer to someone dying by suicide.

By shifting our language around suicide, we have the power to reduce some of the massive shame carried by survivors of suicide. If you feel scared or helpless about what to say to someone you know who’s lost someone to suicide, take comfort in knowing that, by changing your language about suicide, you’re offering a countercultural act of kindness. It might seem small but the interpersonal and political impact is nothing but huge.

Proof That There’s Internet in Heaven

23 Apr

Jeff Swimming with the Sea Lions in the Galapagos

Years before my brother Jeff died, I developed a deep craving for clues to what happens after we die.  The fascination skyrocketed during my hospice social worker years.  At that time, my search for proof of life beyond this one even brought me to a few meetings of a Near Death Experience (NDE) group in Canton, MA (of all places).  The accounts were amazing and compelling and irrefutably convincing and the take-home message from near death experiencers was this: When we die, we’re encapsulated in nothing but light and love.   Whatever that means, but I really love the sound of it.

Sure, when I was in the room with these experiencers, or when my hospice families recounted story after story of a dying loved one talking to deceased relatives in the days leading up to death, I was starry-eyed with belief.  But it never took long for the romantic notion of a light and love-filled afterlife to lose its grip and for my rational, analytic tendencies to debunk everything I’d heard.

Fast forward ten years to when Jeff died tragically and suddenly.   What was once a peripheral, conceptual fascination with the afterlife became as personal as it gets.  I NEEDED to know where my brother is, or that he “is” at all, now that he certainly isn’t with us anymore.  And two and a half weeks after he died I received a pretty stunning answer to that question.

After cocooning and wrapping tightly around each other for the first couple weeks after Jeff died, my family slowly started to disband from my parent’s vacation home in New Hampshire, all of us play acting at putting one foot in front of another, in some surreal attempt to return to our lives.  After everyone else left, I decided I wasn’t quite ready to leave, not yet prepared to leave the place where I last saw my brother.   So I lingered a couple days longer in New Hampshire.

The afternoon that everyone left, I was REALLY alone for the first time since Jeff had died.  I found myself slumped in the driveway, sobbing, in the same place where I had my last and deeply tender conversation with Jeff.   And in that alone moment, I begged, pleaded with him to reveal something, anything, to me about where he lived now.  I whined to him “I can’t feel you, I can’t sense you, where the ____ are you?”  I asked him, point blank, to send me an irrefutable message so there’d be no confusion.  I practically demanded of him to let me know that he wasn’t as far away and permanently GONE as he felt.

That same evening my brother Kevin drove back from his home in Maine to stay overnight with me. I was a little too spooked by the idea of being alone after all.  Kevin and I sank into our respective couches, the same spots where we’d huddled as a family for the prior 17 days.   If you’ve been blessed to never experience a profound death, then the phenomenon of needing to escape the pain by doing absurd but routine things once in a while, might seem strange and bordering on crass.  If you have experienced a profound loss then it might not surprise you that this evening with Kevin was the second time in the two and half weeks since Jeff died that I found myself on the website (yes, THAT ubiquitous Apple, the computer company).  A few days earlier I’d been on the website researching a laptop computer for my mom.   This night, with Kevin, I was back on the Apple website, researching an ipod for him.   Retail therapy.  (Aside: I’m pleased to report that though it took some convincing, we are now an entirely Apple family.)

Before I go on with the story, I need to get into a few technical details but trust me, they’re pivotally relevant to the message from Jeff that I was about to receive.   The Apple website is no longer set up this way, but two and a half years ago it was set up so that once you logged in to your Apple account, you’d stay logged in permanently until you went through a few (not very obvious) steps to log out.   You had to really make a serious effort to log out.  And once logged in, you’d see a friendly “Welcome, Kyle” every time you went to the website, even if weeks went by between visits to the site, without needing to log in again.   And earlier that week, when I was on the website researching the laptop for my mom, sure enough there was the reliable “Welcome, Kyle” message waiting for me.

But on this night, sitting in the living room with Kevin, debating how many gigabytes he should get for his new iPod, returning to the Apple site to settle the question, a life-changing message was waiting for me instead.

When I opened the apple page, where four days before it said “Welcome, Kyle”, this night it said “Welcome JEFFREY.”

As chills ran through my body, and I flashed back to five hours earlier when I was sobbing outside, begging Jeff for a sign to let me know he’s around and that he’s okay, I stuttered to Kevin, who was sitting on the couch adjacent to mine, “Oh my god.  What the hell?  Why does it say “Welcome JEFFREY” on my computer?   Kevin looked at my computer and we both just sat there in total shock.

Kevin shares my proclivity for disbelief and cynicism so in a matter of seconds our minds tried desperately to create a rational explanation for what was happening.  The most obvious culprit would be if Jeff had been on my computer before he died.  Trust me when I say that there’s NO WAY my brother was on my computer before he died (the proof for this is too personal to share here) and even if he’d tried he wouldn’t have been able to get on since I had a password set up.  Not to mention that since he’d died I’d already been on the site and it had said “Welcome Kyle”, just days earlier.   The only other possibility was an amazing coincidence that somewhere else in cyberspace someone named Jeffrey was logging in and somehow that had shown up on my computer.  But seriously has that EVER happened to me or you before? (If it has, don’t tell me about it.)

After calling my mom, who quickly got my sister-in-law on the phone with us, and reporting what just happened, they encouraged me to just savor this unbelievable (literally unbelievable) message and GIFT.   My mom’s always been better at faith than I am.

After getting off the phone, the poetry and beauty of the combination of the words “Welcome” with my brother’s full birth name “Jeffrey” started to really hit me.  Was he saying that he’d been Welcomed to another world and that the use of his birth name was a reflection of the fact that he was now healed and whole again?  Was he saying that we should Welcome him into the space with us here and now because that’s where he’ll be from now on, in the space with US?!

For the rest of that evening, I was nearly giddy from such a surreal experience; I was filled with Jeff’s presence.  For the first time in 17 days I was reminded, however fleeting it felt, that there would be some unspecified time in the future, when it didn’t feel like I was living inside a nightmare.  Sadly, by morning my tenaciously analytic mind had taken over again and what happened the night before felt like a mirage.   Once I came down off of my high, I also realized that heavenly cyber communication would never be a sufficient replacement for my brother.

Yet, my pesky science-based mind aside, the experience forever instilled somewhere in my psyche the possibility that Jeff is in fact very nearby.   Even when I try, it’s pretty hard for me now to deny the possibility that there is a life beyond this one. And every once in a long while, like the other day on Storrow Drive, for no particular reason, my ego mind and all its skeptic parts do me the great favor of letting my soul take the reigns for a few minutes.  And for just a few minutes I get to reconnect on the purest level with the undeniable connection I felt to Jeff that night.

So Jeff, if you wouldn’t mind, and I know I’m being greedy here but I’d REALLY appreciate it if you could send another sign sometime soon – I could seriously use a refresher.  And I sure as hell hope that those near-death experiencers are spot on; the only peace I can come to about your death is that you were able to exchange your deep suffering for nothing but pure light and love.   Well, that or you get to swim with the sea lions every day for eternity.    Because if I remember correctly, seeing you swim with them on that family vacation so long ago was kind of what I imagine someone bathing in pure light and love looks like.

How To Support Someone Who’s Grieving: Hand Over Your Memory

19 Mar

Jeff and I. He was 24, I was 18. He was building a desk in my parent's driveway. I was keeping him company. The desk now lives at my house. And man, do I love the fact that he wore suspenders with cut-off jean shorts.

In my former life as a hospice social worker, all things death-and-dying came across my desk on a daily basis.  Articles, books, tips about how to support the dying and bereaved.  Little did I know that less than ten years later I would experience the shattering loss of my best friend of a brother, Jeff, to suicide. A loss that no pamphlet or workshop could have ever prepared me for.   Still, the aftermath of my brother’s death revealed a “tip” that I never read in all my hospice travels.  And it’s one that I righteously think should be screamed from the rooftops when someone you know experiences a soul-rattling death: give the bereaved a memory, any memory you may have of the person they’ve lost.

One of the most painful things about losing Jeff is that I will never again hear him tell me anything about him or his life.  He won’t tell me that he just read a new book about spirituality that he thinks I’d like.    He won’t share with me a childhood memory that we’d never talked about before.  He won’t tell me his newest, inspired idea for how to fix up his travel trailer.   And of course, we’ll never again create a new memory together.

So the only thing I’ve got are my memories which you can be sure I’ve mentally, if not, literally catalogued during the almost three years since he died.  I regularly take them off my mental or actual shelf and spend some time with them.  But there comes that awful, frantic moment when I almost feel like I’ve run out.  This feeling is accentuated by the fact that I have a deplorable memory.  If a genie approached me on Centre Street tomorrow and gave me three wishes, one would most certainly be a written inventory (well since I’m dealing with a genie, I might also ask for a photo and video companion) of every memory and experience I ever shared with Jeff.   It’s maddening to feel like I can only remember about a tenth of the actual moments we shared over my 36 years.  Sure, I supplement the rifling through of memories with feeling Jeff’s essence, his spirit, the qualities that made him such an amazing brother and friend.  But really it’s the memories that I crave.

This is where you come in, whether it’s for me in particular, or more importantly for someone else you know who has experienced a deep loss.   After Jeff died, and continuing to this day, one of the most valuable gifts I can receive in this lifetime is to hear someone else’s specific memories of my brother.  Stories that I’d never heard, stories that would remain entirely unknown to me if people hadn’t revealed them.  This happened a number of times after Jeff died, and again recently, in response to my outreach for the “Out of the Darkness” fundraising walk.  A long lost friend of Jeff’s contacted me a couple weeks ago.  She shared with me that when she was a senior in college, Jeff called her, after being out of touch for years.  In the course of their conversation she confessed to him that she was writing a play but she was convinced that it was naive and flat out bad.  As only Jeff would, he asked her to read it.  The whole thing, start to finish. And so she did, without Jeff interrupting or criticizing, even once.  And as this friend points out, it was a long play and long distance wasn’t cheap back then! She shared this experience with Jeff nearly 20 years ago.   It’s a story that perhaps better captures Jeff’s generosity of heart than any other I’ve heard.  And now it’s my mine too. She gave it to me.   I’ve tenderly tucked it into my cherished inventory, to be pulled out when needed.

Perhaps you know someone only peripherally and you met their lost loved one only once.  And the memory wasn’t even that interesting.  I don’t care.  SHARE IT.  Send them a card, an email, a message in a bottle.  Just share it. Describe what you remember of your encounter with their loved one.  It doesn’t have to be profound like the one that Jeff’s friend recently shared with me.  I’d be touched even if someone sent me a note or an email that said: “I remember meeting your brother one time.  He was wearing a t-shirt with a house on it.  His smile struck me as really gentle.”  That’s all you have to do.  And it doesn’t matter how long after the death.  In fact, the more time that passes, the fuzzier my memories get, and the more I long to replenish my memory inventory.   A part of you will probably try to stop you from handing over your memories, declaring “this is weird, I don’t even know either of these people well.” Take the risk; be willing to break the rules of bereavement etiquette.  Whatever you do, don’t hog your memories of someone who’s never coming back.  Please, give them away.

What It’s All About

22 Feb

(Below is an excerpt from a longer, personal letter about my 18 mile journey – click here to see the full letter.)

On August 17, 2007 my brother Jeff’s suffering became so unbearable that he ended his life.   Jeff was more than a big brother to me, he was one of my best friends and closest confidantes.  He was the kindest and most thoughtful person I ever had the honor of knowing.  Not to mention, he made me laugh like a monkey (his words, not mine).  My family suffered an indescribable loss that day and to this day, but in my small mind, so did the rest of the world, who forever lost the chance to meet my gentle giant of a brother.

A little less than three years from his death, on June 26th at sunset, I’ll set out with my family and 3000 other people who’ve been touched by depression or suicide, to walk eighteen miles over ten hours through the Boston night, as part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s “Out of the Darkness” national fundraiser.  The money raised directly supports scientific research, education, and outreach related to depression and suicide.   To see the inspiring, brief video about the “Out of the Darkness” walk that took place in Chicago last year, click here.  This is the video that made it abundantly clear that this adventure is something I wanted, needed to do.

Here’s why: Every 16 minutes someone in America dies by suicide.   And every 1 minute in America someone attempts suicide.

I’m asking for your tremendous generosity in supporting this journey, my brother’s memory, and the invaluable mission to save countless lives and raise awareness.  If you or anyone you care about has been impacted by depression or suicide, this is a rare opportunity to make a difference.  Each walker is required to raise $1000 – my goal is to raise $10,000!  To learn more about The (impressive) American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and where your money will go, click here.

To make a donation TODAY please go to my fundraising page here.  Also, please forward this information to anyone you know who may be moved by the cause.

If you’re on Facebook, will you please join my group “walking 18 miles in my brother’s memory“? This is the easiest way to find out when I’ve posted something new to this blog.

With love and huge gratitude to you for your anticipated generosity,