In life, we’re conditioned to prepare. Albeit for an exam, work presentation or story interview, we’re taught that knowledge is power, and to gain that knowledge, research and preparation are fundamental. On occasion, we can prepare for the death of a loved one. Whether it be an ailing relative with a terminal illness such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, there’s an opportunity for finding peace with death. Suicide, however, offers no such preparation. Loved ones left behind from that tragic passing will always possess the perpetual feelings of unanswered questions, unbelievable grief and an overwhelming sense of having no real closure.
When I lost my brother, Adam, to suicide on Aug. 19, 2009, I was able to recognize those feelings, and although I’ve done myself no justice by half-heartedly addressing them during the past 15 months, it’s time I take a look at my loss with some semblance of discernment. I invented a conciliatory adage that “loss is loss,” no matter the degree of cause, timing or any other external—or internal—factors that contribute to such a death. I’d like to renounce that adage and state that a seemingly untimely death compounded with the mystery and taboo associated with suicide is, at times, cliché. But, it’s my cliché, and it’s the cliché of the survivors of the nearly one million people who commit suicide worldwide each year (World Health Organization). That means every 40 seconds, friends, family and other loved ones of suicide victims are faced with the challenges of answering the tell-tale question: “Why?” Well, knowledge is power, and a group of University of West Florida students have come together to share their personal knowledge and are now sharing it with the community this Saturday at the Seeds of Hope 5K Community Walk. I would like to thank those students for sharing their knowledge to help us better prepare ourselves and help answer the questions we’re left with after a suicide.
On Saturday, community members who have lost a loved one to suicide will come together for a 5K awareness walk at the University of West Florida. The location for the “Seeds of Hope” (SOH) walk coincides with the home of the courageous student group Students for Suicide Awareness (SSA) and the Lambda Beta chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity, who lost 21-year-old brother Tyler Kinsely to suicide two years ago. This year’s inaugural event, which falls on National Survivors of Suicide Day, will host such activities as a 5K non-competitive walk, survivors’ art exhibit, kids’ activities, jewelry and craft vendors, silent auction and chance drawing. Walk participants will also be joined by world-champion boxer Roy Jones Jr. After the activities, participants are invited to Handlebar for an after party with two Athens, Ga. Bands—Victor Charlie and Five Eight. Most importantly, however, the event will bring awareness to this tragic form of death that leaves loved ones with questions and grief.
“(The walk) is a great way to heal and meet and talk with other people who have experienced similar things. It is also a great way to make a change and educate others,” said SSA president Sabra Jernigan, who lost a cousin to suicide in June of 2009.
“Knowledge and awareness is the first step needed to begin making changes, and we are dedicated to changing the stigma surrounding suicide and depression. We are dedicated to saving lives.”
Awareness walks are not something new to Pensacola, which is evident with October’s American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer “Mall to Mall” Walk, which had an estimated attendance of 10,000 participants. Despite the SOH walk making its way into the community awareness scene, the national “Out of the Darkness” walk was the inspiration for this type of event. Local activist and community leader Raela Villanueva has attended the national walk and has also paired with SSA as an advisor to help promote the group’s mission.
“I can honestly say that my eyes and my heart opened up when a friend and I participated in the first Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in August 2003 in Washington, D.C.,” said Villanueva, 38. “This was when I felt most empowered, joined by over 2,000 survivors across the states on a 27-mile journey through the night to raise awareness and money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.”
Nearly 14 years ago, Villanueva lost her brother, Jr., to suicide. He was a 22-year-old senior at the University of Florida with aspirations of becoming a physician. She says the healing process was gradual as she and her family performed such functions as establishing the DREAM scholarship from 2001 to 2006 for Catholic High School students seeking higher education. In 2002, she joined the Mental Health Association board of directors leading her to a volunteer position as the Regional Director for the Florida Suicide Prevention Coalition, of which she is still a part. In 2009, she began her work with SSA, leading to the inception of Saturday’s walk. She, too, feels the everyday struggles with being a survivor left behind from suicide.
“I had reached a super low point about a year after my brother died, and I was so depressed that I actually thought about it, had the means to do it, but all I could think about was my family and the pain they were already suffering,” she said. “I realize now that the pain I was feeling is nothing compared to what (Jr.) suffered in silence.”
There is help for those suffering in silence, and awareness is the first step toward understanding where people can get help. Jernigan reminds those affected by suicide that “breaking the silence” is integral to awareness.
“In so many cases, those left behind were not even aware there was a problem,” said Jernigan. “That is what our goal is as an organization. We strive to break the silence and decrease the stigma that surrounds suicide and depression, so that those suffering feel more comfortable talking about what they are going through.”
The walk could not have been scheduled at a better time, with recent national attention to a rash of suicides, many being young people turning to suicide as a result of bullying and emotional abuse. Villanueva states that no matter the cause of suicide, taking into account all external or internal factors, survivors left behind by suicide are still among a group that should come together to share with and support one another.
“Survivors of suicide are members of a club that no one signed up for; it wasn’t our choice. But, it was their choice to end their silent suffering, so we must accept that at some point, let go of the guilt, the shame, and the anger,” she said. “By coming together and sharing our stories, we allow our loved ones to live on and shed light for those who are left suffering in silence. Now is the time for us to come together. The more we talk about it, the more awareness that is raised, the better the chances of helping to save other families from such a tragedy.”
SEEDS OF HOPE COMMUNITY WALK
WHEN: Registration 8 a.m. Walk begins at 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 20
WHERE: University of West Florida Campus (Parking Lots X & Y).
COST: $13 students, $15 non-students
Additional suicide prevention resources:
• American Federation for Suicide Prevention:
• Florida Suicide Prevention:
• The Jed Foundation: jedfoundation.org
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: