I immediately noticed the colors. I expected a somber mood, reflected in hues of black black and grey. After all, I was walking 18 miles overnight to raise funds for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a non profit organization that raises awareness, funds scientific research and provides resources and aid to those affected by suicide.
Yet, when I joined the Spring march in Washington DC, I was lost in a sea of 2,100 blue T-shirts. Each T-shirt told a story. Some participants had photos of loved ones stuck on their backs, others wore bracelets on their arms with the names of people they were walking for, some simply had the name and dates of birth and death over their hearts.
Around their necks everyone wore beads of honor. Red if you lost a spouse, white if you lost a child, purple if you lost a friend, silver if they were a first responder or military, gold if you lost a parent. Every loss had its own unique color.
I marched with the group from Elijah’s Journey, an organization devoted to raising awareness of Mental Illness and Suicide Prevention in the Jewish Community. Efrem Epstein, the founder, organized a Shabbat for Jewish mental health advocates and those whose lives have been impacted by suicide. Though we didn’t know each other beforehand, we quickly developed an intimacy by asking the simple, yet profoundly personal question: “Who are you walking for?” We shared our stories, our fears, and our lives with others who understood. We didn’t have to explain ourselves or worry about scaring anyone. We didn’t have to avoid pitying stares. We could just be whole selves, including the parts that are still healing.
After leading a communal text study on Shabbat afternoon, we traveled as a group to check-in and pick up our t-shirts, water, Top Fundraising Team buttons and beads. The sun was just setting.
I put on my purple, green, teal and blue beads and started to walk. Purple for my friend who died by suicide, teal for my friends who struggle with suicide, blue for supporting the cause, and green for my personal battles.
At mile 10, I fingered the purple beads around my neck and recalled the shiva, or mourning period, for my friend’s brother. Sitting in the house quietly, and then laughing and sharing stories and videos. We celebrated his life, while grappling with how he chose to end it.
At mile 12, I fidgeted with the teal beads and remembered the terror of “that call.” I visited you in the the white, anti-septic psychiatric ward . You were wearing slippers and watching a movie. We ate donuts and laughed about life. I walked back through the double security doors, like a spaceship airlock, to pick up my belongings. Your mom sat concerned and desperate for information, for confirmation that everything would be okay. I gave her my number and a hug.
At mile 15, I heard the voice of another close friend. “I’m scared”. So was I. Years of being an educator and mental health advocate had somehow left me unprepared to be with you in that moment of terror. I don’t remember the words that came out of my mouth. I do remember the feeling of relief when you texted me you were with a friend and all the fear exhaled. The blue beads comforted me and weighed heavily on my neck.
At mile 18 (chai = life in Judaism, though the organizers couldn’t have known that), I played with the green beads that represented my own thoughts. The “ideations,” the fantasies, the dreams, the “wouldn’t it be easier ifs,” the “why am I here,” the “I deserve this.”
We cross the finish line into the arms of loved ones. Strangers, yes, but strangers who understood, strangers who walked in and out of the darkness with us. The sun began to rise. Over 2,000 of us walked out of the darkness in memory of those that never did.
I walked with military veterans from Team Ruck Up who did 22 push-ups at every mile marker in honor of vets that fall to suicide every day because PTSD knows no rank.
I walked with Kelsie who teared up at the finish line, grieving her father who had died two years earlier.
I walked with a woman from Tulsa on two replacement knees who had 11 family members and friends for whom she walked. She switched careers at age 40 to become a children’s psychiatrist in a hospital.
I walked with two moms, the names of their children on their right arms.
I walked with a wife from Rochester, black angel wings on her back.
I walked with 10 of the incredible Jews who shared a Shabbat of stories, intimacy, and vulnerability. How awesome, yet unfortunate, to be surrounded with people who get it.
Team “Elijah’s Journey” keeps walking, every day, when we get up in the morning and step into the light. We are committed, not through fundraising or our jobs, but through our lives and our friendships to create a world where no one dies by suicide. Everyone deserves to walk out of the darkness and into a new day. Sometimes you just need that friend to remind you.
Who are you walking for?