By Katherine Griffin
Nine years ago this month, Dale Boland’s son Gulliver took his own life. He was just 14.
In the months that followed, Boland, a music teacher in Berkeley, remembers her family’s grieving being compounded by how hard it was to talk openly about the way Gulliver died. “People don’t talk about suicide,” she said. “It just has such a stigma.”
That’s beginning to change.
On Saturday Oct. 18, Boland, her 17-year-old daughter Marielle, and several friends, were among more than 600 people who gathered before dawn at Lake Merritt for the sixth annual Out of the Darkness walk, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. The walk, one of several hundred held each year around the country, is intended to give survivors of suicide loss a way to grieve and publicly remember their loved ones — and to help end the silence and shame that still keeps suicide hidden.
“It’s about raising awareness, but also about building community,” Marielle Boland said. “Because it’s such a shunned community.”
Saturday’s walk was the biggest since the event began six years ago, drawing more than twice as many people as last year, organizer Alanna Coyote said. The walkers raised more than $75,000 which will go toward the foundation’s goals, which include getting the word out that suicide is preventable; advocating for better treatment for people with mental illness; and bringing support to people affected by the suicides of loved ones.
Robin Williams’ suicide in August, organizers said, brought the subject into the spotlight and spurred more people to contact the foundation. “People called saying “‘This has been on my mind for a long time — now I want to get involved,’” said Ryan Ayers, the foundation’s Northern California area director.
“As people share and ask for donations, people are much more comfortable saying they’re involved,” Ayers added. “It can be a really isolating thing.”
Blake Simons, 21, a UC Berkeley political science major and member of the foundation’s loss and bereavement council, walked as part of a campus group called “You Mean More.” He connected with the group shortly after arriving at Berkeley, when he was struggling to cope with the recent suicide of a close high school friend. “Suicide is the third leading cause of death for my age group, 15 to 24,” he said. “It’s important to understand that this is taking so many of our youths’ lives.”
On the colonnades at the east end of the lake where the walk began, participants had taped photographs of their loved ones. There were pictures of people of all ages and many ethnicities; rugged-looking men on hiking trails, a smiling middle-aged woman at the beach, graduation portraits and wedding pictures. Each year in the U.S., more than 39,000 people take their own lives, and 1 million attempt it. At greatest risk are men over the age of 75, and young adults. But walking between the columns, it was easy to see that suicide touches all kinds of lives.
The sky was just beginning to lighten, with a quarter-moon bright overhead, as the walkers set out around the lake. Dale and Marielle Boland have attended the walk each year since it began. It’s a time for them to draw Gulliver close in remembrance. He was a kid who loved hip-hop music, drawing, hanging out with his family, and his dog, Max. “It’s incredibly comforting to do this together,” Dale Boland said.
The Oakland walk is the only one in the country that begins before dawn. It was set up that way, the organizers say, in part to acknowledge that many people with chronic depression suffer long, sleepless nights, alone in the dark.
“You start in the darkness, and as you finish up, the sun is rising,” Blake Simons said. “It’s beautiful.”
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