As the clouds from the prior night’s storm cleared and the dimmest glimmer of sunlight began to show on the shoreline, the parking area along Bend in the Road Beach was filled for the fourth annual Darkness Into Vineyard Light suicide prevention and awareness walk.
John Murray, co-organizer of the event, stood at the parking area and greeted walkers as they arrived. “I’m very happy to see the weather clear up after those heavy rains, and it’s great to see so many people show up,” Murray said.
Before 5:15 am, around 150 people had already arrived for the walk — a testament, Murray said, to the amount of impact suicide has on a community, and the level of support that is available to those who are struggling.
Originally, Murray said, he got the idea for the event about 14 years ago, when he was in Ireland.
“I was completely blown away — the walk started off with 400 people in Phoenix Park in Dublin right before sunrise, and it has grown so much,” Murray said. “The last one had 250,000 people in over 220 locations throughout Ireland walking at the same time.”
All the fundraising from donations at the event, according to Murray, went toward building treatment centers and mental health facilities in Ireland.
He would like to see the same thing happen here on Martha’s Vineyard in concert with other nearby communities like Nantucket and Cape Cod.
“Coming to this event itself allows people to open up more and know they aren’t alone, they have people that deeply care about them, and want to help in whatever way they can,” Murray said.
He noted the banner that is hung each year for the event where folks can write words of compassion to folks who are struggling with suicide in their lives, or to friends and family they may have lost to suicide.
Maria Ventura, co-organizer for the event, said all donations from this year’s event will go to the Youth Task Force and its suicide prevention and awareness programs.
Ventura got involved with the initiative after her father died by suicide 15 years ago. She said every day she works to bring awareness to suicide and victims of suicide, and seeks to “stop the stigma.”
“It was really hard for me to talk about it for a long time. Now I want to let people know that there are lots of people who care and want to help,” Ventura said.
Lisa Belcastro, Island coordinator for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said she lost her partner to suicide, and now she looks to bring hope to people who may feel hopeless or lost due to suicide.
“One of the greatest things we can do is allow people to talk about it and let everyone who has been affected by suicide know that whether they are walking and talking, or whether they are walking and quiet, this event shows them that they are not alone,” Belcastro said.
Before the group of community members holding flickering candles made their way along State Beach toward Big Bridge, a number of people spoke about their experiences with suicide.
Jim Wallen told the group that one thing he learned after his son, Nicholas, died by suicide in
April was how much kindness and empathy his son had, and how much of an impact he had on other peoples’ lives.
“Some people who I know well, some people I have never met, they come up to me and tell me stories of their experiences with suicide, or of people they have lost. The number of people who have been affected by suicide in this community, it’s a lot,” Wallen said. He added that the Island community has been a “help and a comfort” to him during such a difficult time, and stressed the importance of taking suicide seriously, and doing whatever it takes to help someone who is going through a dark period.
“If you know someone who talks about suicide, or you know they are thinking about it, it’s very likely they will probably attempt it. Whatever you can do in terms of an intervention, I think you have to do it, and you have to be very serious about what people’s intentions are,” Wallen said.
Gina Williams, Ventura’s sister, spoke about the day her father died by suicide, saying she can still hear the sound of the emergency vehicles as they searched for him.
She recalled a time shortly before his death that she missed one of his calls, and didn’t go to lunch with him when he offered.
Although she often thinks of what she could have done differently, Williams said, she doesn’t blame herself, and neither should other people who have lost a family member to suicide. “The ripple effect of his death continues, and while I have learned to manage it, it will always have an impact on me. When someone chooses to take their own life, their pain may end, but it’s transferred to those who love them,” Williams said. “If you are here because you are personally struggling with the idea of [suicide], I say to you what I wish I could go back and tell my dad — you are loved. Despite every quirk, personality trait, or poor decision that you think makes you unlovable, you are truly, unconditionally, and immeasurably loved.”
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.
The Martha’s Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) emergency services team can be accessed at 508-693-0032. Information on additional services can be found at the MVCS website, mvcommunityservices.org.
For more information on suicide and trauma, visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, afsp.org, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness at nami.org/home.