A Father's Journal: Stepping out of the darkness that shrouds suicide
Rich and Brian Smith grew up in Connecticut. Everyone thought of the older brother Rich as the funny one, the one that they could count on to say the most provocative things. He enjoyed saying stuff that would throw people off.
Many years ago, Brian's girlfriend, Lynn was invited to the Smith family's Thanksgiving dinner. She was nervous about meeting her boyfriend's family. She parked her car and went into the house. A while later, Rich showed up. The first thing he bellowed as he entered the house was, "Who's the (expletive) that parked in my spot?" Eventually her boyfriend explained that you weren't accepted until he'd given you a hard time.
While Rich could be hot or cold with humans, he had an unconditional love for animals; according to his family he kept an eclectic group of pets around him, Cats, dogs and even a flying squirrel surrounded him.
In March 2008, at the age of 39, Rich took his own life. His family said they were shocked and not shocked at the same time. Shocked because he died by suicide, and not shocked because he was in the business of shocking them.
Every year my wife Laura and I join our friends and neighbors, Nancy and Peter von Euler in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's Out of the Darkness Walk in Westport's Sherwood Island Park. This year's walk is Saturday, Oct. 11.
My wife saw Brian's wife, Lynn, at one of the walks. Lynn was that girlfriend who parked in the wrong spot many years ago. It's kind of a club you don't want to belong to. Laura knew and recognized Lynn, but didn't say anything. What do you say at the walk? "Why are you here?"
Rich had only one sibling, his younger brother Brian. Like younger brothers, growing up, Brian wanted to tag along with Rich's friends. Sometimes Rich would let Brian play hockey with his friends. On a few occasions when Brian got in over his head on the rink, maybe mixing it up with a bigger kid, older brother Rich would step in. Brian recounts that Rich did not show a lot of emotion. "We were not big on hugging and saying `I love you' as brothers, but we looked out for each other."
Another thing the brothers liked to do was to go snowmobiling with their family. They made epic journeys across Canada, Alaskan glaciers, and many parts of the Northeast. During these trips the family looked out for each other, depended on each other.
There is a certain amount of guilt with Rich's brother that he couldn't look out for Rich, that in the end he couldn't help Rich.
"My mom has never really recovered from it," Brian says. "The only saving grace was that my daughter was born a month later." The new grandchild gave them something to focus on. Something to get their mind off Rich and the tragic way he died. They still played out the guilt and the "what if" games in their heads.
The Smith and the von Euler families both independently found the suicide-prevention foundation. Both want to ensure that their club remains exclusive. Unlike many clubs, they don't want to see the membership grow. To do that the AFSP raises awareness and funds to train volunteers and professionals to prevent suicides.
According to the AFSP, 39,518 suicides were reported in 2011, making suicide it the 10th leading cause of death for Americans. In that year, someone in this country died by suicide every 13.3 minutes.
The Out of Darkness Walk is at 1 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11, at Sherwood Island State Park in Westport. For more information, visit: www.afsp.org.
Thomas Lawlor lives in Southport with his wife and two daughters. His "A Father's Journal" appears every other Friday. He can be reached by email at Tlawlor@mcommunications.com .