Survivors and PBA members walk to raise suicide awareness at the 11th Annual Out of the Darkness Walk.
As Hurricane Joaquin threatened to inundate much of New Jersey with rainfall or worse during the first week of October, many wondered whether the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention would cancel its 11th Annual Out of Darkness Walk.
Yet on Oct. 4, the storm rolled out to sea letting the skies open up with sunshine to light up a day many predicted would be filled with “darkness” – not just meteorological, but emotional as well.
Unwaveringly, hundreds gathered at Buccleuch Park in New Brunswick to walk for family members and friends lost to suicide; not to mourn, but to raise awareness through a celebration of life and light.
And just like that, the weight of such devastating loss – like the threat of the storm – started to recede, even just for the day.
By the end of the Walk, new friends – united by shared tragedy – joined the conversation that is working to prevent further suicides in law enforcement, and began the process of coping through the realization that they didn’t walk alone.
A Walk to Remember
Past the finish line, with three 1.2-mile laps behind them, Rachel Zubrzycki and Renee Lyons finally found each other and shared a long embrace.
Retired Middlesex County Corrections Local 152 member Lyons walked for her husband, Larry, a fellow Middlesex County Corrections Officer lost to suicide on April 29, 2014. Zubrzycki walked for her husband, Ed, who passed on May 7 after serving the Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office Local 320 for 19 years. It was Lyons’ second walk and Zubrzycki’s first.
“It’s still hard to deal with this everyday,” confessed Lyons. “I never thought after being married for 30 years my husband would have committed suicide. It’s good to see support from family and friends (at the Walk) and you meet new people every year. It’s a sad occasion but you’re uplifting somebody new who’s going through what I went through last year.”
For survivors, meeting new people is a double-edged sword. The rise in attendance can be contributed to organizations like the NJ State PBA and Cop 2 Cop that continuously work to elevate suicide awareness, but it also serves as evidence that law enforcement officers are taking their own lives.
In the past year, 13 New Jersey law enforcement officers have died by suicide; proof that the law enforcement community isn’t an exception to this kind of tragedy.
Zubrzycki attended the event with family, friends and members of Local 320, but spent most of her day walking with Nicole McClintock, the widow of T.J. McClintock who was a member of Cherry Hill Local 176 for eight years before passing on July 8, 2009.
“Coming here and talking to Nicole, it doesn’t feel like people have their guard up,” reflected Zubrzycki. “You can talk openly and freely. Other people don’t know how to react but here everyone gets it. And it’s a very real conversation.”
McClintock expressed the same sentiments:
“I remember the first time (walking) being really anxious because it’s a sad subject. It’s more uplifting because you get to meet people who have been through the same thing who are trying to make a difference and bring something positive out of it. Normally I lean on Cop 2 Cop and it was kind of a role reversal meeting Rachel. I’m glad I got to be in that supportive role for her.”
Walking the beat
Lyons, Zubrzycki and McClintock walked and coped with one another and their families on a personal level, but right behind them was the greater law enforcement family showing its support.
Ewing Township Local 111 State Delegate and chairman of the PBA’s Peer Liaison Committee Michael Pellegrino expressed this sentiment during his opening remarks.
“I want to give all of my support to you guys and Cop 2 Cop for everything they do,” he offered. “I look forward to walking right next to each and everyone of you.”
The Middlesex County Corrections Local 152 Honor Guard led the attendees that sported T-shirts in remembrance and color-coordinated beads that represented the type of loss each individual suffered.
“Everyone thinks you have to keep quiet about suicide but when you come to an event like this, you can see it’s more than just you that has personal experiences with suicide,” enlightened Pacucci. “The event gets bigger every year and it’s great because the awareness gets out and more and more people get involved.”
As law enforcement officers continue to attend the annual outing they send the message to their Local members that this is a cause they need to support.
“Until you’re entrenched in this you don’t know what an epidemic this is,” challenged Pellegrino.
Suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and the fourth-leading cause of death for adults between the ages of 15 and 64 years, and the movement to combat this national crisis is growing.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention is leading the effort through these lifesaving walks; in the past 10 years, the number of Walks has grown from 24 to 350 and the number of participants across the country is expected to surpass 200,000 in 2015.
Cop 2 Cop, spearheading the effort in New Jersey, has conducted more than 65,000 calls and averted crises for 215 cops in its 15 years of existence, providing 19 rescues this year alone.
Starting the conversation is what the Out of the Darkness Walk and Cop 2 Cop aim to accomplish. Individuals end their life for a vast amount of reasons but one commonality is that they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – talk about their problems. Or perhaps they didn’t know where to turn.
“The biggest thing we’ve seen so far since starting (the program) is that more and more officers are aware of our existence,” explained retired Newark officer and licensed social worker for Cop 2 Cop Joe Orgo. “I think (law enforcement officers) need to remember there’s help out there. There are people that care about them and they shouldn’t turn a blind eye to it.”