Into the Light
‘Out of the Darkness’ program offers help and hope in time of grief.
Hope prevails. There is always light at the end of the tunnel. Nowhere was this idea clearer than on a sunny Saturday in Staunton as people of all ages and from all walks of life turned pain into power, sorrow into strength.
One step at a time, over 700 people from the Shenandoah Valley area walked 3 miles through Gypsy Hill Park, around curves and loops, through shadows and sunshine.
They walked in solidarity, all having something in common. From the youngest in attendance to the oldest, they’d all been touched in some way by suicide, mental illness or depression.
Leading the pack of 50-plus teams was Kim Sours, the Stuarts Draft resident who started the Greater Augusta Out of the Darkness Walk in 2014. Every fall as the leaves begin to transform the landscape with bursts of color, Sours works diligently to spread hope and awareness about a cause near and dear to her heart.
For Sours, life will never be the same without her daughter, Keri Carter. “She was my baby; my only child,” the Shenandoah Valley Electric Cooperative member says, emotion evident in her voice. “She was only 22 years old when it happened.”
Darkness is deepest just before dawn, as the old adage goes. For Sours’ daughter, dawn never came.
“I don’t know how else I could have prevented my daughter’s death. The only way I know how to go on and move forward is to help others and shine light on something that’s been hidden in the dark for far too long,” she explains.
Groups of people walk together in hundreds of communities across Virginia, and the nation, to prevent suicide, raise awareness and end the stigma surrounding depression and mental illness. The Out of the Darkness walks benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), and are held as fundraisers for research, educational programming and advocating public policy. Through fundraising at the walks and other community and national events, AFSP has been able to fund 552 research grants totaling over $34 million since 1987. “Our Greater Augusta Out of the Darkness Walk raised $52,000 for the AFSP,” says Sours.
Suicide affects one in five American families. “I walked to bring awareness to this leading cause of death and let people in the community know that they are not alone. There is help out there for those who live with a mental health condition and support for those who have lost a loved one to suicide,” says Sours.
With strength in numbers, family members and friends walked with Sours over the 3-mile route. They proudly wore their white Peace for Keri T-shirts, sharing not only their memories of Keri, but also their passion to prevent another person being lost to suicide. “When I lost Keri, there were two suicide deaths before her, and then seven very soon after her — just in our area of Augusta County alone. After that, I stopped counting because it was too depressing. It’s something we need to talk about,” she says.
Keri was a beautiful young woman with blonde hair and tender eyes. She was the type of person who put others’ needs before her own. “She was a free spirit and always very friendly and outgoing,” says Sours. “She loved spending time with her family, hiking, crafts, music and dancing. She would always tell me that she loved me times infinity. They say it gets easier with time, but not a day goes by where I don’t miss her sorely.”
Though Sours is still picking up the pieces of her life, she believes talking about it — though difficult — is important. Talking about suicide can remove much of its frightening power. “I talk about it because of the fact that no one wants to talk about it. I don’t want it to be a topic that’s hush-hush,” Sours explains. “I want people to recognize that we need to come together and do something about it.”
And the scene at any of the Out of the Darkness walks — whether in Staunton or Stephens City — is not one of tears and sorrow, but of one united voice offering hope and promise to those who struggle, and comfort and support to those who grieve. “You are not alone,” Sours says. “That’s the message.” “You’d be amazed,” says Shirley Ramsey, chair of the Virginia chapter of the AFSP. “I’ve lost loved ones to suicide. When you open up and share that with people, you’d be surprised at how many people have also been touched by it and come back with their own stories. It’s a real problem and it’s all around us. It’s good for people to know there’s a community out there. It really does help people.”
Northern Virginia Electric Cooperative member B. Millings was among those in line to register for the Out of the Darkness walk held in her hometown. “When you see so many young people standing in the crowd ready to walk for something they believe in, it makes you realize how prevalent this issue is. I was surprised at how much strength and hope I saw around me at the event. There was a sense of empowerment to walk out of the darkness and into the light — as an entire community.”
Suicide brings darkness to even the brightest worlds. When survivors — and their supporters — come together, it’s powerful. “Statistics show that survivors are often stronger and more resilient,” Sours points out. At an Out of the Darkness event, hope fills the air. Supporters walk together, united by a desire to increase awareness and effect change.
Nicole Hill, member of Southside Electric Cooperative, attended an Out of the Darkness Walk in her local area. “When I was at the Out of the Darkness Walk, I looked around to see hundreds of people: some with matching shirts, some with colored beads around their necks, adults, children and dogs on leashes. I saw smiling faces and some crying faces hugging their neighbors. What a powerful movement, and an incredible feeling of togetherness and unity. I saw advocates and family members, friends and co-workers, people of all sizes, shapes and ethnicities coming together for one reason — to eliminate the stigma surrounding suicide and raise awareness.”
Awareness is a step in the right direction, but education and compassion are needed to halt the toll. More than 44,000 lives are lost to suicide each year in the U.S. and over 1 million worldwide. The AFSP is at the forefront of research, education and prevention initiatives designed to reduce loss of life from suicide. Developing a community that has a better understanding of suicide is required to reduce stigma and increase help-seeking.
According to the AFSP, the best way to minimize the risk of suicide is to know the risk factors and to recognize the warning signs. Those include: deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating, talking about death, making comments about being hopeless or feeling helpless or worthless, unexpectedly visiting or calling people to say goodbye, and putting affairs into order.
“If I could give advice to other parents going through what I went through, I would say this. Don’t ever give up. Demand help for your loved one and take every sign seriously,” says Sours. Hope is essential; it is all-important.
Hope allows people to see that there is a brighter tomorrow beyond today. When someone struggles with depression or suicidal thoughts, they see no hope in the tomorrows of their life. “These walks are about turning hope into action,” says AFSP CEO Robert Gebbia.
According to Sours, people’s actions can help turn pain into something positive, help them step from darkness into the light. She says, “All over Virginia, these walks absolutely make a difference in spreading awareness and letting those who struggle know that there is help.”
‘You Are Not Alone’
“I feel like I’m alive again. I thought I’d never see the old me again. But I did, and I missed her so much,” Candy O. recalls.
Due to a combination of underlying medical issues and some major life stressors, Candy’s deep depression came on suddenly and unexpectedly. “It changed my life,” she says. “I had to quit my job as a neuro nurse and stop helping other people, so that I could try and save myself. It was hard to function with depression rearing its ugly head at me every day. I fought hard, daily, and I was so tired of always fighting.”
Candy knew what was happening to her, but was helpless to harness it. “My hunger vanished and I only ate when I felt sick from not eating. Even then, that was a task. I was dead inside.”
Her saving grace was an instinct to help others. As the depression drained her from the inside out, she focused what little energy she had left on filling others. Through her artistic abilities, she gave small gifts of kindness, encouragement and hope to those in need. “I just kept focusing on spreading kindness to other people when, in retrospect, I was the one who probably needed it the most,” she reflects.
One small gesture of kindness at a time, Candy spread light to those around her. But, on the inside, she continued to silently fight the darkness. “Inside, I was crying for help. I was desperately trying to isolate myself. But, still, I tried to do good — even when I felt so bad,” she says.
In October, Candy was standing among the crowd at an Out of the Darkness Walk held in her community. She knew she needed to be there, but didn’t hold much hope that it would help her. “Hope was something I had to dig really deep for during that time. I did see glimmers of hope in the darkness, but it was in the people around me,” she explains. “I relied on my mother and my husband to keep me safe. But I had to be open with them. It was hard because I knew it would hurt them, but I knew it would hurt them even more if I shut down and possibly lost the battle.”
Being surrounded by supporters at the Out of the Darkness Walk deeply impacted Candy. “I felt at home, like I wasn’t alone. There are so many who suffer silently. Now that I can see clearer, I want to go back to that day and hug the people around me. I want to tell them to trust themselves and their will to live, and hold onto that so very tightly. Even when it’s all they have.”
Depression can happen to anyone. “It caught me off guard. I had an amazing kid, both my husband and I had good careers, and it came right out of left field. And I cracked. I quit my job and let the anxiety run me over,” she says. It stole her confidence and her joy for life, sending her in a downward spiral.
Hope can come in many forms. For Candy, it came in the form of faith. “It was then that I reached for the Bible,” she says. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I learned not to rush what God was planning for me.”
Soon, light began to filter in through the cracks of her feeling of brokenness. A doctor heard her pleas for help — and she was treated properly for her underlying medical issues. “Once I started treatment for my other health issues, I felt like prayers were answered and that I had another chance to live,” she explains.
Candy says her message to those struggling with depression is simple. “You are not alone. When you’re deep in depression, you feel so very, very alone. But you aren’t. There is always a way out. There is always hope.”
For More Information
https://afsp.org/walk (Click on the homepage image to search through a list of walks happening throughout the state of Virginia.) 1-800-273-8255. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.