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'Live your life or it won't be lived'

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Posted at 4:45 PM, Oct 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-19 16:45:23-04

CINCINNATI -- It's walk season. And awareness season.

On Sunday night, more than 2,000 people met at Sawyer Point for an annual walk. It benefited a foundation, raised money, passed out T-shirts, the whole nine yards.

But this walk was a little different.

The Out of the Darkness Walk is all about overcoming stigma. Grieving. Remembering and comforting friends, family and neighbors.

On Sunday, more than 2,000 people gathered for the walk to remember loved ones they've lost to suicide and to stand in solidarity with those who have attempted suicide or battle mental illness.

For too many, this walk was a long-overdue family reunion. For others, it was their first time stepping out and identifying themselves as someone who has been personally affected by suicide. For some, the walk and fundraising was a distraction, and the culmination of the emotional event resulted in a very public breakdown in grief.

Suicide doesn't discriminate. People from all parts of town, all walks of life, all ages, races, genders, socio-economic status, ethnicities are affected by suicide.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention -- the foundation that organizes the walk and benefits from the fundraising -- estimates that attempt is made every minute, with close to one million people attempting suicide annually. Around 38,000 are successful in their attempts each year.

All of those lives lost leave a trail of people who are left to deal with the aftermath. They attempt to make sense of a senseless act, they contemplate insurmountable and unfair guilt, and they try to figure out a way to restructure their lives despite a huge void.

Enter the Out of the Darkness Walk.

Sunday's walk in Cincinnati was made up, mostly, of families and friends of people who committed suicide. Some honored their lost loved ones with shirts and banners. Some formed huge groups -- the largest I met totaled at 77. Some raised thousands of dollars, even though the walk had no entry fee or fundraising minimum.

Regardless of how they did it, simply being at the walk took amazing strength and courage.

I talked to people in attendance, and I asked them who they were walking for.

The first person I met was Jacque Kelly, the public relations chair of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Cincinnati. She became involved in the walk and the foundation in memory of her brother, Shane, who committed suicide last year.

"I lost my little brother to suicide just four days before my wedding," she said. "We walked last year, but it was so soon after his death that we didn't get overly involved. It was a lot just to get out here."

Others that I met cried and told stories, like Virginia Lee Williams of East Walnut Hills.

Her husband, Keith, committed suicide last year in June, on what she said was "the absolute worst day of my life."

It was a complete shock, she said, and the feeling is still impossible to explain to other people.

But Williams was the top fundraiser at the walk and was joined in purple long-sleeved shirts by 14 friends and family members.

On the wrist of the purple "Keith" T-shirts was the number 18. When I asked what this number meant, Virginia began crying.

"He was a pilot, and we met at Gate 18. He asked me on our first date on Oct. 18, and he proposed on the same date later on down the road," she said. "It was a special number for us. It still is a special number."

Another big group called themselves #TeamLaura, who were at the walk to honor their sister, daughter, friend, cousin, niece and granddaughter.

The Robinsons, from Alexandria, Kentucky, lost 18-year-old Carolina, only a few months ago.

Carolina would have been 19 next week, her mom Janie said.

Brian Thompson's mom, brothers and cousins were one of the first groups to check in at the walk.

Thompson, of Western Hills, committed suicide when he was 23. His mom, Vanessa Arnold, became teary-eyed as she wrote his name.

"Team Billy" traveled from Chicago, Florida and "all over" in memory of Billy Schmitz, who committed suicide two years ago at age 59.

Schmitz grew up in Mt. Airy, but traveled around the country as a collegiate and high school football coach. He spent a few seasons as a coach at the University of Cincinnati.

The "4B;lly" shirts worn by Schmitz's family and friends featured the semicolon, which has been used in the past few years to symbolize suicide prevention, popularized by Project Semicolon. The shirts also featured lime green coloring -- the color for mental health awareness.

After the "4B;lly" group took a photo, one of the group's matriarchs -- holding a football -- put on sunglasses and began crying. "This just sucks," she said.

Others that I met didn't want to talk much, but they wrote their loved one's name down.

Brad and Melanie Dallas of Loveland have been to a few other Out of the Darkness Walks in the past. Brad's father, Steve, committed suicide. Since then, his sister has become very active in the Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Andrew Thomas' family, mostly from Bond Hill, were at their first Out of the Darkness Walk since Thomas' death.

And a small group from Norwood -- Matt, Anna, Joe and Lisa, plus their two puppies -- were walking in memory of Matt's brother Jalen.

"Captain America" made an appearance at the walk and blended in with the other cheery entertainment, like a face painter, balloon animals and live music.

He took pictures with kids, offered hugs and gave out high-fives.

But Captain America -- known by day as Ian Bailey -- came to the walk on his own accord.

"I just wanted to be here to support other people going through this stuff," Bailey said. "I haven't lost anyone to suicide, but I know that it's got to be just awful.

"It's like, you don't have to have a child become kidnapped to know that it's a terrible tragedy to have your child kidnapped," he said. "You don't have to lose a loved one to suicide to know that suicide affects too many people every single day."

Sunday's walk at Sawyer Point raised a total of $119,176, according to the event's website. That money will go towards mental health and suicide prevention research, educational programs, treatment programs, public policy advocacy and donations to support dependents and spouses of suicide victims.

If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, struggling with depression or mental illness, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or visit www.afsp.orgwww.nami.org or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.