Once a year, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) hosts something called The Overnight Walk. Held in different cities every year, this year’s walk takes place in Washington, DC, on Saturday, June 3.

Thousands will gather there to walk between 16-20 miles on a course through the city, starting at 8 p.m. in an effort to raise awareness about suicide and suicide prevention and to fundraise for the AFSP’s education, research and advocacy programs. It’s also a weekend for family and friends of people who lost someone they love to suicide to find community and support.

This weekend will be the eighth year Wilton resident Marie Dimasi has participated in the Overnight Walk, walking and raising money in memory of her older brother, Steven, who died by suicide in 1991 at the age of 13.

Over the years, she has channeled her grief into action, becoming a certified peer grief educator and a board member of the Connecticut chapter of the AFSP; and advocating for early intervention and mental health supports for people of all ages.

She shared her story with GOOD Morning Wilton as part of her journey in advance of this weekend’s Overnight Walk. Her interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

My brother died on February 19, 1991. My youngest daughter was born on February 19, 2013. So, as you can imagine, it was a very difficult day. I was trying to look for a way to give back in honor of suicide prevention, in honor of her being born on that day and just trying to process everything. 

My cousin asked, “Have you ever done the Overnight Walk?” And I was like, “I don’t know what that is.” He said you walk 20 miles in a city overnight for suicide prevention. I thought I could never do that but I’d love to know more about the organization.

I found AFSP probably three months after she was born. We ended up donating to them for her christening. Instead of giving favors, let’s donate to this cause. She was born in 2013, and I did my first walk three years later in 2016 in New York. And now I’m on my eighth. The person who thought, “No way am I walking overnight, that’ll never happen,” is now about to do it again for the eighth time. Which is mindblowing to me. I’ve done New York twice, Philly, DC, Boston, now I’m going back to DC. The Covid years when they did it virtually, I walked in Wilton — actually not overnight. I didn’t feel that was safe with no sidewalks here. But I still did the 18 miles, just during the day. 

You start at 8 p.m. and then you have to finish by four-thirty in the morning and then at five in the morning they do a closing ceremony. There’s usually someone that speaks and shares their story.

They do two things that are really special during the opening ceremony. One is the bead ceremony, [they give out] Mardi Gras beads, and each color reflects your loss. If your loss is of a parent, it’s one color. I’m loss of a sibling, so orange beads are my color. So you basically know how somebody was impacted by just looking at their neck. You don’t have to even ask the question — oh, they lost a parent, they lost a sibling, a spouse. Blue is a color for the cause so everyone wears blue.

The other part of the opening ceremony that’s special is called Luminaria ceremony. Everybody gets a paper bag to decorate for their loved one. Then those are all lined up along the finish line, so when you come finish you literally walk through all these luminarias lit up. It’s a lot, your emotions are high because you’ve just finished the walk and then just to see all that.

I typically walk solo. This year I joined a team of mostly sibling loss survivors. I met them in Ohio at a survivor of suicide loss summit in Ohio last July and they invited me on their team this year. There are 19 of us on the team and I only know one person. I’ve talked to them, we have a thread going and we’ve been talking for a year, but I’ll get to know them over an 18-mile walk.

[Connecting with everyone] is what keeps me coming back. It’s like a hug you never want to let go. You’re surrounded by people that just understand what you are feeling without even saying anything. No one talks about the how, which I’m grateful for, there’s no need.

I’ve walked with [another] family five times. I, to this day, do not know [their] how. I know they lost their dad. But I have no idea how, and they don’t know how my brother did it. But you just look at each other and you just know.

I honestly did not start grieving until I started my involvement with the AFSP. But until I found them, I really did not grieve or heal. You’re with people that do want to talk about it and not sweep it [away] somewhere.

I don’t wrong my family for how they grieved, but it was very different from what I needed. But I realize everybody handles the loss and grief differently. And as long as we all respect that this walk is what I need, and you can’t talk about it and that’s what you need. 

It’s not that anybody doesn’t support what I’m doing, it’s just nobody [in my family] comes with me and nobody talks about it. I’ve learned that it’s just too hard for them and just as much as I want them to respect me and what I’m doing, I’ve got to respect how they’re grieving. 

But it took a long time to get there. For me, being with this community has helped me heal tremendously over the last eight walks. 

For me, it’s hope that there can be a world without suicide. We have a long way to go. But I find hope in it. I find comfort and healing being surrounded by people.

It’s definitely very emotional. It’s very emotional leading up to it, and it takes me about a week to recover — not just my body recovering, but the emotions of the night. You are hearing everybody’s stories or you’re just even seeing the names. So it’s a lot of healing, but it definitely helps me grieve a little bit more.

And I almost feel — it’s going to sound weird — connected to my brother when I’m doing the overnight. I take a little piece of him with me, I feel him with me. And I think if I have to live in a world without him, then I’m going to do everything I can to not have another family go through this. 

My brother Steven was the creative. He could draw amazing things. He was a writer. The creative side of his brain always worked. He was extremely protective of me and could always make me laugh. He was always trying to make everybody laugh, and I just loved being with him.

I have the most ridiculous memories with him. I think my favorite is we found our Christmas presents down in the basement [one year]. And we unwrapped each of them, played with all of them, and then carefully put them back and wrapped them all. We’d played the video games, we unwrapped all the Barbies and put all the Barbies back in and managed to rewrap them. But it was our little secret. We were never found out. 

He was very musical, which I love. And we used to pretend to be radio DJs. So somewhere there are cassette tapes of our voices pretending to be radio DJs and making… we used to call them the top 100 of the decade. And we would talk about it and then play these different songs. Those are the things that heal me and that I remember the most.

Now what I love to do is take my kids to places that I enjoyed with my brother and see it through their eyes. So far nothing has disappointed me. I’m always like, “Oh, is it not gonna be the same?” But it also brings back more memories, because I feel like over the years I’ve forgotten a couple of things, but then you’ll have moments where you’re like, “Oh my gosh, this is what we did here.” And my kids love that too because I think it helps them get to know him. 

Because I think that’s the hardest part [for them], because he was so young. I was nine and he was 13.

The language we use today is “died by suicide.” It took me a long time to get comfortable saying that, but it does sound so much better than saying, “committed suicide.”

People have a hard time talking about it now. Back in 1991, nobody really talked about it. We were that family that was sort of whispered about. I don’t think I even understood what had happened and why.

And he told me the day before, so I knew, but didn’t know because I was only nine. But he told me exactly what he was going to do the day before. And then I found the note later in my desk, of him apologizing for leaving me behind to deal with everything.

It definitely changed my whole family. It’s very hard for them to even talk about it — there are people that cannot talk about it. I have one aunt that I can have real conversations with. But my 9-year-old brain, I’d never seen grown men cry before. And I still to this day cannot get out of my head. My uncles and my biological father and my dad that adopted me all sitting on a couch just weeping. Uncontrollably.

Even the 19th is so hard to this day for my entire family. And now we have this little girl to celebrate. And we usually try to make it a big to-do so that she doesn’t feel like she’s not being celebrated. But the day brings on so much sadness. 

She just turned 10 this year. So this past year was very difficult because she was nine and my twins were 13. I had a very hard time staying present with them, watching them be the same age as Steven and I were. 

I am a better person because of the walk and this community. I’m now a board member of the Connecticut chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. When I went to the Survivor of Suicide Loss Summit in Ohio, I left with two goals — to become a board member and to become a grief educator, which I finished that course also.

Getting more involved in Connecticut AFSP was a huge goal. I’m in charge of their project 2025, which is to reduce the rate of suicide by 20% in the year 2025, which is a huge, bold goal. That’s going to be a bigger goal to accomplish. But even if we can just get those numbers to trend back down would be a win. 

It’s going to take money, funds to go into these areas of education, but also making mental health supports more accessible to people is a big thing. And starting younger. I’ve been saying it for a very long time, the area we’re missing is that 8-12 years-old range, where we could get in there with the same kind of early intervention we do for education, but do it in mental health. So that these kids have the tools they need to access when they’re hitting these teen puberty years where everything is kind of going wild and they are so impulsive they can’t see beyond the next day or sometimes even the next moment. Everything seems so devastating. Just a way to support that age group is really where we need to start. 

We still have work to do, even though we’re doing it. But the more you talk about suicide, you feel less alone.

When I started sharing Steven’s story or my story, I had so many people coming up to me saying, “I lost my uncle,” or “I lost somebody.” Everyone’s affected by it somehow, but we don’t talk about it unless somebody else is willing to talk about it.

As a parent, everyone thinks, “Well, if I talk about it, it’s going to happen to one of my kids.” No one dies by suicide because you were talking about it, you didn’t put the idea in their head.

I’m definitely more open with my kids about it because of what happened in our own family. I took my three kids to see Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway in 2019. Four years ago. They were young, and everybody in the theater was staring me down. How could I have done this? The kids knew the story. They knew what we were going to see.

When I left with the kids, I was like, “Okay, any questions you have about the play or about Uncle Steven, this is how we’re going to start the conversation.” And it just opened it up. We needed that little outlet to have a conversation for them to really understand what made their 13-year-old uncle feel like he couldn’t live anymore.

Now it’s been such a more open conversation and now they know what I do with the AFSP, so they’re always in communication.

And then they finally got to do a walk with me. We did the local walk this year in October, for Suicide Prevention Day, and they got to see what it’s like to be with the community. But they also witnessed the Darien kids who came because they just had two back-to-back losses. My daughter Lily said it was just so sad to see them all together like that. And I said, “Yeah, it’s very, very hard, but they all have each other and you just start to feel less alone.”

Being able to comfortably talk about it, be there for each other. Even in the world of moms — how many of us moms are reaching out for help because our kids are struggling and we’re looking for those supports? We just have to keep talking about it, and the more that we do, the more comfortable we’ll be.

After [the] Kevin’s Afterglow [event], after [Kevin’s dad] Jim came, the people in the audience were kind of left with unanswered questions or feelings, right? You’re left with all these feelings and then it’s not talked about again. The same thing with the Mental Health Panel Discussion happened [in March], and then there was no come together again.

I would hope that there would be a space for those [in Wilton] that need it because all I can think about after Kevin’s Afterglow was the kids that were in the audience, do they have a space to go to process it? That’s what I worry about — is there enough support in Wilton for our kids? I focus on the youth all the time, I think because I think of 9-year-old me who didn’t have a space to process even though I was put in therapy.

If we can teach our kids to know the signs of how to be there for each other, that is the key because that’s most likely who they’re talking to. My brother came to me, his peer, I just didn’t have the skills to know what to do about it. 

[For parents], if their kid is struggling, I always say take everything seriously. I hate when people say it’s a cry for attention. Always take it very seriously because you don’t know and there’s no harm in calling 988 or 211 or even going to the ER just to make sure that that child is safe. I always say, I would rather my kid be safe and be mad at me because I made that phone call than not be here at all.

If your child is not struggling, but they know somebody who is, be willing to hear them about their peer who’s struggling and either direct the kid to get the proper help, or if you need, to make that phone call to their parent or somebody at school. But take the conversations very seriously and make moments to really listen. Put your phone down, put your head up, and really listen to what’s happening.

988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, that number is awesome because you can even text to 988 if you’re in crisis, which is the world that these kids are living in or sometimes they don’t feel comfortable enough talking on the phone.

211 is if it’s anybody in crisis, they’ll have someone come out to wherever you are.

Validation is really key. 

I always feel like there’s so much judgment around the topic. To take the judgment out, even on ourselves, with our own anxiety. We judge how we handle it, how other people are handling it, what we think we should be doing. We get stuck in our head and then we’re not as proactive as we should be. Right. 

Knowing what to say — that is always the hardest thing. And I say, it’s time that we listen, and if you listen then you’ll know the right things to say. But taking that judgment tone out.

AFSP has the Talk Saves Lives program, which gives you the language you need to say, and [risk factors and warning signs associated with suicide]. Three easy things you can say to gauge where someone’s at and then know what you need to do. Do you just need to get them to help? Do you need to get them to the ER? Should they just not be alone right now?

[Locally,] The Hub offers QPR training, it’s basically the CPR of mental health — Question, persuade, refer — it’s how to get someone out of crisis mode and see what you need, where they need to go, and what the next steps are to get help.

Listening and validating are just easy key advice to anybody. 

I want people to know that they’re not alone, that is the most important thing. Because once we feel less alone in this whole journey of life, whatever it is that we’re trying to navigate, you feel a lot better when you feel supported.

To contribute to Marie Demasi’s fundraising effort as part of The Overnight Walk, visit her fundraising page. She can be reached via email.

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

4 replies on “Wilton Woman Walks to Remember a Brother Lost to Suicide — and to Help Others”

  1. This is beautiful if anyone reads this and needs help it’s fill with information and love

  2. Marie, my brother Robert passed away by suicide also. Thanks for sharing your story and raising awareness of this terrible disease, depression. I miss Robert everyday and while these stories connect us as a community of survivors I also feel a little more heartbreak when I hear of another sister who is missing her brother. The loss is truly brutal.

    Let’s keep Steven and Robert’s memories alive <3
    Wishing you many happy memories and that Steven comes to you in your dreams!

  3. This is so powerful Marie. Thank you so much for sharing it, it is going to help people.

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