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Dawn lake walk lifts those bereaved by suicide

on October 27, 2009

While most of Oakland remained asleep Saturday morning, about two hundred people gathered in the pre-dawn darkness to walk around the still water of Lake Merritt. They shared a particular kind of grief. One woman’s husband had died only three days earlier. Another woman, who drove in from Sonoma, lost her son 17 years ago, when he was 41. Many of the participants said they felt guilty about the deaths that drew them there, although none had occurred by their hands.  The walkers were brought together by suicide.

The event, Oakland’s first Out of the Darkness community walk, was organized by three childhood friends of an Oakland-raised woman, Ginny Kleker, who committed suicide at age 31 in October 2008.

“There is such a stigma about suicide. When you say it, people recoil,” said Teresa Ferguson, Ginny’s mother. “Ginny went through long bouts of depression, but just as equally she would have times of being incredibly happy and accomplished. Out of the Darkness is about coming out of both the dark of depression and out of the stigma surrounding it.”

The walk, one of 190 taking place throughout the country this fall, was an effort both to call attention to causes and ways to prevent suicide and also to raise funds for research and education programs developed by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP).

According to AFSP, someone dies by suicide every 16 minutes in the United States, and it’s estimated that an attempt is made every minute. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death in the US for adults between ages 18 and 65, according to the foundation, and 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death.

“So many people suffer from depression or other mood disorders,” said Valerie Kovacovich, AFSP Area Director for Northern California, at the post-walk reception. “Look around. It’s everywhere. People just don’t talk about depression and suicide, which is why we have to.”

When participants first arrived, they were quiet enough to hear the chirping birds.  But they weren’t somber. Sporadic laughs echoed between the Lake Merritt pillars. Everyone, from the AFSP member running the opening ceremony to the man leading the group through a series of stretches before they all headed out, had been touched by suicide. While Teresa and Ginny’s friends lit candles that formed a heart along the ground, the speakers sounded the first verse of Coldplay’s song “Clocks.” The song captures the exhausting internal battle behind most suicides: psychiatric disorders:

The lights go out and I can’t be saved
Tides that I tried to swim against
have brought me down upon my knees.

Psychiatric disorders are one of the major risk factors that contribute to suicide. Gender also plays a substantial role. While women are three times more likely than men to attempt suicide, according to the AFSP, men are four more times as likely to complete suicide.

Strong warning signs that someone might be considering suicide, said Ferguson, include the person making comments about how they specifically might plan to do it, finding ways to become comfortable with the idea of death, and expressing thoughts about feeling like a burden.

While medication and therapy can help to treat mental disorders, such as post-traumatic stress syndrome and bipolar depression, finding the right medication can be more of an art than a science, since people respond differently to a single medicine.

“I really do believe if you can get people through an episode, there is a huge chance they won’t go back and do it again,” said Ferguson. “I have experience with depression, so I know how to help myself avoid contemplating suicide. Part of it, for me, is I say to myself, ‘No, we are not doing that. I choose life.’”

Other ways to curtail suicide include not leaving a person at risk alone, as well as making dangerous objects less accessible – a challenge when people possess firearms for work. Within the past year, two Oakland police officers used their guns to commit suicide.


Oakland councilmember Jean Quan took time to remember the officers during the opening ceremony of the event, which raised almost $25,000. Other participants wore t-shirts and carried signs with a friend or family member’s image. Posters of people who had died plastered the Lake Merritt colonnades where the attendees started the walk.

By the time participants arrived at the finish line, a few dozen feet from where they began, the sun had risen, and the candles that Teresa and Ginny’s friends lit at the outset were still burning. But Coldplay’s “Clocks” was no longer playing. Now the music was live, and the song being sung by the father of one of Ginny’s friends was “What a Wonderful World.”

“I had never met anyone before my daughter who had died by suicide. You know it’s been a year and it’s still pretty new. It’s been the most devastating year of my life,” Teresa said. “The walk has made me realize in a strange way I am not walking for her; I am walking for me. Ginny doesn’t get a vote. She is gone. I want to make sure nobody else has to go through this.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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