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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Friends, families remember lost loved ones at vigil

Beneath Saturday’s gloomy clouds, the path was lit by plastic candles.

Nick Antonelli walked down the path to remember a friend and UF professor of late medieval and early modern English culture, James Paxson, who took his own life four years ago.

About 60 other people did the same at the 3rd Annual Candlelight Vigil for Survivors of Suicide Loss at the Survivors of Suicide Memory Garden in Cofrin Nature Park. The ceremony Saturday afternoon was part of International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day.

Paxson was the father of Antonelli’s ex-girlfriend. Antonelli, 28, said he had a friendly relationship with the 50-year-old, and could tell Paxson was struggling at the time.

The candlelight vigil, he said, helps by creating a sense of community.

"I’ve been the last two years as well," he said. "It does exactly what it needs to do."

Most visitors wore different colored beads to symbolize their relationship to the person they lost to suicide.

Judy Broward wore silver and white for her son, Brett. Silver represented his occupation as a police officer. White was for a lost child.

He was 27 when he took his own life 12 years ago.

"He was way too young," Broward said. "If I knew then what I know now, I would have recognized the subtle signs, like the withdrawal, the depression."

Broward, the coordinator of the garden and a member of Friends of the Crisis Center, said twice as many officers die by suicide than in the line of duty.

She later spoke at the ceremony, which started early because of the threat of rain. Yet people’s faces were already wet with tears as they circled around the garden’s labyrinth, a maze with a poem in the center.

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Jan Greene, the training coordinator at the Alachua County Crisis Center, read a poem interspersed with about 50 names of those who died by suicide.

Survivors bowed their heads or looked up to the sky in remembrance.

Ali Martinez, the director of the center, said this was her first time at the vigil as a survivor. She paused before she began speaking again, this time with a choked voice.

"I’ve learned in the past few months the importance of a community to cry with you," she said. "You need that connection."

All three speakers stressed the importance of decreasing the stigma surrounding suicide. Many people don’t want to talk about it, and others don’t want to ask, they said.

Off to the side stood a tree covered with twinkling lights. Known as the Memory Tree of Lights, it held the names of loved ones lost to suicide. It was here people gathered after the ceremony was over.

"The grief around suicide loss is complicated because of the anger and guilt and the questions of what they could have done to prevent it," Martinez said. "The ceremony and the park offers a chance for reflection and connection in a place of healing and solace."

For help or more information, call the Alachua County Crisis Center hotline at 352-264-6789 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Contact Brooke Baitinger at bbaitinger@alligator.org and follow her on Twitter @BaitingerBrooke

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