Walking Out Of Darkness

When the Out of the Darkness Walk — a fundraiser aimed at understanding and preventing suicide — begins at Sherwood Island this Saturday (October 27), Peter and Nancy von Euler will be there.

It won’t be easy — their daughter Emma committed suicide 3  years ago. But they would not be anywhere else.

Emma was a gifted musician at Fairfield Ludlowe High. Last spring, awarding a scholarship in Emma’s name at her school, Peter — an elementary school teacher in Westport — said:

It’s ironic that I’m here presenting a music scholarship award. If anyone asks me, I usually say, “I’m not particularly musical,” or “I don’t really have a great ear,” or “I could never carry a tune.” It’s also ironic because my daughter, Emma had everything that I lacked.

Emma von Euler, doing what she loved.

In creating this scholarship, my wife, my daughter, and hundreds of family members and friends are trying to continue Emma’s music legacy where she left off. Before we present the scholarship that bears her name, I hope you’ll allow me to make a plea.

My plea is for you to never say the things about yourself that I just said a few moments ago. Don’t ever say you’re not musical. Music is about bringing different notes together to create a sound that moves people to smile, to dance, to cry, or find peace.

Most importantly music is about pulling different sounds together and creating harmony. I could easily hear my daughter’s musical talents when she sang or played the flute, but I may have missed her most important musical gift. She accepted people. She celebrated differences. She loved the quirky, the unconventional, the disconnected, and she often brought them together in a beautiful way. I’m striving for that kind of musicality in my life.

Don’t say, “I don’t have a good ear.” Maybe I don’t have perfect pitch, as some say my daughter had, but that doesn’t mean I can’t train my ear. I can listen for subtle notes of trouble or struggle in someone else’s voice. I can say, “How are you doing?” and insert a rest, leaving room for an honest reply.

Friends and family appreciated Emma’s warm smile.

Don’t say, “I can’t carry a tune.” When Emma died by suicide just 5 days short of her 17th birthday, I lost my voice. I was rendered mute by shame at how she died, by guilt at what I could have done, by fear that I might never be happy again.

In the 3 years since Emma died, my wife has helped me find my voice. She stunned me by singing part of her eulogy at Emma’s memorial service. She then started writing down all of the beautiful memories from Emma’s life and sharing them in a public blog.

She wrote, “I refuse to allow Emma, or our lives together, to be defined by [her last] desperate act.” In effect, she echoed the lines we hear sung so movingly at Relay for Life every year: “I will remember you,” and, “Weep not for the memories.” She has shown me how to carry that tune.

In these past 3 years, the broader tune we have tried to carry is that we should strive to be a musical community. Though we may sound different notes in race, religion, opinion, or sexual orientation, we all need to work toward harmony. Our goal was never uniformity or perfect agreement. That makes for a boring song.

Instead, our goal is to become part of some bigger composition that holds together beautifully. To appreciate some music, and some people, you have to stop and listen. You may have to get used to a new and unfamiliar sound. Usually, if you listen openly, your ear can find something to appreciate, even in a piece that challenges you or makes you uncomfortable.

Here’s a challenging note, but one we hope you’ll try to carry forward:  Mental illness is a legitimate health issue that you cannot and should not try to solve alone. It must stop being a cause for shame. Please carry that refrain with you as you move on from this school.

(To register for the Out of the Darkness walk — or make a donation in Emma von Euler’s name — click here.)

10 responses to “Walking Out Of Darkness

  1. Peter von Euler is a wonderful human being and a gifted teacher who taught one of my sons. HIs words moved me deeply. I am going to share this with friends who don’t live here and are not acquainted with this blog.

  2. Thank you to Peter, Nancy, and Emma for the reminder to take a step back and really think about how we can make a change in our daily discourse. Let’s be passionate about what we believe, but careful not to alienate or belittle those who may have differing opinions. “Though we may sound different notes in race, religion, opinion, or sexual orientation, we all need to work toward harmony.” I will be sharing this with my family at the dinner table tonight.

  3. It’s a pleasure to support this walk and Emma’s family on an annual basis.

    As a former neighbor of this Soutjp[ort family I remember a lovely yourg women, lost to us all. Emma had star quality, evident in all she did.

  4. A New Movement?

    Not an expert but have lived long enough and have read enough about this issue to know that there are at least two types of suicide. Some tragic suicides are planned but another type of suicide is an exaggerated response to one particular thing. Read about the Yellow Ribbon project..a young man took his life within a half hour of learning that his fiance was going to marry another. His parents were about 10 minutes too late when they found him. Another example is the young college student outed by his roommate and jumped off a bridge. I have called suicide prevention centers to promote this idea but it’s fallen on deaf ears. We can choose any Acronym that works but I just bet we can stop this second type, the exaggerated response type.. or at least make a dent in doing so. The acronym I thought of is SSERS. Sudden Severe Emotional Response Syndrome. If we talk about the possibility that people might react so strongly to something that they feel out of control, they may recognize it in themselves. The talking points could be… “your life could be going along great and then something happens.. you get bullied, or your significant other breaks up with you or you’re suddenly handed a pink slip and find yourself out of a job. You could have an exaggerated response where you’re not thinking clearly… the time to think of this possibility of these things happening is now.. before you or someone you love has an exxagerated response. There’s always help. There’s always time. There are people who care. Remember the words of Billy Joel Song.. “second wind”. And then, maybe have someone talk or appear on PSAs who survived a suicide or near suicide attempt so that people see that this is real. Because it is real. I think an event can shock you so much that something snaps. I think that if you snap, and you’ve heard of this phenomenon Sudden Severe Emotional Response Syndrome, you might remember when you heard it and recognize the symptoms in yourself or someone you love. before tragedy strikes. I think the Out of the Darkness folks are just the ones to propose this idea to.

    • The nurse in London who fell for the Radio DJ’s ploy? A victim of SSRES. Suddenly.. a normal person can’t take the heat.. however it is generated. (but I am not a doctor).. but I am .. just sayin.

  5. Our family was touched last year by the suicide of a team mate and friend -and if anything good can come from this kind of tragedy it’s the starting of a conversation about it.
    We talk to our teens about drugs, alcohol, sex, drunk driving- Suicide needs to be part of these regular conversations with our kids. No one is immune to it.
    ” I lost my voice. I was rendered mute by shame at how she died, by guilt at what I could have done, by fear that I might never be happy again.” No parent wants to utter those words.
    We need to be in conversation about suicide!!
    Thank you to this brave man for sharing his story-

  6. Luisa Francoeur

    Thank you for this deeply moving blog post. Mr Von Euler (my son was a student, too, and this is what we always called him), has much to say and I highlight the following: “Here’s a challenging note, but one we hope you’ll try to carry forward: Mental illness is a legitimate health issue.”

    I hope that the use of the phrase “mental” illness, will disappear. We should think of it as just plain illness that happens to affect the brain and an individual’s thinking which then affects the behavior. There is a stigma attached to the use of this phrase and it is not deserved by those who suffer.

  7. The courage shown by these folks is beyond admirable – it is heroic. There is so much ignorance, so much fear around mental illness…awareness and compassion are the key. Grateful that Westport is the kind of place that will welcome this event, and listen to what folks have to say.

  8. That is so sad.

  9. That is so sad.