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.
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.
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.)