EAST LYME — Nearly 700 people, decked out in Santa hats and holiday costumes, crowded into MacCook Point Park on Saturday morning. It was drizzling, but that didn’t seem to dampen the spirit as a line formed for pre-race photos in front of the Brian Dagle Foundation banner. It was the start of the sixth annual Niantic Jingle Bell 5k, nearly seven years since the foundation began and eight years after Brian Dagle died from suicide on November 12, 2011.
“I lost my son Brian in 2011, and at the time there were very few resources for us as parents who had lost a child to suicide,” said Ann Dagle, Brian’s mother and the president and executive director of the foundation. “I knew I needed to do something. I pulled my sons and my husband together and we called it Project Brian.”
Project Brian began as a support group at the Lymes’ Youth Services Bureau for adults who had lost a loved one to suicide, and has grown into a center hosting many types of grief support groups and a foundation offering education and awareness programming for mental health and suicide prevention.
The 5k is the largest annual fundraiser for the Brian Dagle Foundation and Brian’s Healing Hearts Center for Hope and Healing, raising more than $30,000 each year.
“The first two years you are in a complete fog and don’t know how or if you want to live again,” Dagle said. “When you meet other parents who have lost a child there is any instant connection, they understand. Support groups became really important to me, so I started to learn and educate myself on how to help people.”
Brian’s Healing Hearts center provides a comforting and comfortable place to host such groups.
“All groups are in the living room with a fireplace, snacks available, coffee and tea. It’s a really safe place for people,” Dagle said. “I had been to some support groups in a rec center or a church – but to me atmosphere is important, it helps facilitate the grief process.”
For those grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide, Dagle explained, finding others in the same situation who understand the difference from other types of loss is essential to healing.
“Suicide is a monster in itself. It’s different from other losses. It comes with stigma, guilt, shame, the questions, the whys,” Dagle said. “It’s getting better – but there is a stigma still associated with it, it’s hard to talk about, hard to tell people the truth of what happened.”
Part of the foundation’s mission is to break down these walls.
“Your person died of a disease of the brain. It’s no different from cancer,” Dagle said. “You have to get people to think of it that way.”
Dagle and the foundation have worked to form a place where anyone grieving can find a community that will support them. The hundreds of runners – many clad in group gear sporting the photo of a loved one lost to suicide – is a visual demonstration of how effective their work has been.
“This community held us up. Today, you are all here supporting our foundation and spreading what we do,” said Paul Dagle, Ann’s husband and Brian’s father, at the start of the race. “This is what community is about. We love you all and Merry Christmas.”
Ann Dagle said more and more participants from the support groups are joining the 5k each year.
“There are a lot of groups for loved ones, more than ever this year,” she said with her sister who drove down from Massachusetts in order to run by her side. “It warms my heart to see them out here.”
One of those groups was Team Tony. Led by Joanna Black, Tony Black’s mother, more than twenty runners wore shirts with Tony’s photograph and the slogan “Opioids Kill, Talk About It.”
“I find the groups at the foundation really helpful,” Black said. “It’s our second year out here running and we will continue to come back.”
Thanks to fundraisers like the 5k, the foundation is able to host all their support groups and programming for free.
“Because of all the money we raise, we are able to offer all our programs for free. We don’t have to charge for someone who is coming for grief and loss. We don’t want them to worry about money at all,” Dagle said.
The suicide prevention programs the foundation runs are taught in schools for students and teachers, as well as at local businesses to bring more awareness to the importance of seeking mental health care.
“We talk about breaking down the stigma. Mental health is no different from physical health. We want people to know about the warning signs,” Dagle said. “We want people to know that it’s okay to ask for help. People are not being over-dramatic if they are talking about things like suicide. It’s a conversation that we need to have – just like we talk about sex, drugs, drinking and driving, you need to talk about mental health.”
In 2020, Brian’s Healing Hearts will be expanding to include a young adult support group and a yoga for grief. The Center also hosts retreats and meditations focused on helping individuals heal from their grief.
Now eight years into her healing process, Dagle said she wants others to understand that it really is a process and there is no such thing as recovery.
“I’d say I did the best that I could with the information that I had at the time. If love could have saved my son, he would be here, but it wasn’t about love it was about his mental health,” Dagle said. “There is no timeline with grief, and you’re never truly going to heal. People think after six months or a year you’re going to be over it, but there is no such thing.”