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As she prepares for her first marathon in Chicago this October, Dana Henderson thinks back to when her son Angel started running. He was 5 years old, and a new cross-country team had just formed in Charleston, South Carolina, where the family lived at the time.
Angel showed potential, sailing past older competitors with a smile on his face. “Those were really fun days,” says Henderson, now 47. “People would say, ‘Oh, he’s your kiddo? He’s fast.’ I’d say, ‘I know, it’s so exciting.’”
The happy memories stand out all the more starkly because of the darker days surrounding them. Angel and his younger brother, Bryan, were adopted from Guatemala when Angel was 3 and Bryan was 1. Not long afterward, Angel began self-harming. Around age 6, he began expressing signs of suicidal ideation—thoughts about killing himself.
By his pre-teen years, he’d lost interest in running, among many other activities. He received care from mental health professionals, but his condition was complex and difficult to treat. Angel died by suicide in 2018, at age 16.
“Just like cancer or any other kind of disease, mental illness is a terminal illness for some people,” Henderson says. The idea that her son got sick and then died has helped her let go of shame, guilt, and other destructive thoughts, even as she grieves.
Mental health professionals like Kimberly O’Brien, Ph.D., a clinical social worker in the Female Athlete Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, teach that every suicide is preventable. But, she points out, people still die by suicide—and when they do, that doesn’t mean survivors have failed.
“Nobody should feel like anyone’s death is their fault,” she says. “Yet, there are things we can do to learn about warning signs, different risk and protective factors, and to know how to help people and talk with people about suicide. Everybody doing that is taking a step toward suicide prevention.”
Henderson was devastated by Angel’s death, but vowed to keep moving forward and helping others who are coping with their own illnesses and losses. Running has brought her strength, purpose, and community. And through her marathon training, she’s raising money for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“Trying to help Angel was an exercise in roadblocks, thin resources, a lack of critical, specialized skills among practitioners, and ultimately, futility,” she wrote on her fundraising page. “It doesn’t have to be like this.” The money she raises will help support research into preventing suicide, hope for those contemplating it, and programming to comfort those left behind.
Moving Through Grief
Early in Angel’s treatment, Henderson had received critical advice from a mental health care professional: “She told me, ‘You need to take care of yourself,’” Henderson says. “Whatever comes in the future, just remember that it’s not your fault, that you have loved him and you have tried. You need to be well, for the rest of your family.”
After Angel’s death and through other challenges, such as her divorce from the boys’ father, Henderson’s self-care involved therapy, connecting with other parents who’d lost children, and dedicating herself to cheering on Bryan—who also began running at a young age and continued into high school—at all his track meets.
And, it meant movement. She’d always been active, teaching exercise classes in her 20s and training for three-day AIDS cycling rides in the early 2000s. “I have a history of wanting to do big things to make myself proud,” she says.
Yet despite her identity as a “track mom,” those goals never centered on running. “I had always had this self-talk: I suck at running, it hurts, I don’t have the body for it,” she says. “I always had excuses.”
On January 1, 2020, something compelled her to set those aside. Running was something she loved to watch Bryan do, and a lifelong sport she thought they could eventually share. She signed up for a triathlon clinic through Tri It For Life, a local organization focused on empowering women through endurance sports.
She only went to one in-person session before they were canceled due to COVID. Still, she kept training for the virtual She Tris triathlon, and completed her first 5K as part of it. Then she signed up for the virtual New York City triathlon. As part of that race, she ran her first 10K on July 18. It would have been Angel’s 18th birthday.
Afterward, she felt exhausted, but elated. Trying something new (and succeeding) helped her continue to redefine herself. “As a grieving mother, there are many times that can be dark: birthdays, anniversaries, what would have been his high school graduation,” she says. “But putting on a fantastic playlist, hitting ‘start’ on the watch, and run-dancing on the pavement has been a gift I never expected, but am so grateful to have now.”
From there, she wondered, “What’s next?” She linked up with a local training group, Blue Sky Endurance, and a coach, Ray Hauck. With them, she trained for a 10-mile race in October. Henderson then registered for the inaugural Sweetgrass Half Marathon in May, a race organized by the Mount Pleasant Recreation Department; Henderson works as the town’s risk manager. “I was one of the first ones to sign up; I was super stoked,” she says.
But days beforehand, Bryan was selected to run the anchor leg of the 4 x 400-meter relay at the state championship. The race began exactly at the same time as Henderson’s, 120 miles away. She’d never missed one of his events, and decided not to start.
Instead, on a friend’s urging, she chose to think of her training as halfway to a full marathon. Several of her Blue Sky teammates were already registered for the Chicago Marathon. The lottery for entries had closed, but Henderson searched for charity bibs, and found one—for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Race for Hope team.
The alignment sealed the deal. As she filled out online forms, Facebook created a fundraising page for her; the first donation came in before she’d even completed registration. By day’s end, she’d met her $2,000 obligation.
“I’ve had almost 100 people donate to the cause, many of whom I don’t even know,” she says. “They’re friends of friends or friends of parents who’ve shared the story, or who themselves know people who have died by suicide.” To honor their support, she’s documented her training as she goes.
Flutters of Connection
Those following along watched Henderson built her mileage under Hauck’s guidance. Her progress was remarkable, he says: “She went from point A to point, you know, S, in a short period of time.” She dutifully followed his plan, missing only one workout to take Bryan to a college visit (he’ll graduate in June 2022). She enlisted her husband, John Hill, to support with everything from aid stations to meal preparation to laundry. “I couldn’t imagine trying to do this on my own,” she says.
Henderson trains with her Blue Sky teammates, or sometimes solo, often in South Carolina’s afternoon or early-evening heat (she’s not a morning person). Her runs loop through neighborhoods past 18th-century homes, along shorelines that smell of salt and marshy pluff mud, over bridges to small, barrier islands. “I think I’ve run just about every neighborhood in Mount Pleasant on foot. I’ve discovered things that I never knew existed, and I’ve lived here 20 years,” she says, naming docks, pocket parks, and other secret gems.
Sometimes, to her surprise, Angel joins her. Often, he speaks through music. Henderson listens to random Spotify playlists from strangers during many runs. During a 12-miler on Angel’s 19th birthday, one of his favorite songs, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” blasted through her earbuds, not long before a bright red butterfly crossed her path. “He was particularly fond of butterflies,” she says. “For whatever reason, they were drawn to him.”
Right after she crossed the finish line of her 10-mile race, Henderson heard the song “Fallen Angel” by Poison, another favorite of Angel’s, perhaps due to the meaningful title. “It happens with regular frequency,” she says, “and it carries me along.”
Hauck has encouraged her not only to finish, but also to set an ambitious time goal (he thinks she can finish in three hours and 50 minutes). In the final weeks, he sees it as his job to boost her confidence in the ability to achieve it. “Every one of her experiences—that 5K, that 10-mile, that 18-miler—has proven to her what I’m telling her about her abilities,” he says.
Henderson says 26.2 miles is truly uncharted territory, but when she reflects back on her weeks of hard work, she recognizes how far she’s come. In January, she had to talk herself into running a 5K; then, she moved up to the 10K, which took her more than an hour and 20 minutes.
On September 25, she ran the same distance in 53:34 at the Cooper River Bridge Run, and now finishes 16-mile long runs feeling like she could go further. “There’s always these life lessons you learn through running, and one of them is that even though something is really hard, or seems really hard, you always have more to give at the end,” she says.
She’ll find out exactly how much more on October 10, on the streets of Chicago. Her husband and stepson Nate will be there to cheer her on, as will Bryan: “I really want him to have this memory etched in his mind, like, my mom did this really big thing,” she says. Her dad, who lives in northern Illinois, will be there too.
She’ll wear a shirt with Angel’s face on the back, and “happiness is as a butterfly,” written in his handwriting. In addition to raising funds and awareness, she wants other survivors of suicide loss—and anyone who’s grieving—to know there’s life and joy on the other side.
“You see in so many movies and TV shows, and even amongst each other, when you lose a child, it’s like you shrivel up and die,” she says. “But is that what your child would have wanted for you? Is that what your family wants for you? And is that what you really want for yourself?”
In her case, she knows the answer is a resounding “no.” On her training runs, she envisions the finish line. She knows she’ll cry: not from sadness, but from gratitude. Although she wishes she could hug him, she knows Angel will be there with her. And maybe, just maybe, she’ll see a butterfly.
Expert Advice on Preventing—and Coping with—Suicide
Knowing the risk factors and warning signs of suicide, and what to do if you spot them, is critically important, says O’Brien, who’s also the co-author of Emotionally Naked: A Teacher’s Guide to Preventing Suicide and Recognizing Students at Risk.
Risk factors for suicide include:
- Previous suicide attempts
- Family history of suicide
- Mental health conditions, such as depression, substance use problems, schizophrenia, and anxiety disorders
- Stress from harassment, job troubles, or relationship problems
- Serious physical health conditions
- History of trauma, such as sexual violence or abuse
- Difficulty accessing health care
- Injuries, especially among teen or young athletes
Warning signs to watch for are:
- For athletes, losing interest in their sport, or other activities they once found enjoyable
- Or, training becoming less enjoyable and more stressful
- Talk about killing themselves, feeling hopeless or trapped, being a burden, or having no reason to live
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Giving away prized possessions, or visiting or calling people to say goodbye
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has a comprehensive list of risk factors and warning signs.
If you notice these signs in a training partner, family member, or friend—or in yourself—it’s important to know that help is available, says Jill Standley, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner in Clarksville, Tennessee, and a marathoner herself. And despite the stigma that may still exist around mental health, there’s no shame in getting it.
The best first step is to simply ask the person you’re concerned about what’s happening, O’Brien says. Be empathetic, open, and curious. Don’t be afraid to ask directly if they’ve been thinking about suicide or wanting to kill themselves. (The AFSP has examples of ways to have the conversation.)
Once the person opens up, try not to panic. Together, you can plan together who else to tell, and how to reach out for support. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line, or search for local mental health services.
Even if they don’t want to talk about their suicidal thoughts, simply showing you care about a person can help immensely. “The kindness, the gesture, can impact somebody more than you realize,” Standley says.
If you’re the one having suicidal thoughts, it’s important to know you’re not alone. “What people have to understand is that about one-fifth of people have these thoughts in their life,” O’Brien says. “So this is common, and we need to be able to talk about it.” Reach out to a mental health professional. Once again, if you’re in distress, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741 to text with a trained crisis counselor.
And, if you’re a survivor of suicide loss, connecting to a mental health professional yourself can help to alleviate feelings of guilt and shame, O’Brien says. Many people, like Henderson, find healing in support groups and in pursuits that bring them a sense of purpose.
“When people lose a child, you can often feel like your life is devoid of meaning—that’s a gaping hole in your heart,” O’Brien says. “So to be able to fill it with something like what she’s doing, by running and fundraising, it can be really nourishing for the soul.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255. Or, access the Crisis Text Line, a texting service for emotional crisis support. To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7, and confidential.