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Weekend of Grace

DAN CEPEDA | Star-Tribune

Alisa Noel, facing camera, embraces her sister, Peggy Clark, during the suicide prevention event Weekend of Grace 2011 on Aug. 13 in Cheyenne. Clark’s 27-year-old son, Donny Sherard, completed suicide in February.

For years, she avoided his death.

She’d push away the memories, trying to shield herself from the pain they’d bring. Sometimes, she’d pretend he was just traveling somewhere.

Allysha Moreno thought denial would make her boyfriend’s suicide easier to deal with. It didn’t.

“It actually prolonged my healing process,” she said.

It took Moreno four years before she was ready to talk. This August, she stood in front of 500 people at a suicide awareness walk in Cheyenne and shared her story. How her boyfriend, Hans Wilde, made her feel like the most beautiful person in the room. The fear she’d never find that again.

She cried as she talked about never having a chance to say goodbye. About the questions that have no answers.

But along with the tears came hope. Grace for 2 Brothers, the foundation that organized the walk, helped her finally confront the painful emotions that followed Wilde’s death.

“It’s comforting to know I’m not alone,” she told the crowd, her words coming in sobs. “And I don’t feel like an outcast anymore.”

Grace for 2 Brothers takes its name from Brett and Beau Wagner, two brothers from Cheyenne who completed suicide within four years of one another. Brett, the youngest of three brothers, killed himself in 2005. His oldest brother, Beau, died in August 2009.

Their mother, BJ Ayers, formed the group a few months after Beau’s death. BJ was determined to keep others from experiencing the pain she felt.

“I will not go quietly,” she said.

The foundation focuses on preventing suicides and lending support to survivors, who often struggle with feelings of shame and guilt.

Events like the suicide awareness walk help survivors understand they can find help without feeling judged, said Tasha Rudolph, a Cheyenne social worker whose sister, Tamika, killed herself in 2003.

“People don’t have to suffer in silence,” Rudolph said as she waited for the walk to begin. “There is help.”

* * *

When someone has surgery, friends send flowers and cards. But if the same person seeks help for a mental illness, he’s largely ignored.

Trying to change that cultural attitude isn’t easy. But that’s exactly what Grace for 2 Brothers is attempting to do.

“If somebody is in crisis, the very first thing we ask them to do is take a step back and say, ‘Getting help is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength,’” Ayers said.

In April 2010, Grace for 2 Brothers held its first organizational meeting. So many people attended they couldn’t all fit in the conference room.

The group continued to grow. Ayers hoped for 100 people at the foundation’s first Walk of Grace, a now annual suicide-awareness event. The walk drew four times that number, and this year’s was even larger.

The turnout shows people are taking notice of suicide as a public health threat, Ayers said. “It has reached a crisis in the community,” she said.

In its short existence, Grace for 2 Brothers has shared its message at schools and events. It’s produced nearly 50,000 resource cards for students across the state. And this month, the group started a survivors’ support group.

Ayers wants her organization to serve as a resource for people across Wyoming, whether they are teenagers, in the military or older adults.

“We are trying to build this foundation on a solid foundation, so to speak,” Ayers said. “It’s not going to be a fly-by-night organization. We want to be around for a long time.”

As much as Grace for 2 Brothers has helped others, it’s also helped Ayers through her own grieving process, according to Blair Wagner, her surviving son. The work has brought the passion back to her eyes, he said.

That much is apparent at the walk. As she addressed the crowd, Ayers appeared confident and relaxed. When it was time for a photo, she bounded off the stage and into the audience. Together, they all smiled back at the camera.

She’ll never get over the loss of her sons. But she’s not a woman who’s given up on life.

“It’s amazing to see what she has gone through,” Wagner said. “And to see her standing as tall as she is, is pretty special.”

* * *

Allysha Moreno and Hans Wilde met at East High in Cheyenne, but they didn’t start dating until a year after school. He was generous and funny, Moreno remembered.

“He just had this spirit about him that could make you feel like you were worth a million dollars just by standing next to him,” she said.

But Wilde suffered from a lot of demons, according to Moreno. She’s hesitant to share details.

“I think he was just sick and needed something like this,” she said, referring to the walk. “And even though it was only four years [ago], back then I don’t think anybody knew as much as we do now about suicide and prevention.”

Wilde killed himself in July 2007. Moreno was 12 weeks pregnant with his son.

Afterward, she struggled with guilt and regret. She questioned whether she could have done more to prevent his death. She wondered why she wasn’t good enough, as she puts it, for him to stick around. She buried her feelings inside. She wouldn’t allow herself to even talk about him. But denial couldn’t keep the pain away.

“It was so hard to come to terms or even fathom what he had done, that I just did everything I could ... to keep myself sane for the sake of my child,” she said.

Last year, she attended the Walk of Grace. She didn’t stay long, but she remained in contact with the foundation. Moreno started volunteering for the group, and earlier this year, joined its board of directors. Seeing Ayers carry on after the death of two of sons has been an inspiration, Moreno said.

“She has made it so easy and so wonderful,” Moreno explained. “To make you feel OK to cry, to make you feel like you’re not an outcast.”

At this year’s walk, Moreno shared her story for the first time. She didn’t want to cry, but tears still flowed. With them came a measure of relief.

Afterward, she joined the crowd for the walk around Sloan Lake. As the sunlight bounced off the water, she thought about how much she still missed Wilde. How she wished he could be there.

She prayed God would comfort her and the other survivors.

“I’m a big Catholic,” she said. “I do believe in the existence of spirits. I’d like to think he was here today.”

The emotions are like a wave in the ocean, she said later. It’s hard getting to the top. But once you’re there, you can look down the other side and realize things will be OK.

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Contact Joshua Wolfson at 307-266-0582 or at josh.wolfson@trib.com. Visit http://trib.com/news/opinion/blogs/wolfjammies to read his blog. Follow him on Twitter @joshwolfson.

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