On the day last July that she will remember forever, Alison Reeves stopped by her parents’ house in Hingham, to drop off the dog she shared with her brother, Austin. But as their pit bull mix, Faith, hopped up on his bed to greet him, Alison could see that her brother was upset.
He had been having a hard time, she knew. The reasons were complex, among them a breakup and a sense of lost direction. Alison was worried about her “big little brother,” as she called the tall, muscled 26-year-old. So she tried to persuade him to come with her.
She was headed out of town to a wedding. She invited her brother to join her, have some fun, forget his troubles. But he had a job that night, valet parking at a party — and Austin was a stickler about showing up for work.
“I’ll give you the $100,” his sister offered. “Just come with us.”
He wouldn’t, so she headed out. It was the last time she would see him.
Like countless other suicide survivors — the term refers to friends and family left behind — Alison, 29, struggled to pick up the pieces after her brother took his own life.
Austin’s death was unusually public, reported on by the Globe and other news media after his father criticized the police response. For Alison, though, it was a private devastation, one that took months to begin to process. In time, with help from her brother’s closest friends, she decided to turn her grief into action, organizing a public celebration of Austin’s life this Sunday at the South Shore Sports Center in Hingham, an event that will also raise money for suicide prevention.
It was a deeply personal decision, one that now seems unexpectedly in tune with public empathy and interest, in light of recent celebrity suicides and increased attention to prevention efforts.
For Alison, who spent months in numbness and denial after Austin died, one specific memory from last summer motivated her to speak out on the issue. It happened soon after her brother’s suicide, when someone in her family, somebody she loved, spoke of being “embarrassed” by his death.
Alison remembers feeling stunned by the admission.
“I was like, ‘Embarrassed? Why?’” recalls Alison, of Randolph. “It’s not something to be embarrassed about.”
For months she thought about that moment, and the shame it crystallized, the reluctance to be honest about mental health. In Hingham, the pretty, privileged suburb where she and her brother grew up, the people, like the scenery, were supposed to be flawless, she said. But flawlessness was a lie — and a dangerous one, she had learned. Now she felt compelled to fight for honesty.
“I want everyone to know that this can happen anywhere, to anyone,” she says. “Even in a place where everything looks perfect.”
After Austin’s death, his father, Russell , contacted the Globe and asked the paper to examine the tactics used by police the night his son died.
That night, Austin’s former girlfriend called police to report threats he had made, and his worried father also called police for help. Hingham police summoned a regional SWAT team for support, bringing dozens of officers to the Reeves home, some with military gear and vehicles.
The standoff lasted all night, though Russell Reeves pleaded with the officers to leave and let his son sleep. Police tried and failed to establish a dialogue with Austin, who was upstairs with his handgun and his dog. Exactly when he took his life remains unknown.
Alison Reeves says she is still angry that her parents didn’t call her first that night. If she could have spoken to her brother, she believes, she might have found some way to stop him.
She is not the only one who still agonizes over Austin’s last days. It was no secret, among his closest friends, that he was struggling. Yet even as they worried, his friends felt confident that sly, funny, hard-working Austin would recover. He was their red-headed ringleader, their impromptu party host, the gym rat with the killer abs and the “Carpe Diem” tattoo.
None of them imagined that his suffering could be fatal.
Austin texted his friend Taylor Coppin a few days before his death to say he was struggling. Coppin was surprised, but his reply was heartfelt. I’m here for you, he typed. He suggested they hang out. Austin did not reply.
In retrospect, Coppin believes his response fell short.
“It should have been followed by a phone call,” he says. “I should have called and said, ‘Hey, you didn’t write back — how’s it going?’ ”
Austin’s best friend, Christian Zimbone, coaxed Austin out of the house on a summer day just before he died, on a trip to their favorite place, Nantasket Beach. In a photo from that day, under a perfect blue sky, Austin wears dark sunglasses, but he is smiling.
On the drive home from the beach, Austin began to talk, spilling some of the pain he could not escape. Glancing sideways at his friend from behind the wheel, Zimbone saw a single tear escape Austin’s Ray-Bans and roll down his cheek.
He reached over and gripped Austin’s shoulder tight.
Later, Zimbone would fault himself for not trying to take Austin’s gun from the safe where he kept it.
For months, Alison Reeves avoided dealing with her loss. She threw herself into her work and lavished attention on Faith, the dog Austin loved, with long walks in the Blue Hills.
Slowly, she emerged from the numbness. She found she was still angry about the shame and stigma Austin’s death uncovered — angry enough to take action.
She reached out to her brother’s closest friends and enlisted their help in planning a public event — a party celebrating Austin’s life, with food and music and the sport he loved, lacrosse, but also acknowledging the way he died, and raising money for suicide prevention.
“We want to shine a light on something no one wants to shine a light on,” she says.
They are not experts in mental health or social action. Reeves works in pharmaceutical sales; Coppin runs an entertainment company; Zimbone is an electrician. Another friend, Jenn Beal, is an event planner.
What these twentysomethings share, since Austin’s death, are an even deeper friendship and a keener understanding of how much awareness matters.
“This isn’t just about Hingham, or Boston,” Coppin says. “Everyone knows someone who’s been affected. Everyone says, ‘I never thought they would do it.’ This is an opportunity for a bunch of young people to say, ‘hey, let’s talk about this, and try to change things.”’
To cut through shame and isolation, they say, schools need to address the issue. “A mental health education should be just as important as a sex-ed class,” Beal says.
They will try this weekend to jolt their community into a conversation. Alison Reeves hopes it will be empowering to channel her sadness into action but knows it will also be painful, because it means accepting Austin’s absence.
“I hope he would be proud of it, “ she said. “But it is hard. It becomes a public acknowledgment, that [his death] is real, and it’s permanent.”
. . .
If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts or planning self-harm, there are resources available to help:
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
A 24-hour, toll-free, confidential suicide prevention hot line available to anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Suicide Prevention
An alliance of suicide prevention advocates. The website contains resources and information: www.masspreventssuicide.org
Crisis Text Line
Crisis Text Line is free, 24/7 support for those in crisis. Text 741741 from anywhere in the US to text with a trained Crisis Counselor.
Text 741741 to talk with a real-life human being trained to bring texters from a hot moment to a cool calm through active listening and collaborative problem solving.
Riverside Trauma Center
Offers services and referrals after traumatic events. The center’s Crisis Response Line is answered 24 hours.
The Trevor Helpline
This crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline is focused on LGBTQ youth.