ALTAMONT — When David and Barbara Grapka lost their 25-year-old daughter, Lesley Elizabeth, to suicide on Jan. 2, 2007, their first thought was to lock their doors, shut their drapes and deal with their grief alone.
“The next morning at 7:30, the doorbell rang, and it was a close friend who came over just to be here,” recalled Barbara Grapka. “Then people started trickling in to visit and bring us food, and I remember thinking, ‘We don’t have enough chairs for all the people who are coming over just to be with us.’ And we really began to understand what it meant to have support.”
As a way to create awareness and raise funds for mental health issues, they started the LEGacy Project, a nonprofit organization. That project will sponsor “Out of the Darkness: A Musical Celebration of Life” from noon to 9 p.m. Sunday at Northern Lights, Clifton Park. Activities will include live music, food, a silent auction, games and contests.
Admission is $15. All money raised will be donated to The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit organization dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide through research and education that reaches out to people with mood disorders and those affected by suicide.
“We started the LEGacy Project because legacy means ‘what someone leaves behind,’ and our daughter’s name was Lesley Elizabeth Grapka — so the LEG is in capital letters,” explained Barbara Grapka, a reading specialist in the Bethlehem Central School District for 23 years. “We were also getting a lot of donations in Lesley’s name.”
With some of the funds, the couple planted a tree at Northeast Career Planning, where Lesley worked as a vocational-rehabilitation counselor. They also started a $1,000 scholarship at Guilderland Central High School, where Lesley graduated in 1999. She was also a 2003 graduate of Vassar College and earned a master’s degree from Albany State University in counseling/psychology in 2005.
“She was very bright, talented and funny,” recalled her father, project coordinator for Technology Resources for Education Center for BOCES.
The main goal of the LEGacy Project is to raise awareness about suicide prevention.
“It’s too late for us,” said David Grapka. “But part of our healing journey is to try to help others.”
The night of Dec. 31, 2006, Lesley Grapka visited her parents at their home.
“We tried to talk her into staying, but she said she wanted to be with her friends, and that was fine,” recalled her father. “But when she left, she gave us the biggest, longest hugs she had ever given us, and she was crying. She said she wanted to thank us and wish us a happy new year. She got in her car, drove away, and that was the last time we saw her alive.”
Lesley, who had been treated for bipolar disorder for several years, went to her apartment in Albany and wrote her parents a note in which she told them how much she loved them. After calling in sick on Jan. 2, 2007, she took her own life.
Her parents, who had recently returned from a trip to London, remembered they had forgotten to give their daughter a gift they had brought back, and so they called her at work. When they learned she had called in sick, they called her at home. Getting no answer, David Grapka drove to his daughter’s apartment.
“The shades were drawn and the television was on,” he recalled. “I knocked on the door, and no one answered. I couldn’t find her car; so I thought maybe she was with a friend.”
By early evening, when the couple still couldn’t get hold of Lesley, they began to worry, and once again David Grapka drove to his daughter’s apartment.
“I could see she was sitting in a chair against a bay window, and her head had fallen back and pushed the curtains open,” recalled Grapka. “I started screaming and pounding on the door, and when I couldn’t get in, I called 911.”
The next several days are a blur for the couple. Still, they found comfort from the more than 700 people who came to Lesley’s services.
“Depression is a disease, and it’s often a fatal disease,” said David Grapka. “Here was this beautiful, intelligent, loving young woman who took the time to write us a note telling us that it wasn’t our fault, but the grip of depression was so strong, she could not see any other option.”
Barbara Grapka said The LEGacy Project is a good way for the couple to channel their energy and to do something for others.
The idea for the musical celebration grew out of visit the couple had with several of Lesley’s friends who were in a band called Catfish.
“Lesley played the cello in the band, and after she passed away, several of the kids and other kids from high school and college would come to our home and talk to us about her,” recalled Barbara Grapka. “It was very healing for us.”
One of the young women in the band suggested a reunion in honor of Lesley, and before long, it grew into a musical celebration of life. They hope to raise about $4,000.
“I guess what it comes down to is we loved our daughter and were proud of everything she accomplished in her life, and the fact that she did this doesn’t make us love her any less,” said Barbara Grapka.
Mary Jean Coleman, regional director for the Upstate New York chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the stigma associated with mental illness should end.
“It’s time we stopped separating the mind from the body,” she said. “If your loved one has heart disease, we don’t hide that. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”
More than 32,000 people in the United States die by suicide every year. It is this country’s 11th leading cause of death.
If you fear that someone may take their life, always be willing to listen to the person, said Coleman.
“We all have the ability to listen to another human being who is hurting, and then to try to help that person get some help,” she said. “Do not leave them alone until help is available.”
“I still wake up sad or crying some nights,” added David Grapka. “But we learned in our support group that it wasn’t our fault. So some days, we take it one breath at a time. That is how grief-stricken we are. Then it’s one hour at a time. And finally, one day at a time. But trying to do good things in her name is what keeps us going.”
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
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