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Together, Fighting the Darkness

February 11, 2019
Bill Luppold of Tyngsboro joins event organizer Nancy Cook of Westford, center, and keynote speaker Kristin Leary, a former Chelmsford police officer, during the gala fundraiser hosted by the suicide prevention group Team Forever Young on Saturday night at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. SUN / Julia Malakie Sun staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

LOWELL -- Mary Ellen McGrath would give to others until there was nothing left to give, her younger sister Lori Welch recalls.

McGrath, a mother of two children, was Welch’s best friend, her “go to,” her other half.

“That was my life,” Welch said.

Rose Thoman, McGrath’s mother, takes the time to find a photo of her daughter. In the image, McGrath’s face is lit up by her smile.

“There she is,” Thoman said. “My beautiful girl. She was a very kind person. Loving.”

During the late ’90s, McGrath was attacked by multiple men during a walk on Cape Cod. McGrath would later tell her mother she held her breath so her attackers would think she was dead and end the assault. She was then dumped in a nearby field.

Thoman said her daughter was never the same. The attack led to multiple surgeries and relentless counseling. McGrath was diagnosed as bipolar and as suffering from PTSD.

Thoman and Welch, and the rest of the tight-knit family, provided endless support and love for McGrath. The darkness consumed her anyway.

Thoman said she talked to McGrath for two hours by phone the night she took her life in May 2017. Thoman recalls McGrath pitching a grim scenario to her, which began with, “If I ever had a heart attack ... .” This was a scenario McGrath often pitched, Thoman said.

Later that night, McGrath’s oldest daughter, who was in her early 30s at the time, went to her mother’s Milford home. She found the 56-year-old McGrath in the basement, hanging from a rope tied around her neck.

“It’s never been the same,” Thoman said, wiping away a tear.

Welch and Thoman shared the heartbreak of losing their loved one during an event held by suicide prevention group Team Forever Young on Saturday night at the UMass Lowell Inn and Conference Center. The “Team Forever Young Celebration,” which sold out its 350-seat venue, was held to bring awareness to suicide prevention efforts and to raise money for the cause.

“This group has helped us so much,” Thoman said. “With it, you know you’re not alone.”

Welch, a Townsend resident, joined the Westford-based group Team Forever Young after her sister died.

“I had to find something positive,” Welch said. “Having this happen to me, I want to help people not have it happen to them.”

Before Saturday night’s gala began, around $25,000 had been raised through the event, according to Nancy Cook, captain of Team Forever Young. The hope was they would break $30,000 before the night ended. The money raised will be provided to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Team Forever Young raised more than $100,000 for the group last year.

“We believe in AFSP’s mission to decrease suicides and save lives,” Cook said.

In 10 years, Team Forever Young has raised in excess of $500,000.

The life-saving potential of groups like Team Forever Young was exhibited by Saturday night’s keynote speaker Kristen Leary. Leary, a former Chelmsford police officer and mother of one, was involved in two non-fatal officer-involved shootings during her 18 years on the force.

“There were moments when the pain was so bad, the hallucinations, the flashbacks, the depression and anxiety,” said Leary, before she addressed the crowd Saturday. “It was a lot until I learned how to figure out what my triggers were to get through them. Two years later, I’m still standing here.”

Burdened from the first shooting at Sully’s Ice Cream Stand in July 2016, and the death of her friend Billy Duggan -- a Westford cop, who took his own life -- Leary was in search of help. Cook directed her to Onside Academy, a facility for first responders and veterans in Westminster, where Leary was treated for PTSD.

“It saved my life,” Leary said during her address. “I continued to power through for my son, and it was the best thing I did. If I didn’t have the things in place to take care of myself, the mental health capacity from the counseling, I never ever would have survived.”

In July 2017, Leary again found herself involved in another officer-involved shooting. Leary said she was forced to shoot the suspect, who was wielding a hammer and a large shard of glass while holding his girlfriend hostage.

After the incident, Leary decided to retire from the force and is now working to break the PTSD stigma first responders face. She is in the process of receiving a social work license, which will allow her to focus on trauma counseling for first responders.

“Breaking the stigma for police, for fire, for paramedics, it has to be there,” Leary said during her address. “We have to be able to speak our minds and not be afraid to lose our jobs. We have to be able to take care of our first responders, or they won’t be able to take care of us.”

Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis.

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