When Dennis Gillan shared a basement bedroom in his family’s Nyack home with his brother Mark, who was 18-months older, they used to wake up to the sound of their younger brother Matt running downstairs.
The two older brothers would agree to pretend to sleep, and Matt, seven-years younger than Dennis, would run into their room. He’d poke his older brothers, lift their eyelids and try to wake them up until Dennis and Mark couldn’t contain their giggles.
“Matt was the baby of the family,” said Dennis Gillan, who also has two sisters. “He was just a great kid.”
As for Mark, Dennis Gillan said his brother was great with his hands.
“He could fix anything,” Gillan said. “He would take things apart and put them back together. I really wish he was around for the computer age. I would’ve loved to see what he could’ve done.”
Mark Gillan didn’t reach the computer age because in 1983 he committed suicide at 21-years-old. In 1994, at 24-years-old, Matt Gillan committed suicide as well.
“It’s just a terrible feeling,” Dennis Gillan said. “I wouldn’t wish it on the devil himself.”
On Sept. 30, Gillan and 30-plus friends and family will be participating in the Out of the Darkness walk, a nationwide event that helps to raise money for the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention. The Rockland County walk is at Rockland Lake from 3-4:30 p.m. So far, Gillan’s team, named Eternal Love, has raised nearly $11,000. Many of those walking with him graduated from Nyack High School with Gillan in 1981.
“The people that we grew up with, the community that we grew up with, is very different than it is now. We always maintained friendships. We were a very close class,” Laureen Gallo, who is participating in the walk and had a cousin commit suicide more than two years ago. “I am overwhelmed with response. It just shows how much friendships really mean to people.”
Gillan hasn’t been back to Rockland in about three years, as he now lives in Columbia, S.C. He has a sister who lives in Pearl River and another sister who lives in Orange County. Last year, Gillan participated in his first Out of the Darkness Walk in Columbia. He raised more than $9,000 alone, with many donations coming from people back in Rockland.
“Last year was sort of easy,” he said. “I was miles away from everyone who knew my story, from everyone who knew my brothers. This year I’m upping the ante. I’m coming home.”
As if the weekend wasn’t already going to be filled with memories of his brothers, both are buried at Gethsemane Cemetery near Rockland Lake.
“This is personal,” he said. “It’s forcing me to go back. It’s forcing me to heal.”
Thinking back to his brothers’ deaths, Gillan said he wished he handled Mark’s death differently. When his older brother died, Gillan was away at the University of West Virginia. He said he had to travel about eight hours to get home for the funeral, and he still hadn’t processed his brother’s death by the time he reached Nyack. After the funeral and few days at home, he returned to school.
“I tried to mask it,” he said. “I partied like it was 1999, which was still relevant at the time because it was only 1983. I just kept drinking. My GPA and blood alcohol level were on a collision course.”
Gillan said he wished he spent more time at home after his older brother’s death, maybe taken a semester off to be with his family. When Matt died, Dennis Gillan was married and handled the situation a bit differently.
“It was just a shock. I couldn’t believe it happened again. I went and got professional help for the first time,” he said. “I couldn’t dump that on my wife. It’s just too much baggage to put on one person.”
It was also around that time that Gillan and his wife were trying to have their first child, but just couldn’t seem to get pregnant. Gillan didn’t know where to turn and so he prayed.
“I just couldn’t believe what was going on, between not getting pregnant and Matt’s death,” he said. “I just told God, ‘if you give us a baby, I’ll never drink again.’”
Gillan’s oldest son is turning 17 this year, and Gillan himself hasn’t had a drink in more than 18 years.
“From the lowest point in my life came the highest,” he said.
And that’s part of the reason he wants to participate in the walk and reach out to help others. One unexpected thing to come from participating in the events, Gillan said, has been learning other people’s stories of going through similar times.
“You think you’re the only one,” he said. “Then you learn there are so many people who unfortunately have similar stories. I was getting emails from people. I had a woman come up to me in a super market and tell me her first husband committed suicide, and I had no idea. It’s just not something people talk about.”
For a long time, Gillan was one of those people. He did’t really tell many people about his brothers’ deaths. In fact, he never told people.
“There are people I’ve gone on vacation with who had no idea I ever even had brothers,” he said.
But last year that changed when Gillan participated in the Out of the Darkness walk.
During board meetings, Gillan said everyone would go around the room and say why they were participating in the walk. At first, it was difficult for Gillan to talk about. He choked up a lot. He still chokes up when talking about them, but not as much. He also was asked to talk at the event after the race was over.
It was one of the first times he really tried to talk about his brothers’ deaths. Gillan said he’s always wanted to help others who have similar stories, or help others avoid having similar stories. While living in Chicago, Gillan worked for a suicide hotline one night a week.
“I wasn’t Dennis Gillan, though. I was Marty,” he said. “You didn’t use real names. You were just anonymous. I liked helping people and talking to people, but I didn’t want anyone to know what I was doing. My kids didn’t even know.”
When he moved to South Carolina, he looked for a similar hotline but couldn’t find one. Instead, he found the Out of Darkness walk, and after some prodding from a local American Foundation For Suicide Prevention member, he signed up to organize the event, and eventually walk.
After seeing all the support from former classmates and friends, Gillan learned of a Rockland walk and decided it was a good idea to form a team and head home.
“Last year was about my two brothers,” he said. “This year it’s about everyone else. We’re all in this together. I want to try and make sure nobody else has to go through what I went through.”