Bridget McCarthy lost her son Riley in 2020, two weeks after his 16th birthday, during the height of lockdown. A proud member of the LGBTQ community and a talented artist, Riley experienced bullying throughout high school. At a time when close friends were vitally important, he experienced further isolation as a result of the pandemic. Devastated by Riley’s death and determined to make a difference, Bridget organized her own ‘campus-to-campus’ Walk, gathering two dozen friends and neighbors who walked from Culver City High School to Santa Monica High School, two schools Riley had attended, with homemade signs and sponsorship from 16 local businesses, raising $13,655 for AFSP.
Now a board member for AFSP’s Greater Los Angeles and Central Coast Chapter and co-chair of the Santa Monica Out of the Darkness Walk, Bridget was recently awarded ‘Outstanding Hero of the Year Award for Advocacy’ by the Department of Mental Health (DMH) & Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Network. She has also made it her mission to work with schools to ensure they have the proper knowledge and resources for students, parents and faculty.
“Connecting with other parents has been transformative. No one understands like another parent who has suffered the loss of a child from suicide. It rattles your belief systems, habits, identity. You question what you could or should have done. When I first connected with AFSP, I was still in shock and full of questions. But someone said, ‘You keep asking questions until you no longer need the answers.’ Hearing that, I didn’t feel quite so alone. I found solace and connection, and it set my life on a new path.
In August 2021, I became the Sponsorship Committee chair for my first Out of the Darkness Walk. During the Honor Bead ceremony, I presented the white beads: white for the loss of a child. The Honor Bead Ceremony is a powerful part of the event for me. The beads help me identify other parents who have lost a child. When you look around and see a sea of white beads, you seek those people out. Introductions aren’t needed. You just fall into their arms in understanding of their loss. It’s very healing.
Connecting with other parents has been transformative.
Since co-chairing the Santa Monica Walk in 2022 and 2023, I have helped recruit many high schools within L.A. to create teams and participate. One of Riley’s teachers broke down in tears and shared that he had lost a brother in high school. Teachers are in full support of our Walks: They are desperate for help and support. This year, I secured a $10,000 sponsorship from the City of Santa Monica, as well as getting the city’s Mayor to shoot a promo and the Vice Mayor to speak at the Walk.
The awareness we create through the Walks emanates out into the community. Every time I table at a school or event, I meet someone who validates why I should be there. One day I was doing outreach on Grand View Boulevard in Mar Vista, holding a sandwich-board style sign. A woman burst out of the car and ran over, engine running, yelling, ‘It’s a sign!’ She was in distress, and had been having trouble finding a therapist. I encouraged her and gave her my number. A week later, she called and told me she had had a plan to take her life that day. Instead, after speaking with me, she drove herself to the hospital and checked herself in. ‘Thank you,’ she told me. ‘You saved my life.’
That sign I was holding had been made by a teenage friend of Riley’s who has also struggled, and had found a sense of connection through our work. Contributing to this cause has given so many of us a sense of purpose. That’s why I walk.”