This post was written by Helene Newberg. Helene is an avid runner and a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist in Arlington, Massachusetts.
In 2012, I was out of town on Patriot’s Day. Watching social media for Boston Marathon news, I started seeing reports that a student was found drowned in a local pond, less than a mile from our house. My heart sank; I did not want to believe that a child maybe from my community could die on what was reported to be a gorgeous day – marathoners were suffering in surprise early heat, but for others the warmth would be welcome.
Over the next several hours, the story emerged. Foul play was not suspected and, yes, the child was the sixteen year old daughter of friends we had known since our daughter’s first day of kindergarten. Shaira suffered from depression and died by suicide. I knew Shaira as loud and brilliant and creative and gorgeous.
Our hearts broke for our friends, Shaira’s family, who had done everything possible to support their daughter, whom I knew they loved and cherished with their every breath.
Years ago, a friend who knew me as a runner asked if I would support a new fundraising race for Samaritans. I thought I was in for a depressing experience, raising money for suicide prevention. It was anything but. One of Samaritan’s goals is to remove the stigma from loss by suicide. The 5K day is a chance to “run for someone else’s life,” supporting helplines and ongoing survivor services.
Last year, with the help of a teen Samaritans volunteer from Shaira’s youth group community, we built a 5K team with members from her home, school, and faith communities. Her dad said running is #7 on the list of things that made Shaira happy, so we called ourselves “Team #7 Running.”
I had run marathons before, but never Boston. Not fast enough to qualify, I had never been motivated enough to take on the fundraising commitment, although like many I really wanted to run the storied course.
Consoling anyone in the wake of such a loss seemed futile. However, I knew the family was active and I offered to be company on short runs. It was on one of these runs that I asked about applying for a John Hancock Charity Program Boston Marathon number for Samaritans to honor Shaira’s memory. My thought was that I could use tools I had available – including my near-obsessive passion for distance running – to be supportive in this time of loss.
The idea was a win all around. Samaritans would get needed support. I would spread the word about this resource for those in need and for kids who might volunteer. The community would have a place in which to continue supporting Shaira’s family. I would get to run Boston. All I had to do was raise more than $5,000 and train for a marathon.
My fundraising efforts were humbling. I almost didn’t have to ask and donations poured in.
Six weeks before the marathon, my knee fell apart. I restricted my training and was almost certain I should not start the race. My community support never wavered.
For the one year anniversary of Shaira’s death, her family held a prayer service at their mosque. There I reunited with some of the 5K team and made new friends who lent me a headscarf (but did not insist I cover up), showed me where to stow my shoes and where to sit in meditative prayer for the hour before brief remarks by Shaira’s family and Imam. I opened an English translation of the Qu’ran to page one and gained a deeper appreciation for the strength Shaira’s family finds in their faith and their faith community.
A week later, I got on the bus for Hopkinton, nervous about my injury. I wound up with the best running day of my life. Crowds cheering Boston Marathoners are the best spectators on earth. I flew past my cheering section. I was going to finish this thing. After six weeks of not running, Shaira was with me. I felt amazing.
Until 2:50pm. I heard strange fireworks sounds up ahead, then sirens and helicopters, and finally I pulled off the course at mile 25.2 where my personal story becomes far less important than other things that happened that week.
As what many feared became true – the perpetrators had some vague connection to Islamic extremist ideology – a detail of my story that I had not given second thought began to attract attention. As Muslims across the country braced for anti-Muslim backlash, I had run this now hyper-symbolic marathon in memory of a beautiful, beloved Muslim girl who struggled with mental illness. I am blessed to live in a community where support for all, regardless of faith, is the norm.
Shaira, you and I have unfinished business. We’re not done yet. You propelled me through 25.2 miles. I pledge to cover the entire distance next year. You bet I’m all in. Who’s with me?
In times like these, when our different faiths are more likely to tear us apart than to bring us together, it is vitally important that we stand with one another on the side of love, working with interfaith partnerships to strengthen and support our neighbors and our communities. Thank you for your support of Standing on the Side of Love as we work toward this goal.