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Thought Leadership Views From Peachtree

The Impact of a Colleague’s Suicide

Photo by Kelly Jordan

By Jim Durrett, President of the Buckhead Coalition and Executive Director of the Buckhead CID

Much has been written and said about Jeff Parker’s passing on January 14. Erin and the girls are left without a husband and father, and we grieve for them, especially. This is for those who lost a CEO.

I rolled over to check the time on my phone. It was 4:30 a.m. on Saturday, January 15, and there was a text message glaring at me from a senior staff member at MARTA, which I have served as a board member for the past 12 years. “Need to speak with you urgently. Please call at any time.” I got out of bed and typed back to call me when able. Then I checked my email and my heart sank.

Jeff Parker, General Manager and CEO of MARTA, had passed away Friday evening. There were no details about what had happened. A few hours later while speaking on the phone with MARTA’s Board Chairperson, Rita Scott, I found out that Jeff had died by suicide. The memories came rushing back.

It was early in the morning of Friday, June 26, 1998, and I received a phone call from a staff member at the Georgia Conservancy. I was two years into my first job in the nonprofit community, serving the Georgia Conservancy as its COO. The voice on the other end of the line shared the terrible news that my boss and colleague, Carolyn Boyd Hatcher, CEO of the Georgia Conservancy, had died by suicide the night before.

I quickly showered and dressed and drove to the office so that I would be there before any of the staff would arrive. I needed to be sure to meet every colleague to share the awful news before they heard it from another source. I also had to figure out how best to communicate something so devastating. I was all of 41 years old and was flying by the seat of my pants, pretending to be seasoned and wise. It was the worst day of my life and I hope I said and did the right things.

What I vividly remember about the days following Carolyn’s death, is that over and over I asked myself what I might have said or done, or not said or done, to contribute to her decision to take her own life. Was there a warning sign that I had overlooked? Strong feelings of guilt clouded my mind, and I was in complete anguish for a time. My colleagues struggled with many of the same feelings.

Thank goodness I found a nonprofit counseling organization that served survivors of suicide loss. The director of the organization spoke with us as a group to help us understand and come to terms with the feelings we all had. We learned about the difficulties of battling depression, and how well someone who suffers from depression can hide it from others. Most importantly, we learned that our colleague’s death was not our fault.

Just as I was concerned 24 years ago about my fellow Conservancy employees, so am I about the good people with whom Jeff closely worked at MARTA. I wish for them grace and peace.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener, call 1-800-273-8255. Crisis Text Line is a texting service for emotional crisis support. 

To speak with a trained listener, text HELLO to 741741. It is free, available 24/7 and confidential.


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