Shining light on mental illness: Alberta man honours late wife with sunrise walk

Four years after his wife took her own life, Gary Unger now finds solace in the sunrise.

'She took her life and shattered my world'

Chantelle Hall took her own life in July 2015. She had struggled with depression since childhood. (Gary Unger)

Four years after his wife took her own life, Gary Unger now finds solace in the sunrise.

Unger is the founder of the Edmonton chapter of Darkness into Light, a suicide prevention walk timed to coincide with the dawn.

On Saturday, as thousands of people around the world gather to walk into the morning light, Unger will help lead a group of Edmontonians out of the dark.

"A lot of the people that are walking have lost someone to suicide or are on their own journey, maybe suffering from depression or PTSD," Unger said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"We start in the darkness and we walk into the light as the sun rises. We want to bring people who are suffering into the light and give them hope, to help them on that journey."

'A step in the right direction'

Saturday's five-kilometre walk at Victoria Park is the second-annual event in Edmonton. About 200 Edmontonians joined the walk last year. Nearly 400 people have registered so far for this year.

"We expect to have 250,000 people worldwide, all walking in solidarity to break the stigma and to support each other," said Unger.

"Whether you are suffering or you've lost someone, you know that people are walking the same path. It's a small step but it's a step in the right direction."

She used to say I was her rock, and when she was in a dark place she could reach out and grab me and pull herself out.- Gary Unger

Unger's advocacy was borne out of personal tragedy.

His wife, Chantelle Hall, had struggled with depression since childhood. He did his best to support her but didn't realize how much the disease had taken hold.

"It was not who she was. It was a disease that she suffered from," said Unger, who lives in the Alberta Beach area. "She was an amazing person. She was the kindest, the biggest heart that you've ever met."

Depression was always a spectre in their relationship, Unger said. 

"We never talked about it when we needed to talk about it, because when things were good, you didn't want to make things bad," he recalled.

"She used to say I was her rock, and when she was in a dark place she could reach out and grab me and pull herself out. But I didn't get it."

When Chantelle died on July 9, 2015, Unger felt like his life was irreparably broken.

She was his soulmate. He would have to raise their children, Adia and Eli, alone. 

"She took her life and shattered my world," he said. "At the time, my daughter was 16 and my son was two years old, and I just didn't know how to go on, how to continue."

Gary Unger, chair of the local Darkness Into Light organizing committee, brought the event to Edmonton to honour his late wife. (Gary Unger/Facebook)

'We need to talk about'

When Unger's daughter participated in a walk in Calgary a couple years ago, he said, it felt surreal watching her cross the finish line.

Suddenly, he felt compelled to do something, to make a difference. Within weeks, he was assembling a committee of volunteers and organizing Edmonton's inaugural event.

Though Unger, 47, said he could never comprehend what drove his wife to suicide, the walk is a time for him to reflect on her life and offer compassion for those who are still fighting.

"If you don't suffer from depression or anxiety, you really can't understand it. I could never say that I understood what Chantelle was going through.

"I still don't get it. But we need to talk about it, try to understand and show people who are suffering that we do support them."

Saturday's walk, set to begin shortly after 4 a.m., will start and finish at the Victoria Park Pavilion. Participants must register in advance, online.

Alberta's Mental Health Help Line is available 24 hours a day. If you need help, call 1-877-303-2642.