Her employer, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, released the video this month as part of Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month.
One of the leading causes of death, suicides in the United States increased by nearly 3% between 2021 and 2022, when 49,449 people of all ages took their lives, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s provisional data. Nearly 80% of those who died by suicide last year were men.
Among the many groups in America working to stop such deaths is the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a nonprofit research and education organization. Harlow-Parker’s family created the Jeffrey Parker Memorial Fund, which has raised more than $95,000 for the foundation’s efforts.
“We are very grateful to Erin and everything she has done in the way of mental health advocacy and suicide prevention,” said Chelsea Piatt, associate area director for the foundation’s Georgia chapter. “It’s very powerful when people can come out and share their personal stories.”
‘We grew up together’
Harlow-Parker met her husband in 1985 at a party at Northeastern University in Boston, where he was studying. Born five days apart, they were both 19. She remembers he was tall, had curly blond hair and was funny. Their first conversations went well. She found him sweet.
A few days later, he called to ask her out on a date. They ate at an Italian restaurant in Boston’s North End and then walked through the city’s Public Garden, where they playfully threw snowballs at each other and laughed. Four years later, he dropped to one knee on a bridge at the same garden and proposed. In all, they stuck together for nearly 37 years.
“There were definitely challenges. And things weren’t always perfect,” she said. “But it was a really good run. It truly was. We grew up together.”
They raised two daughters. He was a dedicated father, consistently attending his children’s lacrosse games and dance recitals.
Possessing a “goofball” sense of humor, he intentionally used air quotes the wrong way, signaling the punctuation with only one finger on each hand instead of two to get a laugh out of his friends and family. He also amused people with his native Connecticut accent, pronouncing “idea” as “idear.”
Now grown, his daughters fondly recalled his sense of humor in the video released by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
“He was really funny,” Izzy said.
Gabrielle responded: “He was hilarious. Sometimes it would annoy us. But I would do anything to hear jokes again from him.”
Parker was a devoted New England Patriots fan who wore a red, white and blue blazer with the team’s logo. But he also loved the now defunct Hartford Whalers professional hockey team. And he rooted for the Boston Red Sox.
Parker rode the New York City subway with his parents when he was a boy and was passionate about mass transit. Whenever he traveled abroad, according to Harlow-Parker, he always sought to use public transportation “even if it meant his wife had to lug luggage on a train and wasn’t too happy about doing it at times.”
While studying at Northeastern, Parker interned for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Once he graduated, he went to work for the MBTA, rising in the ranks to leadership roles there. Parker also worked at Virginia-based Parsons Corp., an infrastructure engineering firm, and served as Connecticut’s transportation commissioner. He dreamed about running a transit agency, his wife said, and was deeply proud to become MARTA’s CEO in 2018. She remembers the ecstatic tone in his voice when he called her with the news that year, telling her, “Erin, I got it.”
Georgia leaders heaped praise on Parker in the days following his death.
“He had an incredible mind for transportation and logistics and a heart for people,” Gov. Brian Kemp said. “He will be greatly missed.”
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens said of Parker, “Jeff understood that MARTA is more than just a transportation system — it represents connectivity for residents and visitors of our great city and region.”
Later that month, the mayor joined many of the Atlanta region’s other top elected officials in helping fill the pews for his memorial service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta.
“Know that you are loved,” state Sen. Kim Jackson, vicar at Episcopal Church of the Common Ground, told the mourners. “Suicide is not the answer. And, my friends, you are never, never alone.”
Parker’s daughters read from the Wisdom of Solomon. Friends from Boston to Atlanta spoke of Parker’s integrity, intelligence and his love of his native Connecticut. Harlow-Parker stepped up to the podium and urged everyone there to speak openly about mental health.
“Many of you have asked the standard question: ‘What can I do to help?’” she said. “This is what you can do to help: Stop seeing feelings of sadness, anger and anxiety, etcetera, as signs of weakness, some things that should not be expressed or shared.
“Feelings are neither good nor bad. They just are. Allow yourself to feel and express them all. Take care of your whole self. That means your physical health and your emotional health. They are both equally as important to your wellbeing and are interconnected.”
Knowing there were lawmakers among the mourners, she also asked the audience to help push for policies that would improve access to affordable mental health care.
Finally, a trombonist (Parker played the trombone growing up and took lessons after he moved to Georgia) performed “Brass Bonanza,” the theme song for Parker’s beloved Whalers. Then he played Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline,” a standby for the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park.
Sharing her family’s story
Harlow-Parker is sharing her family’s story publicly in other ways now. For Suicide Prevention and Awareness Month, for example, she showed the video about her family’s experience recently to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s Cobb County Community Board.
“It was the absolute best training I have ever done in my entire career because I could see the faces and I could see that I got through to people in a way that I had never gotten through before,” said Harlow-Parker, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta’s manager of child advocacy programs for behavioral mental health.
“When you stand in front of them with your own personal story and they just watched you and your kids talk about it — it had a whole other layer such that I am going to be using it, when appropriate, in other teaching opportunities.”
Harlow-Parker seeks to dispel what she calls misconceptions about suicide, including the idea that talking about it can make people consider taking their own lives. She has also heard from people that she and her husband and daughters “didn’t look like the kind of family that this would happen to — that everything looked perfect.”
“It speaks to this idea and misconception that suicide only happens to certain kinds of people or kinds of families,” she said. “And we know that suicide doesn’t discriminate and that it crosses all races, socioeconomic statuses, ethnicities, everything.”
“Jeff was the life of the party,” she added. “He did not have a diagnosable mental illness, which is another myth — that you must have a mental health diagnosis to die by suicide. We know that is not in fact accurate. Jeff didn’t. But, clearly, he was suffering.”
It’s important, she added, not to dismiss comments from people who talk about dying by suicide and to think they won’t harm themselves.
“It doesn’t mean you have to have all the answers or know exactly the perfect things to say,” she said. “What you say is: ‘I am very worried about the fact that you are talking about wanting to end your life or wanting to hurt yourself. And because I love you, I am going to bring you somewhere so we can talk about this and we can get help.’”
Need help? Call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Donations can be made online here to the Jeffrey Parker Memorial Fund for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.