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Westmont

Motorcycle ride raises awareness for suicide prevention

Chris Svitak (right) and his late son, Jimmy, at the Westmont High School graduation in 2009. Since 2014, Chris has mourned the loss of his son, Jimmy, who died by suicide at 23. Now an advocate for suicide prevention, Chris has organized the Ride Away from the Darkness Motorcycle Run on Aug. 17 to raise awareness and benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Photo provided
Chris Svitak (right) and his late son, Jimmy, at the Westmont High School graduation in 2009. Since 2014, Chris has mourned the loss of his son, Jimmy, who died by suicide at 23. Now an advocate for suicide prevention, Chris has organized the Ride Away from the Darkness Motorcycle Run on Aug. 17 to raise awareness and benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Photo provided

WESTMONT – Among many things, Jimmy Svitak was a health nut. On YouTube, he had more than a dozen videos in which he talked about his favorite teas, offering useful tips for beginners or making a shout-out to new tea shop discoveries. In a matter of minutes, the young Svitak easily broke down the how-tos of measuring tea leaves or dove into simple recipes for tea lattes.

Svitak used the kitchen of his Westmont home as his backdrop. Right there, at his table, he would sit with his cup – the steam would slowly rise and brush up against his face. With each sip, a sense of comfort. Looking into the camera, he smacked his lips together and picked out the flavors one by one. More often than not, he liked to open his bags of tea, hold them up close to the camera and then to his nose and describe how they smelled. Some were subtle, flowery, while others were strong and fruity.

For Svitak, these videos started off as a way to share his experiences, but over time, they began to serve another purpose.

The past five years, the YouTube clips became the only way his father, Chris, could see his son and sit across the table from him.

“Every now and then, I go and revisit the videos,” the 54-year-old Chris said. “Just because I want to see his face, you know?”

Chris and his wife, Kelly, always thought Jimmy was happy. Jimmy was outgoing, a “lover of life,” he said.

“He would give you the shirt off his back to help you,” Chris added. “That’s the kind of person he was. So, a normal person, if you will, would have never known. I didn’t know.”

Jimmy committed suicide in 2014. He was 23 years old.

Since then, Chris and his family have worked alongside several organizations to create an awareness for suicide prevention and mental health education. On Aug. 17, Chris has his fundraiser, Ride Away from the Darkness Memorial Motorcycle Run, to honor his son and those who have died by suicide, help those who are struggling with suicidal thoughts and show support for family survivors.

The 70-mile run, which starts at 10 a.m., kicks off at Heritage Harley-Davidson in Lisle and ends at Walsh’s Bar and Grill in Westmont. Proceeds from the event will benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Chris remembers the day it happened. In scenes, he still thinks about that morning: Kelly was on her way to work and Jimmy was all dressed up and about to head out the door. Chris stayed behind and decided to work from home.

It was a cold day in December and Jimmy was looking forward to meeting some friends. They loved to hike down by the Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien.

“This was not unusual,” Chris said, adding that he even asked Jimmy if he was warm enough in his outfit. Before the three of them parted ways, Chris recalled having a good morning with good conversation.

“The day went on,” he said. “Right around, oh, I think, six o’clock that evening, I sent him a text. I go, ‘Are you coming home anytime soon for dinner?’ ... About 10 minutes later, there’s a sheriff that showed up at my driveway to break that news to me.”

From time to time, Chris still reflects on the last moments leading up to Jimmy’s death, only to realize that he’ll never have all the answers. He’ll never understand why. He thinks about the things that were said, as well as the things left unsaid. On that fateful day, Chris didn’t have the chance to say, I love you.

“You stop and wonder, with those three little words, would that have changed [anything]?” he said. “So many things, you don’t know. What could I have done to change it? What could I have done?”

Jimmy’s funeral, which took place just days after the New Year, was the biggest blow, cementing the Svitaks’ tragedy. Chris had trouble coming to grips with the loss of his son and was so ashamed to tell people how he died.

“You know, I made up weird diseases,” he said to avoid talking about it. Back then, Chris, Kelly and their young daughter, Kimmy, didn’t want to even think about it.

But Chris thought about the support – the thoughts, the prayers and the love – he and his family received, especially at the funeral service. Nearly 500 guests, including family, friends and neighbors, came to be with them in their darkest hour.

Through counseling and attending support groups, Chris began his journey to healing. He often went online, read up on studies and research or listened to news segments to better understand warning signs, symptoms and causes of suicide. He sought to be an advocate for suicide prevention, and in order to move forward, he knew he had to share his story.

With that, Chris has a message, especially for parents who might find themselves facing what he and his family went through. He encourages them to be strong and ask, “Are you going to hurt yourself?”

“Don’t ever be afraid to ask the most difficult question in the world,” he said. “Don’t ever be afraid of it. You might not like what you hear, but there’s plenty of resources to help people.”

If you go

What: Ride Away From The Darkness Memorial Motorcycle Run

When: 10 a.m. Aug. 17

Where: Heritage Harley-Davidson, 2595 Ogden Ave., Lisle

More info: www.rideawaymotorcyclerun.org

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