Simsbury family honors son’s legacy by working to stop stigma

Walk & Talk for Hope set for Nov. 26

By Paul Palmer

Staff Writer

The last photo of Connor.

Connor Johnson was a fighter and battler his entire life. Described by his parents as a sensitive kid in touch with the feelings of others, the family now hopes his story will help others.

“For kids like that there are pros and cons because you feel everything more intensely,” said his mother Lisa Johnson. “He was dealing with intense emotions through middle school, high school and college and he struggled with how to deal with some of those emotions and feelings.”

He also was battling addiction problems as well as mental health issues.

“Early in his 20’s he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and I think that sent him spiraling further and he ended up getting a stem cell transplant in Boston,” his mother said. “That’s when we found out that he was addicted to opioids.”

“We did not know he and had to come clean when he had the cancer diagnosis,” added his father, Scott.

His mother says Connor’s methadone dependency increased during his recovery from cancer, and he ended up at a rehab center.

“It was the day after his birthday. We talked to him on his birthday and we knew he did not sound good so we kept saying ‘we’ll talk tomorrow.’ When we talked to him he knew that we loved him. We encouraged him in his journey and had a very positive conversation with him,” said Lisa. His mother said it was a parent’s nightmare being so far away from their child when they were so vulnerable. That nightmare became a reality early that next morning.

Connor Johnson (third from right) With His Family.

“The doorbell rang here in the morning, like 2,3,4 in the morning I can’t remember the time and it was a nightmare,” said Scott.

Connor had died by suicide one day after his 25th birthday in 2016, miles from his family and those that loved him the most. His parents were soon engulfed in a world they had never dreamed of-dealing with the death by suicide of a child or loved one. In his case, Connor also had to deal with the stigma of mental health and substance addiction. His father said that many people that find themselves in that same situation try to self-medicate.

“That’s part of the stigma; that you don’t want to tell anyone something is wrong with you. We always say it’s OK not to be OK,” Scott said. “ I don’t know what Connor was thinking because he was very loved and very loving but he must have said I can’t live with drugs and I can’t live without them.”

To honor the life and goals of Connor and to help others that find themselves dealing with suicide, they launched Honor Connor/Hold Onto Hope to help educate, provide resources and bring the conversation into the public. “After we lost Connor we didn’t know where to turn as parents who lost a child to suicide – what do you do now?” Lisa recounted. “ I felt like I had a scarlet letter – like ‘that’s the family that lost a kid to suicide what did they do wrong. I don’t want to be near the or that would never happen to my family.’ We want to help families that are going through that type of loss because we realize it’s such a stigmatized loss.” She and Scott both say that they want people to understand that there is nothing you did wrong as a family. They said there were longtime friends that stopped talking with them, not because they were scared, but rather because they had no idea what to say. But the Johnson’s said that it is alright if you don’t know what to say to someone that has lost a loved one to suicide, most people do not. But they said just being there for the families and loved ones goes a long way.

“We created Hold Onto Hope to help people who have had suicide loss and those who want to learn how to support those that have experienced suicide loss, “Lisa said. The 90-minute program is interactive and works to educate people about the stigma of suicide. The program offers resources for finding providers, having conversations and helping the recovery process. It is offered free as a virtual seminar every first Thursday of the month and can be found at their website https://honorconnor.org/.

The Johnsons encourage community groups, schools, houses of worship, and employers to embrace their effort as suicide effects more than just the immediate family. “For every one person that dies by suicide, there are 100 people that are impacted, Lisa said. “As we look at the numbers of people who continue to die by suicide, especially after COVID, and as that number goes up, the number of people impacted by that also grows so that it is hard to find somebody that you meet that has not been impacted in some way. If you don’t know somebody right now, you are going to know somebody and that’s why it is important to get educated.”

In addition to the education program, Honor Connor and Hold Onto Hope continue to create ways for families and friends to have simple conversation that they said go beyond the everyday.

“The Saturday after Thanksgiving,’ Scott said “ is the Walk and Talk for Hope. You take a walk and talk with your family and friends about stuff that matters. We’ve developed things that are conversation starters that we provide to talk to friends, kids, teens.” Lisa added, “If something does come up in those conversations, we have resource cards to help you know where to turn. Scott says it is as simple as talking a walk down the street and talking and listening. There will be a Walk and Talk Gathering from 10 a.m. to noon on Nov. 26 along Iron Horse Boulevard in Simsbury. Honor Connor/Hold Onto Hope will have some information tables set-up along the route as well to help get the message out and provide lists of resources. “My dream is to have 30 million people walking and talking the Saturday after Thanksgiving and actually having a real conversation, Scott said. “Just in the US, think about all the families and friendships that can be developed if you have meaningful conversations.

Visit https://honorconnor.org/ to register or donate.

Lisa and Scott Johnson stand in front of a garden dedicated to their son Connor.

Lisa and Scott say that like not knowing what to say to the families and loved ones of someone that dies by suicide, most people are afraid to bring up the word in a conversation with someone. “There’s always this belief that if I talked to my loved ones about suicide I’m going to put that idea into their heads, but it is completely the opposite,” counseled Lisa. “The dark part of it is them not talking about it. They need to have someone bring up the future. What would the future look like without you? I think when a lot of people get in those dark places they start thinking that everybody is going to be better off without me.”

This past March, the Honor Project was rolled out. It gives people a place to post their thoughts and feelings about someone they have lost or someone that has helped them survive.

“One of the big ways to stop stigmas is to share stories,” Connor’s father said. “Mental health, suicide, and addiction impact so many families in the Farmington Valley. One of Connors wishes was to help others with mental health and addiction issues. ”

From the perspective and knowledge they have gained, the Johnsons know that they and Connor are making a difference. “We want to offer the message of hope. You always have the grief it is part of your life, but you can live with hope that you never thought you’d have. Your life definitely changes.”


‘LOVE’

By Connor Johnson

I now realize that love is the essence of life,

it opens your eyes to blessings unseen with a grateful heart.

When I am struggling to connect and relate to others,

it becomes so clear that love is what I should have been sharing all along.

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