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A place to remember those who died by suicide

Community effort gaining traction for a “place of hope” in Roxbury park

Kiera McDonald
A place to remember those who died by suicide
Local officials are supporting restoration plans for this Roxbury park. PHOTO: KIERA MCDONALD

Toy Burton knew she wanted to honor loved ones lost by suicide, and began an effort to restore an abandoned park, King Street Play Area, close to her long-time Roxbury home.

Burton’s older sister had died by suicide in 1986 at the age of 23, and she realized there was a lack of memorials for loved ones left to grieve.

She founded a suicide prevention support service and launched a special effort to create space in the city where loved ones could mourn. She also applied for grant funding, contacted city councilors, and received approval to restore the park near her home. In honor of her sister Denita Shayne Morris, also known as DeeDee, Burton named the park, which is not yet open, Denita Morris Memorial Hope Park.

“It’s time for Boston and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to wrap its arms around the suicide loss community. I want this park to be for those impacted by suicide but I also want it to be a place of hope for those who are still struggling,” said Burton, the founder and executive director of DeeDee’s Cry, a suicide prevention and family support organization.

Burton, who said she survived a suicide attempt herself, said it was critical to provide a place of “awareness and comfort,” because lives lost by suicide matter too.

When she saw that groups focused on suicide prevention were ignoring Boston’s Black and brown communities, she founded DeeDee’s Cry in 2017.

“It made me angry, because we need suicide prevention too,” Burton said.

Suicide prevention has largely focused on white communities in the past, and Burton said she had grown up hearing the misconception that Black people don’t die by suicide.

“That’s not true, because my sister died by suicide, and I also tried to take my own life,” Burton said. “There’s a stigma around it.”

Suicide among Black people increased by nearly 4% from 2021 to 2022, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. Part of the mission of DeeDee’s Cry is to give underserved communities access to resources on suicide prevention and loss and mental health education.

“We work to normalize the conversation, that it’s okay to ask for help, that we don’t have to suffer in silence, because we don’t want it to get to the point where people feel that suicide is the only option,” said Burton.

State Sen. Liz Miranda wrote her a letter of support. And after she addressed the Boston City Council, Tania Fernandes Anderson, the Roxbury city councilor, recognized her efforts as well.

Burton also started the Roxbury Unity Parade, and she used the event to talk about the planned memorial and DeeDee’s Cry. 

“It’s a beautiful space, but there is nothing there,” Burton said,  adding that she planned to add a “coming soon” banner over the fence. “The park doesn’t even have a name on it, and I thought this would be a beautiful space to activate my idea.”

Taniah Sheffield, special events coordinator at DeeDee’s Cry and Burton’s daughter, grew up playing with DeeDee’s son, who was “like a brother” to her. She said she “absolutely believes in the mission” and is supporting her mother in every way.

“To have a park, it’s not necessarily to celebrate how they died, but to at least acknowledge that our loved ones were here, that they meant something to us, and the way that they died shouldn’t bring shame to families and to people the way it does,” Sheffield said.

She shared her own experience of being frustrated by the lack of necessary services and resources for mental health and suicide prevention in Black communities.

“We’re human too,” Sheffield said. “We may have different issues, but we are experiencing this.”

She said individuals are becoming more open to discussing their struggles with mental health over time.

“I don’t think we’re there at all, as far as resources go, but definitely the conversation has been brought to the forefront and it has been elevated,” she said.

Sheffield sees the park as a place where people can “come out of the dark” about their loved ones who died by suicide.

“It would help people to accept how their loved one died and to be in community with others who had loved ones who died by suicide,” Sheffield said.

The Rev. Mary Margaret Earl, executive director and senior minister at Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, said she has connected closely with “neighbors” Burton and DeeDee’s Cry.

She expressed her support for the initiative to create a park acknowledging suicide, and provided a letter of support endorsing the Community Preservation Act funding.

“We believe strongly that they would be a very worthy recipient of any funds to make this a reality,” Earl said.

She described the park’s current state as “very dreary, and not welcoming,” and she believes Burton’s plan to transform it into “a place of peace and beauty, inspiration, and quiet calm” will be beneficial to the neighborhood.

“There’s a lot of amazing work that’s happening overall in this neighborhood by longtime residents who have done really important shepherding,” Earl said. “And so this is just another piece in that puzzle of continuing to nurture and love the spaces that are in and around this Roxbury neighborhood.”

DeeDee’s Cry, Denita Morris Memorial Hope Park, King Street Play Area, roxbury, State Sen. Liz Miranda, suicide prevention