As a little girl from Haiti growing up in the Bahamas, Cynthia Maclean remembers watching her mother in awe. Claiming her greatest superpower to be her courage, Cynthia says she is bold today because she learned courage from her mother first.
“My mother left Haiti on a boat six times and was turned back each time. When she finally got us to the Bahamas, she built a successful business with no formal education and without any family or friends for support. She gave me and my siblings a good life. I know courage because I watched it in action.”
So when Cynthia received the unimaginable phone call in June 2015 to tell her that her late husband took his own life during a business trip to Israel, she reacted in the only way she knew how – with bold courage. When her son asked to leave Miami on a short trip to escape their grief, Cynthia traveled to Boston so that her son could see snow for the first time. And little did she realize, she would end up staying in Massachusetts permanently because her journey would take a surprising turn down a new path – into the world of pageants.
“I became aware of the international pageants system that showcases the accomplishments of married women. I heard Mrs. Florida speak and learned that she was using her platform to raise awareness about sexual abuse, and that’s when it all clicked. I could do something that I love and build awareness about something that deeply affected me.”
This year, Cynthia competed and won the title of Mrs Massachusetts, and in July, she will compete against 60 other women for the title of Mrs. International. With her newfound public platform, Cynthia has decided to shine a light on the need to support widows, especially suicide widows like her.
“I know the experience of grief, of feeling abandoned, of feeling isolated and of not having people to talk to. My way of grieving is through connecting with people and sharing that space. There is stigma in being a widow. People tell me, ‘You don’t look like a widow’ or ‘You must be devastated.’ Widows are put into this category of being old and mourning for the rest of their lives.”
But even with her courage to become Mrs. Massachusetts and to raise awareness about the needs of widows, Cynthia admits that she kept a secret for a long time. While she publicly talked about being a widow with her pageant platform, Cynthia says she hid the fact that her late husband died from suicide. She said that the fear of the stigma was just too great to bear.
“When I became part of the pageants, I would lie and say he died of a heart attack. I was too afraid of the shame, so I kept it a secret. I was afraid of people wondering, ‘What was so bad about Cynthia that her husband wanted to kill himself?’”
Cynthia is grateful to her pageant coach who finally helped her face her fear of the stigma.
“I was having a session with my pageant coach, and she kept asking me why I was so passionate about my cause, and I finally broke down and admitted it. It was the first time in 6.5 years that I allowed my mind to go back to that place where I received that phone call telling me he had died. I never let myself go to that place before. I just kept moving forward. But when I finally said it out loud, I felt free. I no longer felt ashamed. I no longer felt angry.”
And that’s why Cynthia decided to launch her organization called Widows to Windows, which is dedicated to working with organizations and individuals to ensure widows and suicide widows have access to the resources they need to live again.
“When I finally opened up, it revealed to me that there is a community of suicide widows that I never knew existed. There are people like me who stayed in hiding. If I had come out sooner, there would be so many women who would be helped. The stigma is so much larger than the truth.”
Cynthia believes that the time for awareness-building is now, and she has decided to become an ambassador and ally of Samaritans to continue to break the stigma of suicide. Cynthia attended the Breakfast for Hope in May, and she is using her social media presence to build awareness about organizations like Samaritans.
“Samaritans works on suicide prevention, but they also work with people who are affected by it, which a lot of people forget. For each of those people who take their lives, they leave behind wives, husbands, and children – all people who are going through what my son and I went through. I applaud the work that Samaritans is doing.”
At 12.8 million, the United States is the third country in the world with the largest number of widows, and Cynthia believes they are the most underserved female population. She says that she hopes suicide widows will avoid following the path she took when she lost her husband.
“Be honest and get help. Reach out to organizations like Samaritans. You cannot do it alone. There are too many emotions that you have to experience. You are dealing with the guilt of not knowing how to help this person that you love. You are thinking that it’s your fault. You can’t fix this alone. You need help. If I could go back to when I first found out my husband had a mental illness, I would have gotten a microphone, and I would have let people know what I am experiencing. Your own mental health is a priority. Now is the time to stop hiding it.”