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Don’t Waste the Pain: Dennis Gillan #104

Warwick Fairfax

February 15, 2022

Giving his pain a purpose was the lesson this week’s guest, Dennis Gillan, learned when he took his tentative first steps as a suicide prevention speaker – as a man whose two brothers took their own lives 11 years apart. Gillan shares the devastation he experienced in the aftermath of his brothers’ suicides – but also the strength and hope he’s found by embracing what he’s discovered is the call on his life: to inspire others to how to use the trauma of their crucibles to live lives of significance. The one practical tip you want to make extra sure you listen for? The Purple File.

To learn more about Dennis Gillan and his nonprofit the Half a Sorrow Foundation, visit www.halfasorrow.org

Highlights

  • Growing up in idyllic circumstances in New York (2:44)
  • The suicide of his brother Mark and its effects 4:40)
  • How he dealt with (or avoided dealing with) his older brother’s suicide (7:45)
  • The suicide of his younger brother, Matthew (10:52)
  • Why he quit drinking in order to stabilize himself emotionally (12:55)
  • Running to God after trying to run away from him (15:24)
  • His first tentative steps as a speaker (17:03)
  • Why, and how, he pursued a calling as a suicide prevention speaker (20:17)
  • The importance of forgiving himself (23:43)
  • How he grew as a speaker (26:50)
  • How sharing his pain has eased his pain (28:14)
  • The origin of the Half a Sorrow Foundation (31:57)
  • The power of The Purple File (34:56)
  • His message of hope for listeners (46:25)

Transcript

Warwick F:

Welcome to Beyond the Crucible, I’m Warwick Fairfax, the founder of Crucible Leadership.

Dennis G:

So I spoke at a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, I got involved with those good folks, and I spoke for the first time publicly about my brothers and it was awful, five minutes, it was brutal. I got through it and I sat down and afterwards a lady came up to me and said, “You need to tell that story more often.” And I said, “Oh, you just heard the one and done show that’s not happening.” But God kept saying, “Maybe there’s something here.” Everybody who’s listening to your crucible moment, maybe something’s in here, don’t waste the pain.

Gary S:

Don’t waste the pain. That’s the lesson this week’s guest Dennis Gillan learned when he took his tentative first steps as a suicide prevention speaker, as a man whose two brothers took their own lives 11 years apart. Hi, I’m Gary Schneeberger co-host of the show. Gillan shares the devastation he experienced in the aftermath of his brothers’ suicides, but also the strength and hope he’s found by embracing what he’s discovered is the call on his life to inspire others, to not waste the pain of their own crucibles. He offers several practical tips and how to use your pain as fuel for a life of significance. The one you want to make extra sure you listen for, the purple file.

Warwick F:

Well, Dennis, thank you so much for being here and thank you for what you do as an advocate for mental health, and obviously you’ve experienced the challenges and the tragedies that have led you to your calling and what you do with Half a Sorrow Foundation and the purple file, which we’ll get to, which is such a brilliant idea. So before we get to really the tragedies that in a sense sort of sadly changed your life in many ways with your brothers, which we’ll get into, tell us a bit about what was life for you growing up? Tell us about your family, your brothers, before the tragedies hit, what was your family life and what was life like in the Gillan household?

Dennis G:

Life was good until it wasn’t, it’s second generation, Irish guy, all my grandparents came in to Brooklyn, New York. So that’s where my parents were. So I was born in Brooklyn and then like many folks of that era, my dad chasing the American dream here, he moved out to the suburbs and the house, the little spit of land, and we ended up north of New York City because my dad worked in the city in a little town called Valley Cottage, New York it’s right on the Hudson River, Hudson Valley, maybe 30 miles north of New York City, in a little town Valley Cottage in the County of Rockland. So it’s near the Tappan Zee Bridge if anyone knows that area, that’s where I grew up.

Dennis G:

It was, what’s the word idyllic, I never get that word right. But it was awesome because I was one of five kids, we had 110 acres of woods behind us that wasn’t developed yet, it’s now since been developed. But it was like, this is a paradise. I lived near the local pool, there were tennis courts nearby. I walked to school. Everything I needed was in that little pod of Valley Cottage, and I loved being from a big family, five kids, I’m in the middle. There’s Sheila, Mark, me, Janice and Matthew, and it was classic five, five people, count my parents seven, we had a three bedroom house everybody’s crammed in there pretty good. We start moving downstairs and making rooms downstairs. It was really a great upbringing and memory, thank God for memory because it’s very selective. You remember the good times you tend to forget the bad times. It was really good. I went to St. Paul’s Catholic School then I went to the public high school. I have lifelong friends from both institutions. To sum it all up life in Valley Cottage was really good up until 1983.

Warwick F:

So you had an idyllic upbringing in this little town, north of New York, life just seemed to be good. It seemed like, the world, anything could happen. You could continue the American dream of your dad, it’s like life was good. As you rightly put it, life was good until it wasn’t. So tell us about, I guess it was Mark, was that the first? So tell us about that time and that day and maybe a bit about who Mark was.

Dennis G:

Sure. Mark wasn’t built for school. He was one of those tinkerers, one of those smart guys that was good at fixing and stuff, but you put an academic, you put a book in front of them, it’s not going to end up well. Mark’s been on my heart lately, because I went through my office recently and I was just, I went through divorce so I have all this stuff everywhere, and I was going through my old high school announcement, when I graduated in 1981. Now this is two years before we lost Mark, and on the back of it they listed the people that graduated the previous summer and my brother was one of them. He didn’t graduate on time, he graduated in August, 1980, I graduated in 1981. So he was on my program and I did not know that until now.

Dennis G:

I looked at it like, “Oh my gosh, Mark is on my program,” because he graduated later than he should have because he wasn’t a book guy, he was a tinkerer. We had a garage full of stuff, he hooked up a CB radio and that’s an old radio for you kids out there that truckers used to use. He hooked up a CB radio to his Schwinn Varsity bike, and it ran on a generator that he rigged up so he could talk and ride his bike on a CB. It was like, who thinks of that? That’s the kind of guy he was.

Dennis G:

So I go off to college after ’81 and I’m there ’81, ’82, ’83, and that’s when the crucible moment number one hit, the phone rang and it was my younger sister, Janice and Janice says, “Dennis, you need to come home.” It’s a Wednesday and I’m eight hours away at West Virginia University. I’m the first kid to go away to university in my family, and I’m like, “Janice, now I’m exactly where I need to be.” Then she told me, mark died in a car accident, which is not true. Mark died in a car but it was no accident, you all know why I’m here, and the audience is now going to get a little taste of what’s in my life here.

Dennis G:

Mark died by suicide, battled depression for years, and the disease state won. So right smack in the beginning of my junior year, which is kind of technically the middle of my college experience if you’re looking at four years, I’m into it and this is October and I get that phone call and I went home and things were never the same after that.

Warwick F:

Before that happened did you ever think that was possible? Did you or your family think, Mark’s a great guy but he is battling, call it demons, call it challenges. Did you ever think this was a possibility?

Dennis G:

I think like most people that age, he was looking for his place, looking for his tribe, so to speak and I don’t think he found it. There was one time I think when he like ran away, like he’s out of here and we didn’t know where he was. So there was some inkling, but anytime you’re dealing with like a suicide or a traumatic event, hindsight is 20/20, when you’re in it, it’s hard to see it. You’re like, “Hey, you’ll get over this, it’s okay, you’ll be fine.” The truth of the matter was he wasn’t fine, he was battling something, they call it the invisible illness. He didn’t let us in, some people kind of, “Let us in, what’s going on?”

Dennis G:

Looking back, there were signs and now that I’m knee deep in the business of suicide prevention, look back, eh, that one should have saw that one, could have caught that one, and it’s brutal. It’s brutal on you when you start thinking like that, the would’ve, the could’ve, the should’ves, and that’s why a death by suicide is unlike any other, because it’s so much like, what could I have done? What could I have seen? If mark was driving along and a rock fell down a cliff and took him out, you’d be ah, act of God. Just, man that’s lousy timing, just terrible timing, he was in the highway at that moment. But with the suicide, it was planned out, it was thought about, the demons were strong and it got the best of him.

Warwick F:

So you rightly put it, obviously it’s horrific for the person’s family and friends that’s left behind. As you say, you were a kid in college, it’s not like you had the knowledge you have now. I mean you had maybe no knowledge or very little so, but it’s easy to say, gosh, for your parents or your siblings, couldn’t we have seen this or that if we’d gotten him counseling, if we’ve done this, that and the other, but it’s not obvious if you don’t have that training. So it’s easy to objectively say, “Look, it’s not your fault. It’s fine.” But it’s probably a lot harder when you’re in the midst of all of that and the emotions, and you’re not thinking clearly in terms of, there’s no way at that age I could possibly have known, right? You don’t think that way at the time.

Dennis G:

Not at all. That age for me, and I’m not going to speak university for many of us, but I was 20, and when I was 20, I’ll just speak about me. When I was 20, my life was all about me. I was the center of the universe. Everything was me, me, me, me, me. I, I, I, and I think one of the beautiful things about life when you start living for others, your self dies and you start living to others and that’s where you, maybe it takes time, but I always marvel that people that figure that out at an early age, it took me a long time to figure that one out. But at a time 20, and if I go back to 1983, I was just about Dennis having a good time, I was in a fraternity, social. It was all, how can I have the best life ever?

Warwick F:

Well, that’s normal for kids in college or kids at that age.

Dennis G:

Sure.

Warwick F:

I mean, so that’s totally understandable. So that was obviously horrendous, but as we’ve mentioned, this wasn’t the only tragedy. It was how many years later that you got another phone call about your younger brother?

Dennis G:

Fast forward from ’83. Yeah, Matthew, poor Matthew. ’83 lose Mark, 11 years later. Now I get out of college, four years and eight weeks, I did a summer session I’m out, and I go back to New York and I ended up in Carlisle, Pennsylvania working for a pretty darn good company. I’m doing pretty good. I’m working for Merck Pharmaceuticals, a big pharmaceutical company, I’m a sales rep, I got a great job, married living in Carlisle. I remember this day like it was yesterday and I just like Mark’s phone call, those crucible moments, you know exactly where you were when that happened.

Dennis G:

I was in Carlisle in my living room and the phone rang and poor Janice, it was Janice again. I would tease her about this, but to this day when she calls my heart skips a beat, “Is everything okay? How’s mom? How are you?” “She’s like Dennis, I’m fine, I’m just going to say hi.” “Hi.” But she had the bad misfortune telling me about Matthew and in 1983, 1994, 11 years later, a decade and a year later, my younger brother, Matthew in a drunken stupor, with access to lethal means dies by suicide. That’s two, and one is awful, awful, and in the United States, we have over 45,000 a year. The estimate is like 130 a day or some crazy number like that.

Dennis G:

You can do all the stats you want, it’s mostly white males, blah, blah, blah, all this stuff. None of that means a hill of beans, if it happens to you, and one, one is too many and our family got struck by lightning twice and it was awful.

Warwick F:

I mean, Mark was tough enough, but when Matthew happens, I mean, what were the emotions going on with you? I guess sisters and parents, I mean, there must have been just the level of grief, tragedy, anger must have been at a level that’s hard to describe I’m guessing.

Dennis G:

It’s just different when it’s your little brother, I’m going to tear up thinking about this. Like maybe I should have been looking out for him, but I was too busy in my own little bubble and telling myself, after Mark died, I was 20, I was already drinking a lot, and then I ramped it up another level to numb that pain. Then when Matthew died, I got drunk the night before we buried Matthew, and I remember driving back home and I went dark after Matthew died, I mean really dark. I felt vulnerable for the first time in my life. I wasn’t bulletproof, the weight of the world was on me and I’m driving back and I’m like, “You know what? I can’t do this anymore. I can’t.”

Dennis G:

I remember hugging somebody at my brother Matthew’s funeral, hugging this dude and saying, “I did this already.” I thought you just checked the box, one and done. I said, “I did this already.” When I got back to Carlisle, I was a mess, happy to report that the night before, when we buried Matthew, when I got drunk was the last time I’ve ever gotten drunk. So I’m over 27 years sober.

Gary S:

Congratulations.

Dennis G:

Thank you brother. I appreciate it. I heard your story. We all have our struggles, at that point, it was just a good move for me. I was as low as I could be. I was depressed and let’s be honest, alcohol is a depressant. So do I need to put gasoline on this fire? I don’t think so. The fire’s kind of raging, so let’s let it go. So I just decided to take a timeout and I’m happy to report the timeout is still lasting. Then I got like a God moment in there.

Dennis G:

My ex-wife and I were having a little trouble conceiving a child, and that was on our list. We married, had the house and next up is a kid and we were having trouble, and I made a little deal with God and I don’t recommend this for anyone, but I said, “If we have a child I’ll never drink again.” Martin’s 26, I’m 27 years sober, do the math. I’m a man of my word. I don’t welter my bets. A bet is a bet. God provided Martin, I’m sober. I came out way ahead on that deal, and I don’t recommend it, but I was in a bad spot.

Gary S:

One of the things that you said to me, Dennis, when we spoke before this, since you brought up the subject of God and somewhat miraculous conception, is you said that you had tried to run away from God and you ended up running to Him, unpack that a little bit for folks because not everybody goes through that, that’s not for everybody per se. But in your particular case, it’s interesting that there were two tragedies, two terrible tragedies, but you have these bookends of, I tried running away and then I ran to. What did that look like for you?

Dennis G:

Sure. The strong Catholic upbringing helped, it really came in handy, complete with all the Catholic guilt that comes with it. It was good. It was a solid foundation. So God was always on my mind. There were times I ran away, I can’t do this, but I always came back and for some reason God always wins. If you’re going to get in a wrestling match with God, he’s going to win. He’s going to pin you. He’s going to humble you, and I felt extremely humbled after Matthew died. The way God really stepped into the picture after Matthew was 16 years later and everything’s on God’s timetable not ours. 16 years later, he puts this little bug in my ear saying, “Tell the story about your brothers.” And I was like, “No, thank you, God. No, thank you at all. I’m going to take a hard pass on that one, God, what else you got? Eat that cheeseburger? That I’ll do.”

Dennis G:

So I spoke at a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I got involved with those good folks and I spoke for the first time publicly about my brothers, and it was awful, five minutes it was brutal. I got through it and I sat down and afterwards a lady came up to me and said, “You need to tell that story more often.” And I said, “Oh, you just heard the one and done show, that’s not happening.” But God kept saying, “Maybe there’s something here.” Everybody’s listening to your crucible moment, maybe something’s in there, don’t waste the pain.”

Dennis G:

I started speaking about my brothers after that. I got a call from a university that said, “Hey, we saw you at that walk, that fundraiser, can you come speak to our students and interns?” And I bombed, I cried the whole time. They introduced me, I never heard myself introduced this way. Here’s a guy who lost two brothers to suicide. That’s something I never heard out loud until that day, and they go, “Ladies and gentlemen, Dennis Gillan.” I’m sitting there, when they’re introducing me, I’m going, “Oh, that poor guy, who is that guy?” And they said, “Oh, it’s you crap.” Then I just cried the whole time. So that didn’t go very well. Then I got another call from a school that heard me speak at that school, and they said, “Hey, come down.” And I only cried half the time. Hey, progress. Right?

Gary S:

Twice as good, twice as good. Right?

Dennis G:

Then the third time, here’s another session where God enters the chat. I went to a Baptist school here in South Carolina, Charleston, Southern University, and they said before our speaker goes on, let’s pray for him. This woman got up and prayed for me. I needed that, this room was packed. It was 220, the room held 220, there probably was 300 kids in there because it was part of convocation, they had to show up. They had to get credit, and I love that. Normally when I speak like on a campus or something, it’s not voluntary, it’s mandatory. You got to go, and they don’t want to be there, and I love that audience because I walk into this hostile crowd and I’m going to wow them with this story.

Dennis G:

But she prayed and that’s exactly what I needed to hear, and from that night forward, I think I had my calling. So I remember driving back and I brought my pastor with me and he said, he looked at me, he goes, “You got to keep going. You got something here. You got to keep going.” Which I wish you would’ve said, “You kind of stink at this, you need to go back to your day job.” And I’m like, “All right, God was wrong.”

Warwick F:

So fast forward, I think it was like 16 years after ’94 or thereabouts to your talk at the American Society of Suicide Prevention. So, I can relate in one small way sometimes when it’s about your worst day, somebody says, “Do you want to talk about that?” “Relive my worst day, the pain, you’ve got to be nuts.” Again, I’m reminded one of our very first podcasts on Beyond the Crucible, we interviewed a Navy seal that was paralyzed in a training accident. He was like one of the best of the best, his dad was a Navy seal, and I said, “Look, what I went through is nothing compared to what you went through.” He stopped me, this is the guy who was paralyzed, the Navy seal, and said, “You know what? Your worst day is your worst day. It’s not a competition, not a comparison.”

Warwick F:

We’ve interviewed quadriplegics, victims of abuse, you name it, all sorts of things, and they all have that view which is amazing to me. But yeah, I mean, I guess by way of analogy, I mean, there are people that said you want to write about your story of losing 150 year old family business said, “There’s no way.” But then a little bit, maybe like you in a sense, in a small way, in 2008, I gave a talk in my church, some sermon about what I went through and yeah, I’m not Mr. Public Speaker, certainly not back then anyway. It was like 10 minutes or so, and afterwards people said, “Your talk really helped me.” I’m thinking how many former media moguls are there in the congregation? Like none.”

Warwick F:

Sadly way too many people and families have suffered, whether it’s suicide or abuse, cancer, but like okay, well, maybe I should write a book about my story if I can help others. But I remember I couldn’t do more than a couple hours a day because it was so painful reliving the memories that most of it was just my stupidity and my mistakes. Again, you can’t compare pain, but I could imagine in some very small way people saying, “Dennis, your story can help people.” You’re thinking, I don’t care, I am not talking about it. It’s way too painful. How did you shift? People might have told you that for years, I’m guessing leading up to 2000 or thereabouts. How did you actually decide to speak about it? Because it’s not easy to talk about that kind of pain.

Dennis G:

It’s a great, great analogy. Hey, take your worst day. Great. Let’s make a career out of that. No. No. Let’s talk about that every day. No, it was interesting. When I did that fundraiser, they call it AFSP, the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, it felt cathartic, and there was a calling to do something, and then people would come up to you after and say, “I appreciate that talk. I’m going through some stuff here too.” So basically our misery have become our mission in a sense.

Dennis G:

I remember I sat down with this pastor, another guy and I sat down with him and I said, “I wasted all this time, 16 years, I just sat on my rear end and didn’t speak about these guys, and I blew it. I blew it. I blew it. I could have been more, more, more.” And he said, “No, you were not ready. Those were your days in the desert.” what he was talking about was the Exodus, when they just ran around the day, not ready yet. You’re not ready yet. You’re not ready yet. Okay now, here’s the promise land. He was so right when he said that I forgave myself, I wasn’t ready.

Warwick F:

Interesting. I guess Dennis is referring to Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt and they wanted to go to the promised land, but they made a few mistakes, which I guess the Bible calls, sin, lack of faith and all sorts of other things. Even Moses kind of wasn’t good enough to make it to the promised land, but he saw it, but then never quite headed there. But yeah, I mean, it’s interesting when he’s like, “Gosh, I could have done more. I could have done it earlier.” You used the word forgiveness, forgiving yourself. Why did you use that word? Because objectively it wasn’t your fault, what happened to either of your brothers, what do you mean by forgiveness?

Dennis G:

Well, with the suicide or death by suicide, there’s a stigma that comes, it’s not justified, but it just comes with it. What could you have done differently? Did you see it? Could you have called him? Could you have done this? Could you have done that? In addition to forgiving myself, I have to forgive Matt and Mark. I have no idea what they were going through at that moment in time where that pain overrode their ability to be resilient. What was happening right then and there. We did at one of these walks, they had this balloon release and they said, “Dennis, you got to go over and release this balloon.” I’m like, “I’m not doing that crap.” It’s such a guy move, like I’m not doing that symbolism stuff.

Dennis G:

So my ex-wife at the time said, “No, your team raised a lot of money, you got to go over there.” So I went over there, they gave me a balloon and they said, “All right, just think about why we’re here and all this stuff.” Right before I released it, and this is where, now I believe in this stuff. If you ever have something really bad happen, write a letter to that person and then burn it, even if you don’t send it. But this symbolism of letting that balloon go. I said, “Matt, Mark, I forgive you.” And I let it go. That was like a big turning point for me, because I was so mad at those two.

Dennis G:

I used to say to people “when I go to heaven, I don’t know if I’m going to punch them or hug them, just depends on the mood when I die, what’s going to happen.” So it was really interesting in that way, it’s just now I believe in that stuff and I also believe in what all three of us have shared the vulnerability piece for guys. It’s okay to not be okay.

Warwick F:

I want to make sure listeners hear what you just said, because it’s so important, and we do talk about that on Beyond the Crucible is, you go through a crucible, sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s other people’s fault and you have to forgive yourself. We had a woman on the podcast, Stacy Copas from Australia and she became a quadriplegic by diving into an above ground pool. Now she was 12. Clearly it was “her fault.” But when you’re young, you feel like you bulletproof and you ignore your parents and say, “Don’t do it, don’t do it, Stacy.”

Warwick F:

So she battled substance abuse and it’s like, “Why did I do this to myself?” So she had to forgive herself, and again, you’re young, it’s objectively saying, “Look, come on. Young people do silly things.” But for everybody that we’ve talked to, there is no way back from the pit, from your darkest moment without forgiveness and you got to forgive yourself, you’ve got to forgive others, depends on the situation, I get how in your case it was both. But because that’s important, I mean, from my perspective, God loves all of us, life is a precious gift and for God to use us in any way, shape or form, we have to be able to forgive us and others. Life is too important, you can’t help anybody else until you take care of yourself, which you’ve done both in counseling and forgiveness. It’s so important. I want listeners to hear.

Warwick F:

So we’re at 2000, you’re speaking, and I don’t know if you mentioned off air that you view yourself as like this natural charismatic speaker that, hey, this is easy, I could speak anywhere, anytime, no notes. I mean, is that an easy thing or is that a challenging thing for you? Because most people hate speaking to be honest.

Dennis G:

Well, God enters the chat again. When I was looking for a new career and trying to settle in Columbia, South Carolina, I started attending Toastmasters meetings and Toastmasters is a group that trains you how to be a speaker, and I was not going to be a speaker. I was not good at it. I tried something at church one time and bombed and my leg was shaking and my voice went real high. It was a capital campaign, I was like my leg shaking, I’m like, “Hey, we need money for the church.” And it was like, “Whoa, what’s happening to that dude?” “It would really be nice if you guys can help.” And it was horrible.

Dennis G:

I’m like, “You know what, if I want to go somewhere, I got to learn how to speak publicly.” So I started going to Toastmasters, those wonderful people became my friends and started going every Friday morning at this little restaurant called Lizard’s Thicket, get breakfast, do a couple speeches, and in a weird way, God was preparing me going, listen, I got to plan for you, you don’t know it yet, and then sure enough, now that when I speak all those skills that I learned at those meetings where I was just going for a very selfish reason to make connections so I can get another job now are being used for this job.

Dennis G:

I’ve called on those a lot and I’d like to think I’m a good speaker. The topic’s tough, but there are times every time I go to speak, I have to peel away right in the beginning, I tell the people I’m working with said, “Listen, I’m going to disappear for a little bit.” And I go and pray and just say, “Is this what you want me to do? Because I’m about to do it. I’m going to tear up thinking about this. Like, God, is this what you want me to do?” I always hear like, “Get your butt on stage. Let’s go.” Then I come running back and I’m like, “Here we go, give the microphone.”

Warwick F:

That’s such an important lesson that I obviously wholeheartedly agree with. There is a phrase that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness. Now whether you believe in God or some universal power, when you just say like, “I’m going to do my best, but I’m scared, my knees are wobbling, God you got to help me.” From my experience, He always does. If you go in there saying, “I got it,” you typically don’t got it and it won’t go well. So when you go in there and say, “I don’t got it. I’m scared. You’re going to have to help me.” You’re just being vulnerable and authentic, people yearn for that, and obviously you do. I think you don’t have to be Mr. or Mrs. Charismatic Speaker to speak or really to do anything. You just got to say, “Look, I feel called to do this, so I’m going to do it.”

Dennis G:

You can’t teach passion, exactly, Warwick. You can’t teach passion. If the person’s passionate about it, it’s going to come out, whether they’re a good speaker or not, you’re going to feel it. I’ve seen some really bad speakers who are really passionate about the cause, I’m like, “I’m with them. I’m with them.”

Warwick F:

I want to get to obviously, Half the Sorrow Foundation and this wonderful phrase, purple file, or this wonderful concept. But one of the things I’ve found, and I don’t know whether you found, I’m guessing you probably have is, my book came out in October last year, October, 2021. I began speaking at young people and business groups and I’m a pretty functional, healthy person, there are always scars when you go through tragedies. But when you have people say, “Warwick, your story really helped me.” A young person or boy, thank you. We call it a healing balm.

Warwick F:

There’s some level of additional healing, when somehow, I know everybody’s heard this a million times, pain for a purpose. Somehow what you went through can help others, there is some additional level of healing. I mean, am I guessing? You’ve probably found that, when you speak and people say, “You know, Dennis, thank you for sharing your story, because that really has helped me.” Have you found that in your own life?

Dennis G:

Oh, I’ve had some unbelievable God moments like that. I’ll be done speaking at one school I got done at 8:00, I got back to my car at 10:30. People want to come up because you’re showing them a weakness, which is actually your strength, you’re vulnerable on stage, and then they want to share their vulnerability. The first time it really happened to me was at this huge sorority convention, 600 women in this room, which is kind of funny, because I couldn’t talk to one of them while I was in college, and now I got invited to talk to 600.

Warwick F:

That’s so funny.

Dennis G:

I couldn’t wrap the sandwich. Right? So I get invited to speak to these women and I come down and grab my bag. I went up and got my disc, my files from the sound guy, and I come downstairs and grab my bag and leave, and there’s a line of people waiting to speak to me, and it’s never happened before. I’m like, “Okay, you want to talk to me?” And they’re, “yeah.” So now I build that into my presentation, I stick around as long as they need me to stick around and it’s been very cathartic for me and them. But once you share your pain, someone’s going to share their pain with you, and there’s a kindred spirit in that, the vulnerability piece that makes us all human and we can use a lot more of that right about now.

Warwick F:

Additional level of healing. So talk about before we get to purple file, I love that phrase, Half a Sorrow Foundation. Talk about the origin of that name. Where does that come from?

Dennis G:

Sure. I believe it’s a Swedish proverb and I was thinking about doing this foundation, someone gave me the advice. I crowdsourced it on Facebook, I said, “Hey guys, what would you do if you were naming a foundation?” And one guy, a good fraternity friend of mine, David Molgard said, “Don’t name an after your brothers.” Because everybody else was doing Matt Mark, Mark Matt, they’re doing all kind of variations. I sat there like, “Huh, that’s interesting.” Then I always had this thing in my talk where I talk about a shared joy is a double joy, a shared sorrow is half a sorrow, and it resonates with the audience. That’s the proverb, the Swedish proverb. I was like, “That thing hits home.”

Dennis G:

So I started think about it, and I said, “You know what? The Half a Sorrow Foundation.” Because that thing floored me when I heard it, and it took me forever. I might have heard it when I was a kid, I might have heard it in school, but when I heard it when I was driving in my car, age 50, after burying two brothers, thinking about my speaking career, that thing meant all the world to me, a shared joy is a double joy, a shared sorrow is half a sorrow.

Warwick F:

You’ve lived that right? It does lessen the agony of the sorrow at least a little bit by sharing it. Right?

Dennis G:

Absolutely, and I say in the talk, I say, “A half of a half of a half of a half, I will never get to zero.” That’s okay, because my brothers meant something to me. I don’t want to get to zero. If I get to zero, we better check for a pulse. It’s my time, turn around the Grim Reaper’s behind me, like yeah, it’s time. I’ll always have those guys with me.

Warwick F:

So talk about what the foundation does just so that listeners can understand.

Dennis G:

Sure. We had a lot of programs that were focused on gathering and then COVID took care of that. We were doing this men’s thing, this men’s breakfast, trying to get men together. Again, that’s my thing with mental health. I do a men’s night at the local tennis center, and we do a little talk about mental health, then we go out and play, because that’s how guys talk. They don’t talk about stuff like one on one, they’ll talk while shooting basketball or playing ping pong, that’s how we talk. The genesis of the foundation was to go to schools that can’t afford me.

Dennis G:

I’m not going to get rich doing this, but I had a call from a kid in Texas one time and they wanted me to come down there and this is before the foundation existed and we couldn’t make it work, budgets, flights, we just couldn’t do it, and I had to say no to them. I remember I was crying after the call, I never said no to anybody. That was the first time I had to say no, and I said, “Wow, if I had a foundation that could pay the way so if this kid ever calls back, I have two questions for him. One what time? And what do I wear? Because I’m coming because the foundation will cover the cost.” That’s where it started.

Warwick F:

That’s awesome, and speaking about where it started, Gary mentioned to me and in honor of you, he’s wearing a purple, maybe it’s burgundy jacket.

Gary S:

It is burgundy, I’m not the Joker.

Warwick F:

It’s beautiful. I love this concept of a purple file, that in all seriousness, I think can be so helpful. Talk about what that is and why that is so important for people, especially when they’re not feeling that great about life for themselves. What is a purple file?

Dennis G:

Warwick and Gary, what happened with that was people would write me notes every now and then I’m like, “How do I capture this?” So I started printing them out and shoving them in this little file and it’s kind of a selfish reason again. Everything’s about me, but I thought one day when I die, my kids will find this file and go, “Oh my gosh, daddy touched some people.” I have two boys, Martin and Brandon, sorry, but little did I know that I need the file right now, because there are some days I feel like quitting this job, like, oh my gosh, how much can a man take? Then I go back to the file and it’s a living, breathing file. It’s behind me in my office, right now I brought it here.

Dennis G:

I will open it up and I’ll start reading some of the letters that people sent after the talk, and that rejuvenates me like, all right, stay on focus, Dennis, it’s a bad day today, but we got this, we got this. Keep going. So it’s a real source of determination for me, and I think everybody should have a purple file. Just a couple notes. Something you got from someone who believed in you, who saw something in you that you did not see yourself, and I print it out and I read it. I’m old school, I printed. If you have a desktop icon, just call it the purple file, and anyone sends you a nice email for work, you pop it in there, you pop it in there. It came out to be like a little brag book, but we don’t like to brag, it’s more of an inspiration file than anything.

Gary S:

I want to emphasize to listeners how powerful this is. I found out about this. I found out about Dennis, the current issue that’s out right now, as we’re recording this with Entrepreneur Magazine, he has a column that he wrote in the front of the magazine, short column, where he talks about the file and what exactly what he just said. Here’s a quote from Dennis’ column, “When I consider quitting, I grab the file and come back with renewed determination.” Then he says, “Do you have a similar file?” I was in bed reading this and I already started pulling things together before I went to sleep that night. I just want to bring this home to listeners about the kinds of things that can go in there that do exactly what Dennis talks about.

Gary S:

In my day job when I’m not co-hosting this show, I am a public relations guy, that’s what I do. My job is to get clients coverage in the media. That’s not the easiest thing to do. Sometimes you pitch clients to go in the media and the media doesn’t want to feature them. That can be those moments that you just described, Dennis, where you just kind of want to quit or like, why am I doing this? I’m banging my head against the wall it’s not working.

Gary S:

I’m going to read a short note that I have in my purple file inspired by your article in Entrepreneur, that on those days I had on my wall, still do, I made a photocopy for the file, but this is what it says. It’s from June, 2018, and this is a letter written to me by two people I represented pro bono whose eldest son murdered their two youngest children. Okay? So let that sink in and the kind of sorrow that they were going through. The media was very interested in wanting to talk to them. They went to church where I used to go to church in Colorado Springs, the pastor at my old church connected me with them and I represented them to the media, got some coverage of their hearts to make sure that they got treated fairly. This is what they wrote to me in June, 2018.

Gary S:

“Gary, thank you from the depths of our hearts for your strong support in us, your guidance and counsel has literally saved us for much more pain and confusion in a world where we feel lost and blind. You became our eyes and voice in the media and public. You have become our friend. Thank you for always listening, always praying, always encouraging us into Christ. We are eternally grateful to you, truly, don’t give up doing what you do in PR, (unless God tells you) because you mean a lot, your value and worth is remarkable. It’s priceless. Your passion is beautiful and inspiring. We are so beyond blessed to call you friend. Gary, we love you and thank you in the name of the father, God and Lord and savior Jesus Christ.”

Gary S:

There is no journalist on the face of the planet who’s going to tell me “no” when I pitch Warwick or somebody else, that’s going to win my head and heart into a bad place when I’ve got something like this that I have in this inspired by you, Dennis, purple file. That’s the power of having a purple file.

Warwick F:

Well thank you for sharing that, Gary-

Dennis G:

Thank you.

Warwick F:

That is just so, so powerful. I want listeners again, if you haven’t got it already, you should listen carefully. I don’t have a purple file yet, but conceptually, as I think back in our dark days, having those messages of hope, I remember when the company went under and I do have a file with this. People would write me letters, people I didn’t know. Readers of the main paper, we had Sydney Morning Herald, and I had people just somewhere in Sydney or elsewhere. It’s like, “You don’t know me but I’m so sorry what happened, the company going under, we’re praying for you.”

Warwick F:

I’ve got a bunch of these letters that people, I don’t know who they are, I’ve never met them, probably never will. It’s like, wow, I mean, now that I’m speaking, you have people come up and say things which is very heartwarming. I did a podcast, a Harvard Business School Alumni Podcast. I had a couple of messages right after, a guy saying, “Yep, I’m some private equity guy, and I just found out that my sort of $100 million company is going under today, and I don’t know what I’m going to tell my wife and kids and sort of lost everything, and thank you.”

Warwick F:

I mean, those words of encouragement during our dark days, one of the things that we do, start at the same level as a purple file, but it’s a family thing we do, is every birthday we go round and I have two adult sons and a daughter in the middle and we go around and say, “What is it we admire about whoever it is?” Two of my kids are writers, and so in addition to what they say verbally, they write cards, typically paragraphs. So I mean, I have those things over the years and just that sort of love and affirmation from your kids. It’s one thing to say, “I love you dad,” which is great, but I love you because, A, B, C, D, E, F, in great detail.

Warwick F:

So yeah, during our dark days, those are what I call drops of grace. Everything is spiritual for me, so thank you Lord, for those drops of grace. Those affirmations that say, “Hey, I’m not perfect, but thank you for that encouragement,” because it helps us get through those the dark days. If you believe in light and dark and we’re studying spiritual warfare in our church at the moment, which is certainly not my favorite subject at all. But if you believe there is a battle there between good and evil, which most religions say, when those dark thoughts come, prayer, reading your Bible or whatever it is, but also remembering the affirmations from people. Those are also I think, tools from above to help us sustain those dark days. So purple file, if you don’t have one yet, make one physically, virtually, don’t forget those good words in those dark days. So, so important. So thank you so much.

Gary S:

Let me jump in and add and add one more thing here before the captain gets on the microphone here, because I want to ask you this question, Dennis, and it goes in exactly what Warwick was talking about, about the importance of affirmation and why the purple file is so powerful for people. You said this phrase a couple of times, when you were speaking about Mark and Matthew and how they passed, you talked about how the disease state won. That’s what led to their deaths, the disease state won. Is it fair to say that a purple file, those kinds of affirmations, that point out the things that you do right, that point out why you should keep going, those are some of the things that you can use to keep the disease state from winning.

Dennis G:

I totally believe that, great point, Gary and Warwick, thank you for sharing that you’re going to have a purple file soon because you got enough content already. I think it’s part of your self-care plan. Self-care is not selfish, that’s like a buzzword in the industry, but we got to take care of ourselves, and I think the purple file is a great way to do that. If you’re feeling down and out and you’ve got this file of people that believe in you and wrote stuff, yeah, grab it, that’s part of your recovery process. Exactly what you’re saying Gary, keep the disease at bay. The purple file started out, my brag book, think much of yourself, Dennis, it’s now become like a self-care book. Hey Dennis, keep going man, these people, they have faith in you. You may not have the faith right now, but those folks in that file do, and Gary, that letter you have for that pro bono work you did for that family, nobody’s going to tell you no and ruin your day now. It’s not going to happen, not going to happen.

Gary S:

Nope. Never.

Dennis G:

They don’t own your head space, because that letter is taking up all that head space and it should, it’s awesome.

Gary S:

That sound you heard listener was not just Dennis making a good point at the end of his sentence, but it was the sound of the captain turning it on the fastened seatbelt sign, which indicates we’re going to have to land the plane here in a bit. Before we do that though, I would be remiss, Dennis, if I did not give you the chance to let listeners know how they can learn more about the Half a Sorrow Foundation, more about your speaking, more about you.

Dennis G:

Sure. I am transitioning between two websites. I have one that’s my name, dennisgillan.com.

Gary S:

Not Gillian, right? It’s Dennis, G-I-L-L-A-N.

Dennis G:

That’s right. You’ve had experiences spelling your last name. I get it. So we’re going from that one to the halfasorrow.org, that’s where we’re going. It’s funny, I was doing all my speaking under my own business saying you know what? It’s bigger than me, so we’re going to create a foundation so I can actually get other speakers, do more programming. So I’m migrating, I love the Dennis Gillan site, it has my TEDx Talk on there. We moved a lot of that stuff over to the halfasorrow.org site, and you can see my TEDx Talk on both of those now, but that’s where we’re going that’s where we get a hold of me. I do monitor both of them and all the emails that come in, requests to speak and all that good stuff, and it’s been quite the journey and I’m looking forward to many more years of this.

Dennis G:

Running into guys like you, we put an article out there in Entrepreneur, I hope somebody reads it, and the next thing you know, a week later, I’m on a podcast, talking to two guys who’ve had similar trials and tribulations in the end we all have them. So I thank you both for bringing me on.

Gary S:

Warwick, the last question or questions are yours.

Warwick F:

Well thank you Dennis, for so much, I really appreciate your message of hope, and as we close, there might on people listening today, they might have had family members who’ve committed suicide, I hope and pray this is not the case. Maybe there are some folks that have those thoughts. Maybe it’s not suicide, maybe they’ve just today is a horrendous day because of what somebody did to them or tragedy, maybe mistakes they’ve made. What would the message of hope that you would give listeners who today they might feel like today’s their worst day? What message of hope would you offer them?

Dennis G:

I had really bad worst days and everyone did, like I said earlier, we don’t want to compare the trauma Olympics. Your worst day is your worst day, but I’m here to tell you better days are coming, and it sounds trite but I couldn’t see out of that darkness when Matthew died, I couldn’t see it. There were days if I got up by noon, that was a good day. We started the day like, “Oh, I’m up by noon.” I get it. I get that dark place, what’s that old poem in the valleys that I grow? Believe it or not let the grief do its work, whatever you’re grieving, let it do its work, and hopefully this work when it’s completed, you’ll come out the other side a more compassionate human being. I feel everything now, the highest highs, the lowest lows, I feel them all and I’d have it no other way.

Dennis G:

Before I try to numb all that stuff. When Mark died I tried to numb feeling the lows, but ended up numbing the highs, I numbed at all. Suicide is not an option, I’m speaking from the heart about this. I’m going to cry thinking about this, it’s a horrible option. You heard on the podcast what it did to me and my family, it wrecked us. Let’s be honest, for years and going forward, we recovered sort of, and we’re still on this journey by the grace of God. But if I could tell your listeners anything, just take that one off the table. Just take that one off the table. Sorry, that’s not an option.

Dennis G:

You’re popping your head. You can chase it out, and sometimes the purple file helps you chase it out too, if you go look at a note, chase it out and let’s stick around, see where this thing ends up. Typically, on this podcast, you’ve heard crucible moments, people will say that was the worst day of your life, yeah, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me, because it changed me into a better person. I’ve heard that a million times. Would you change anything about that day? No, I wouldn’t change the thing about that day because of who I am now. Take suicide off the table, push it aside, stay with us, and time does have amazing way of healing. But when you die by suicide, you throw away your best ally – time. Stay with us.

Gary S:

It’s a wonderful problem to have when the guest takes your job of closing the show, Dennis, that was a perfect summary of not just our discussion today, but what we talk about at Beyond the Crucible all the time, and that is that crucible experiences are extraordinarily painful, but they’re not the end of your story. You learn the lessons from them. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, keep moving forward and far from the end of your story, they can become the beginning of a new story that leads to unimaginable joy and fulfillment.

Gary S:

I believe I can speak for you when I say, I think you feel that right now yourself, that’s where you are at. You’ve learned the lessons of what happened and you are living your best life. That’s what we hope for all of you listeners. So until the next time we’re together, do you remember that, your crucible experiences aren’t the end of your story, that they are the beginning of a new story, that can be the best story of your life because at the end of that story, where the GPS is set to when you take that journey is what we call here at Crucible Leadership, a life of significance.