There were absolutely no signs: Widow of MARTA CEO talks about his suicide

Erin Harlow-Parker and her husband Jeff fell in love at 19, together for 36 years, and married for 31.

"He was an incredible husband and father and friend," she says.

To Harlow-Parker and their girls, Gabrielle and Isabella, Jeff, the CEO of MARTA, was the king of "dad jokes" and chatting up strangers.

"At his role in MARTA, he knew everybody, and he didn't hesitate to talk to anyone, regardless of what their role was," she says. "If you were going to ride MARTA with him, and you had a destination, you had to budget in extra time, because he would stop and talk to everyone, and that's just who he was."

But on Jan. 14, 2022, Parker, who was 56, unexpectedly -- and inexplicably -- died by suicide, leaving questions that can never be answered, like, why?

"I think the only other thing that I heard a lot in those early weeks and months was, ‘Oh my gosh, you guys looked so great, and everything was perfect,’" Harlow-Parker says.

Still, within hours of Jeff's death, his wife and daughters decided they would be upfront about how he died, to say the word: suicide.

"When someone dies by a heart attack or cancer or any physical cause, we name it, we say how they died," Harlow-Parker says. "But when they die by suicide, we often don't because of the shame that's associated and stigma."

As an advanced practice pediatric psychiatric nurse with Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Strong4Life program, Harlow-Parker urges parents to teach young children how to name their feelings.

So, if those children ever need help, she says, they will have the language to ask for it.

"For Jeff, there were absolutely no signs," Harlow-Parker says. "This was an utter shock to our family. And, I think that that's important. And I do think that speaks to that emotions and feelings component, because, obviously, Jeff was struggling. And, I think that men are given messages that talking about feelings and emotions is a sign of weakness. I think that's where we need to change that narrative, and begin to have conversations, that, 'It is okay to admit that you're struggling. It doesn't mean you can't do your job.'"

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Erin Harlow-Parker shared this photo of her husband, Jeff, who die by suicide in January, with his family because she says this is how she remembers him. (Supplied)

Suicide, Harlow-Parker believes, can be prevented, and you don't have to be an expert to help someone.

"You just have to be present and show up and lean in and say something like, 'I don't have all the answers, but I love you and I'm here for you,'" she says.

And for those struggling, the 988 Lifeline is open 24/7, with trained clinicians who can provide emotional support and resources.

"Suicide does not have to be the answer," Harlow-Parker says. "There is help. You are a loved. And we are here for you. I think by helping people see that sense of connection, I'm hopeful that people will see that they have other options other than suicide."


Twenty months after Jeff Parker's death, the Parkers are sharing his story -- their story -- in a video produced by Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.

"It honors Jeff in such a beautiful way," Harlow-Parker says. "I'm eternally grateful that there is this thing that exists and will exist forever that honors who he was as a person. Because I think the idea of his suicide is what people remember, unfortunately. But, that isn't who Jeff was."

Asked how she will remember Jeff, Erin Harlow-Parker pauses and says, "My husband, my best friend, the father of my kids. That's how I remember him."

This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).