Loved ones of 40-year-old who died by suicide turning pain into purpose through memorial fundraiser

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WARNING: This story contains details about suicide that may be distressing to some readers.

It’s been more than three months since a Windsor-based fitness instructor and former hockey player took his own life — but his legacy is living on through a new fundraiser which organizers hope will spark new conversations about mental health for years to come.

The lives of Bryan Dennison’s friends and family took a tragic turn when they learned the 40-year-old died by suicide on Oct. 8, 2022.

Now, his loved ones are trying to turn their pain into purpose as Dennison’s sister Jillian Thompson, along with her husband Matthew, organized a memorial fundraiser Saturday at the Forest Glade Arena.

Dennison, whose birthday is on Jan. 26, has four children. His youngest son’s birthday differs by a few days. According to Thompson, his youngest son knew exactly what he wanted for his birthday, following his father’s passing.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘I want to celebrate my dad’s birthday every year.’ So I said, ‘Okay, and that’s what we’re going to do.’ That was the motivation for this event,” said Thompson.

Jillian and Matthew Thompson organized a memorial fundraiser on Jan. 28, 2023 at the Forest Glade Arena to honour the life of Jillian’s brother Bryan Dennison. He died by suicide at the age of 40. (Sanjay Maru/CTV News Windsor)Thompson, who describes her brother as a funny and intelligent person who “was always there to motivate you to the best version of you,” said she has tried to talk through his mental health struggles with him in the past.

“I know I helped him get through it in those moments. This time, that didn’t work,” Thompson added.

The fundraiser, titled Denny’s Memorial Event, saw attendees participate in open skating, hockey and fitness boot camps.

The icy portion of the event was an homage to Dennison’s time as a hockey player. Throughout his life, he played for Windsor Triple A, the Belle River Canadians and the Tecumseh Bulldogs before being drafted by the OHL’s London Knights in 1999.

Dennison would later pursue his passion of motivation through fitness, opening up Bryan’s Fitness Inferno on Tecumseh Road East.

“I do not like to work out. But when I tried Bryan’s classes, he honestly made me fall in love with working out… He pushed me to do better things and to become a better person,” said gym client Manal Chams.

She recalls being at the grocery store when she received a phone call from one of her workout companions that Dennison had tragically died.

“I just started sobbing because, I mean, it’s never easy to lose somebody. When it’s so sudden, it’s even harder.”

Chams tells CTV News she has faced her own struggles with mental health and knows how challenging they can be to overcome. She said Dennison’s death needs to serve as a clear sign to upper levels of government that more funding is needed for mental health programs.

“We’re losing people all the time because we don’t have the proper resources. I hope this is a wake-up call for everybody to come together, take mental illness seriously and do something about it,” said Chams.

“It’s hard to cope because, as he was trying to make me a better person, I didn’t know he was struggling.”

Dennis Smith knew Dennison since the two were in high school together. He credits Dennison for helping him rehabilitate from a severe injury.

“I fractured two of my vertebrae. To get myself back on track, I started attending his boot camps. It transformed my life,” said Smith, before recalling a quote that Dennison instilled in him.

“You don’t take breaks when you want to. You take breaks when you need to.”

Smith said Dennison’s death shattered the local community and wants other men facing similar mental health issues to open up and share it with loved ones or mental health professionals.

Sometimes, as a man, you feel like it’s a sign of weakness to open up to somebody,” said Smith. “Don’t hold it in because the outcome could be tragic.”

As for Thompson’s husband Matthew, he hopes this new memorial fundraiser can turn a devastating tragedy into a positive reminder that people are ready to listen — while also honouring Dennison’s life.

I faced a similar situation where my father took his life 22 years ago. I buried all of those emotions … but when Brian took his life in October, that resurfaced everything,” said Matthew.

“It’s okay to suffer. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be vulnerable. Please, don’t do it alone.”

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