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Front Porch: Sudden loss can happen in any family

Declan, 14, took his life earlier this month.
Declan, 14, took his life earlier this month.

It happens in the best of families.

The boy Declan celebrated his 14th birthday in August. A few weeks later – just last week, to be precise – he came home from school, opened the family’s locked gun cabinet, took out a gun and went into the bathroom of his home in East Wenatchee. His mother and a brother were in the house and, hearing a shot, went to see what had happened. A single bullet had been fired, that’s what happened, and the boy was instantly dead.

It was a sight no parent or sibling should ever have to see, yet every day across the country, that scene is repeated in one fashion or another. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 percent of all deaths among young people ages 10 to 24 is from suicide, the third-leading cause of death for that age group. Every day about 11 kids kill themselves in America. Suicide attempts among teens have gone from 6.8 percent in 2009 to 7.8 percent in 2011.

But the statistics don’t hit home until they do. I know about this particular story because the 14-year-old was my grandnephew. And what a sweet boy he was, a giving child always ready to help someone else. He was from such a normal family, with kind parents who were attentive and loved him, went places and did things with him, cherished him and taught him to do right.

It’s early yet, and we don’t know exactly what made this happen. No doubt there will be attempts to explain it, to figure it out. I would be surprised if we really ever know for sure. And would it help if we did? In the end, he will still be gone, and no amount of what-ifs or regretted words or bargaining with God will change that. For our family, right now all we can see is the death – whatever precipitated it – of a child, one with strawberry blond hair, blue eyes, a love for karate, the Boy Scouts, reading, computers, the great outdoors – and a family now devastated. It’s about the empty space among us where a beautiful boy once stood.

In July his grandmother, my husband’s sister, took him on a three-week trip to Alaska. She always takes a grandchild on one special trip, just the two of them, at some point in each grandchild’s life. This summer it was his turn, and she saved for a year and a half to pay for the trip. She had lived in Alaska for many years. The boy’s paternal great-grandfather was one of the original settlers of Eagle River, just north of Anchorage, and the boy looked forward to having his picture taken by the sign at the mall there named for the family patriarch. He visited his father’s growing-up places, with his grandmother as his guide. It was a great trip and they had such fun together – a lot of laughter and, it was noted, a lot of food (the buffet on the cruise ship was a teenager’s paradise). He was in such good spirits afterward. But that thing that happens even in the best of families happened just the same.

When that fatal decision is made and action taken, it is surely a very inwardly focused time. If only he could have known or considered what he was leaving behind. Two brothers whose trajectories in life are now forever impacted. Parents whose marriage may be sorely tested. A grandmother who has already endured sorrow and loss, with this unbearable one now added. A young cousin learning much too soon that death can come to the young, not just the elderly. So many others, too, of course, including a granduncle and grandaunt who are just numb.

There is no good way to lose a child, ever, but surely this is the worst way. Sadly, I have seen this before and I know what lies ahead. When a young person dies this way, a whole family is undone. It can build again. It can find joy and laughter again. But, oh my, what a long and painful struggle it is.

As the struggle now begins, the boy’s parents have taken the first step by reaching through their blinding grief to honor their youngest son’s giving nature. They have chosen to give a future to others, people they’ll never know, through the donation of organs from their boy, whose own life and future ended so abruptly. I am just staggered that at this worst possible moment in their lives they are capable of such vision and charity.

When I was a teenager, I read e.e. cummings’ “Buffalo Bill’s Lament,” a poem that profoundly moved me. It still does, as to me it’s about life’s beauty and the talent one might be capable of, but now I submit another name for the boy in the poem. It’s Declan, and like so many before him, he came from the best of families.

Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at Previous columns are available at

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