World Suicide Prevention Day is observed Sept. 10. In the most tragic of ironies, it was on that very day one year ago that our 14-year-old grandnephew Declan took his own life.
In the intervening year across the country, 4,600 other young people ages 10-24 have killed themselves. The vast majority, 81 percent, have been male, with the leading cause the use of a firearm (Declan’s choice), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I have come to understand that in the moment that they do this thing, these young people cannot see past their own pain, anger, injury, indignity, depression or whatever conglomeration of circumstances made them believe suicide was the only possible solution for them. In their young, still-forming brains, if they thought of their families at all, it was likely with either an “I’ll show them” mentality or “they’ll be better off without me.” But I suspect they never get that far in their thought process.
I wish there were some way they could get a glimpse of what those who love them will experience with that gunshot, the totality of what they are destroying, how the pain is just beginning for everyone else. If Declan could have envisioned his mother sitting at the hospital for days with his body as it was being prepared for organ donation or witnessed the tears his father still sheds often in the quiet of the family living room. If these young people could see, just for a few seconds, what comes afterward, maybe, just maybe, they would stay with us.
Declan was a regular kind of kid with no apparent issues – other than those facing boys trying to navigate their way from childhood to manhood – and with parents who loved him and supported his interests. Yet he chose to leave. His mother, Wendy, has been endeavoring to find out what drove him, following any clues or hints she comes across.
“We struggle to know what could have changed that moment, but answers don’t seem to exist,” she said. “We’ll probably never know. But it would help if there were some explanation so I could have something to rage against. It is unbearable to think that his unhappiness was so deep and we didn’t recognize it. All there is is sorrow. And there’s the guilt. We were not able to save our son.”
Wendy was a Montessori kindergarten teacher who has not returned to work since Declan’s death. Economic realities will require employment again, but in another line of work. She no longer feels able to center her work life around children and schools.
“I need to want to do something again,” she said, “but existential hopelessness is not a good place to start from.”
She has been focusing on the needs of her family – husband Shawn and together with him, on helping their son Shamus, who is now in his senior year in high school and dealing with the aftermath of his brother’s suicide. They prefer not to talk in detail about that, respecting their son’s privacy and grieving process, but Wendy adds, “Shamus and Declan weren’t just brothers; they were best friends, so Shamus has a double loss to deal with. When we took a vacation this summer, we were surrounded by the glaring emptiness of the seat in the car.”
The Wenatchee community where the family lives continues to reach out to them, and they are grateful. Wendy is the one to respond, as Shawn isn’t up to it. “I do the things I can bear to do, then I come home and collapse, and Shawn takes care of me.”
Shawn, an engineer with BNSF, was able to take paid leave in the early days thanks to the generosity of his fellow railroaders, who donated vacation time for him. But the need to support the family forced him back to work, and his wife said it is his salvation. Having to get up and do the job has been helpful, given him a sense of normalcy. But he has pulled back from most everything outside his immediate family. His mother, Barbara, misses their previous closeness and the conversations they used to have so often.
There is another member of the extended family who is now serving time in jail for crimes committed to support his drug habit. He had fallen into drug abuse earlier but was clean and sober when Declan died. Perhaps he would have relapsed anyhow, as such can be the nature of addiction, but he took the death hard – and lost his way again.
So many lives impacted by one bullet.
Wendy and Shawn began a memorial fund for their son through the Community Foundation. Some funds have gone to organizations Declan was involved with, and a current project aims to establish a memorial art pedestal for Declan along the Apple Capital Loop Trail. Barbara’s Red Hat Society chapter is also coordinating fundraisers to contribute to that. In Wenatchee, Compassionate Friends is holding a walk Saturday for all families who have lost children, and an Out of the Darkness Walk takes place Sept. 28, sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, where there will be a team walking for Declan.
These things are good and they are helpful, but they are also painful.
Wendy and Shawn continue to hold on to one another and are a united pair, sometimes taking turns at being the strong one. Wendy, a thoughtful and articulate woman, tries to express what is happening to them in the aftermath: “As a family we are like a person who had two arms and two legs and now one arm is ripped off. We’re grateful we still have our two legs and one arm, of course, but all we can think about is the arm that is missing and the massive bleeding its absence causes. It’s hard to be invested in living again, but in trying to do so, we have to convince ourselves we’re not abandoning Declan.
“Kids just don’t realize how much the taking of their own lives takes away the will to live from those people who love them. The amount of destruction cannot be overstated. We may look normal, but we are shattered.”