With suicide, survivors’ grief gets more complicated
BEEKMANTOWN — Julia Mull just dropped to her knees when she learned a friend had died by suicide.
That summer of 2016, the then-Beekmantown High School junior had been visiting family in New Jersey when she heard the news.
It was surreal.
“We had plans to hang out when I got back,” Mull said.
Mull, now 18, described her friend as being “genuinely herself.”
“I remember her having such a presence,” she said. “I would see her in the (school) hallways, and she would be dressed like nobody else.
“She was always just very open to who she was and who she wanted to be.
“I always looked up to her.”
To hear her name
Mull, now a SUNY Plattsburgh freshman, said she was grateful for Beekmantown High School’s resources when she returned for her junior year that fall.
“As soon as I walked (into the school), I was, like, holy s**t,” she said. “I made a dead sprint to the counseling office.”
Additional grief counselors were made available, and a statement was read about a “previous student” who had “passed away,” Mull remembered.
But she and her classmates had craved something more.
“We wanted to hear her name,” she said. “We wanted a tree or something to be planted for her.
“They were just trying to brush it away.”
The following year, as seniors, Mull and her classmates asked that their friend be featured in their final yearbook or acknowledged at graduation, but their wishes were denied.
The school set out a chair for her at the graduation ceremony in June, Mull said.
Alphabetically, Mull was seated right beside the empty seat and covered it with items that reminded her of her friend: some crystals, a tube of black lipstick and a Nirvana band T-shirt.
“There were a couple moments where I felt like she was there,” Mull said. “But (the chair) was an unspoken, hush-hush type of thing.
“If (the Class of 2018) had it our way, it would have been fully announced.”
While Mull was frustrated with her school district, she could sense some uncertainty.
“A lot of the teachers were also crushed,” she remembered. “Nobody really knew how to go about it.
“For the most part, none of us had experienced that before.”
The district didn’t want to bring light to or memorialize suicide, Mull said.
“They just kept saying, ‘That’s what the experts say,’ or, ‘We talked to the experts,'” she said, remembering conversations with school administration.
“But, I said, ‘With all due respect, we are the experts.”
SUNY Canton sophomore and Beekmantown High School alumna Kiersten Harvey, 19, said she understood the district’s standpoint on suicide.
“But at the same time, in doing that, it didn’t really prevent anything,” she said.
In December 2018, Beekmantown Central School suffered the death of another student via suicide: senior Zander LaDuke.
Friend and fellow senior Joshua Bouchard, who described Zander as a goofy and always happy type of guy, said he couldn’t believe the news.
“I fell to the floor,” Bouchard said. “I lost my mind. I would have never suspected it.”
While teens can typically be silent about mental illness, he said it wasn’t like that with Zander.
“We were always open — I try to be as open as possible,” Bouchard said.
And when the 17-year-old had talks with Zander about suicide, his friend told him not to worry.
“He would say, ‘I’m going to be something someday.”
“Tell it all”
After Zander’s death, Mull, a friend of his as well, was in contact with her former high school.
Again, the Beekmantown School District made grief counselors available and read aloud a statement, but Mull said that statement was different this time around.
It included Zander’s name, talked about mental illness and depression, the college freshman said.
“I wish we had had the same thing,” Mull said.
Zander’s mother, Amanda LaDuke, thinks a family’s preference plays a role in what information a school releases.
After her son’s death, she said, “they asked me what I was comfortable with them telling.”
She told them “to tell it all. Make it a prevention thing.”
In fact, Amanda said, “I feel like (school officials) need to approach a death by suicide the same as any death.
“It shouldn’t be different at all from cancer, a car accident.”
Zander’s life book
Amanda knows the schools don’t want to “glamorize” suicide in the event that they could prompt others at risk to follow suit.
But to treat it differently surrounds that loss of life with shame, she said. And that contributes to the stigma that makes people keep mental-health issues secret.
Students wanted to memorialize Zander by decorating his locker, but because of that caution, school officials said no.
They did, however, put together a binder about his life that was presented to his family.
Students were invited to contribute, to give them a way to express their feelings.
Amanda treasures that book. And it means everything that her son will be included in the 2018-19 yearbook.
She knows Zander’s classmates want him to graduate with his class this June — to have his name read, along with the college he would have attended, followed by a moment of silence.
Amanda very much wants that, too.
Learn from loss
The Beekmantown District’s response to suicide has evolved considerably since the one that rocked the school in 2016.
Its prevention/postvention model, created through studying those of others and careful research, is one other districts are applying to their own initiatives.
“Beekmantown has a great team,” Amanda said. “When Zander passed, they were on top of social media, anything negative, to tell (those posting) it was inappropriate.”
But Amanda wants to see the prevention part of the plan improved.
She knows there’s a protocol in place to identifying kids at risk, a crisis team, mental-health professionals on site.
“But there’s a piece missing that needs to be figured out,” she said.
Lacking life skills
Amanda agrees with the new state mandate that requires mental-health education be woven into the K-12 curriculum.
And she wants to see kids acquire other abilities in school: coping skills, social skills, tolerance, how to build healthy relationships — life skills.
“In our society now, it’s a lot of electronics,” she observed. “You don’t get the same interactions (with people).
“There are key missing parts, socially.”
Following her friend’s death in 2016, Mull said, she and fellow classmates suffered guilt.
“I blamed myself,” Mull said. “I didn’t tell her that I really looked up to her.”
Mull said losing her changed how she expressed her feelings to friends.
“I didn’t have a moment of, ‘This is my fault,’ with Zander,” she said. “I knew he knew how much I cared about him. I felt like I did all I could do.”
Bouchard said he had the same feeling; the last time he saw Zander at school, he told him that he cared about him.
“He seemed rigid that day,” Bouchard said. “He was himself, but it was like something had changed.
“I told him I loved him and that I wanted to hang out with him that Saturday.”
Bouchard’s advice to others is to effectively communicate those feelings to friends.
“You have to make it clear to them,” he said. “In that moment, it might just be a joke to them.”
The school district and other organizations have a lot of resources available to struggling students, he said, but they won’t seek help until they are ready.
“It’s not a matter of how many doors you open. It’s a matter of how many kids are going to open them.”
Crisis text line
A kid in crisis may text before he or she will make a phone call or talk to someone face to face.
Anyone can reach out to the Crisis Text Line, a free, 24/7 service staffed by trained crisis counselors.
And crisis doesn’t have to mean suicide, according to the Crisis Text Line website.
“It’s any painful emotion for which you need support.”
How it works
¯ Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime, about any type of crisis.
¯ After two quick automated responses, a live, trained crisis counselor — a volunteer, not a health-care professional — responds from a secure online platform, usually within five minutes.
¯ As you text back and forth, you don’t have to share anything you don’t want to, the site emphasizes.
“The crisis counselor will help you sort through your feelings by asking questions, empathizing and actively listening.
“The conversation typically ends when you and the crisis counselor both feel comfortable deciding that you’re in a ‘cool,’ safe place.”
¯ Sometimes that means providing a referral to get further help; sometimes it just means being there and listening.
¯ Conversations tend to last between 15 and 45 minutes.
Crisis Text Line was created in August 2013 by the CEO of DoSomething.org.
Within four months, it was being used throughout the United States. It is now online in Canada and the United Kingdom, with plans to expand to other countries.
Learn more: www.crisistextline.org.