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Why I need to talk about my son's suicide

Subject: Final illustration -- Children and suicide

STEVE ADAMS/The Globe and Mail

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"Aw, come on, Mom. Drive me to the pet store? We need some bonding time."

This used to be a familiar Saturday-morning refrain from my son, Jeff. Fifteen years old, he was an expert reptile breeder, a saviour of wounded birds and animals in the neighbourhood, and general crusader for anything on four legs (two, if you count the birds) that was hurt or homeless.

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I would grumble at him and ask why we couldn't "bond" somewhere other than the pet store. But it was the end of the week – he was low on crickets, and his reptiles were getting hungry.

Today, I would give just about anything to have those Saturday mornings back. And my son.

Back then, I didn't know anything about teenagers and suicide, mostly because it had never occurred to me that I needed to. I had two well-adjusted (whatever that means) teenagers, a son and a daughter, each with tons of friends and loads of interests. Why would such a dark subject cross my mind? It didn't. Not once.

Since then, I've done a lot of research on teenage suicide, and my daughter and I talk with high-school students. I have learned a lot, and I share what I've learned with the kids.

I tell them that it's not just the loners, the awkward kids, the misfits who are at risk for suicide. It can be anyone, and the reasons are varied: a breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend; a fall in school grades; or just the pressure of trying to fit in and keep afloat, with all the stresses on teens today.

I talk about how to recognize some of the warning signs in themselves and their friends – behaviour changes, more drug or alcohol use, retreating from friends, giving away personal belongings, a "no one cares if I live or die" attitude.

I tell them to listen to one another, validate each other's feelings and watch out for each other.

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And I tell them what they would be leaving behind.

We are in our eighth year without Jeff, and the pain is still so raw it brings tears to my eyes. We miss his smile and his wicked sense of humour. If I was furious with him for something he did, or forgot to do, within seconds I would be laughing with him.

He had the gifts of compassion and laughter, and his family and friends loved him for that.

Some well-meaning friends seem to think that by now things should be back to normal. They don't realize there is no more "normal" for us. They are involved in their children's lives, and as their grandchildren are arriving, they seem to forget that grandchildren from Jeff are not in my future. Even more agonizing – Jeff is not in my future.

I tell the students that if they complete that final act, it is over for them – no more pain, disappointment, feeling alone; no more beauty, happiness, or opportunity for something better – but for every person who loves them, the hell is just beginning.

And time does not heal all wounds. Some things cannot be repaired. Some pain never goes away.

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Sometimes, when my daughter and I talk with the students, they are chatty and have lots of questions. At other times they are quiet, or they cry. There are occasions when I leave the school wondering if anything we have said sank in.

But now and then I hear that a student asked for help after we left, and that makes me feel a bit better. Maybe some little bit of good has come out of Jeff's death.

One student asked me: "Why doesn't anyone talk to us about suicide?"

I said the only thing I could think of: "Because everyone is afraid."

Many schools won't touch this taboo subject. They think that if they sweep it under the carpet it will go away. But I think we will just end up with more dead kids.

I am still shocked that every time I speak with a class, at least three or four students know someone who has committed suicide. It is the second leading cause of death (after car accidents) for 15-to-24-year-old males. Our local high school – not so different from any other – once lost three boys in three years.

For all of us, Jeff's death came out of the blue. No one, including his best friends, his guidance counsellor or his family, saw any warning signs. I will forever wonder just what his demons were, and what it was that I missed: what was deemed so horrible and hopeless in his young life that he believed he could only fix it by ending it. Didn't he know he could have talked to me? About anything! Didn't he know there were so many people who cared, who would have done anything to help him out?

Why won't we talk about something that is killing so many of our kids?

We have to shine a light into this darkness. I want kids to talk to each other about suicide, teachers to talk with students about suicide and, most of all, parents to talk with their children about suicide. The best way to prevent suicide is to get rid of the stigma and shame attached to any kind of emotional frailty. Mental illness has to be viewed no differently than having diabetes or pneumonia. It is an illness; it can be treated.

Our kids need to know they can ask for help without it costing them their dignity and acceptance.

When that happens, more kids will ask for help and fewer kids will die.

Susan Terborg lives in Calgary.

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