My son TJ was supposed to graduate this summer. He was supposed to dye his hair to match his date’s prom dress (again). He was supposed be Best Man at his brother's wedding.
But instead of buying my son a car, I had to buy my son a coffin.
I can’t believe I just wrote that. In 2012, my 16-year old son TJ killed himself.
Imagine how bad it was. Know that it was worse than that.
If you are a military parent, you have probably seen that study about how military teens are more likely to think about suicide than civilian kids. Or that the Department of Defense is supposed to be tracking suicide rates among family members. You might have even seen a couple of questions about teen suicide on the Blue Star Families Military Lifestyle survey.
Yes, we need studies. But as a mother whose military teen died, there are things I want other military parents to know that go beyond what anyone would study.
Military teen suicide is not a movie.
The night TJ died, there were no signs like you see in a movie. There was no sad soundtrack. There was no giving things away. There were no threats.
Instead I was working to make a deadline for a paper due in one of my classes. My husband Rich wanted to cook out and invite TJ’s friends to join us, so I stopped. We all had a good time.
I resumed my work when TJ and his friends left. He came home and finished up some school stuff and was ready to go to bed.
I stopped what I was doing to go give him a hug and kiss goodnight. I told him I loved him. I didn't know that night I would never see him alive again.
It isn’t about a lack of character.
TJ had the most tender heart. I remember when my boys were nine and 11, their gecko died. They were completely heartbroken. Next thing I knew they were standing by a little box, with a tiny flag on top, with their toy riffles. They wanted the gecko to have a military funeral.
TJ was the kind of boy who got in trouble at school because of his chatting or comic relief in the classroom. TJ would go to the office quite a bit and wound up becoming a beloved break in their day.
TJ hated bullying. When he was 15, he saw some older kids bulling a little fifth grade girl. He got up ran over and got in front of her. The girl told me that TJ told the kids that if they were going to pick on her they had to go through him. He didn’t even know the girl.
Even when he was hospitalized for monitoring and medication he still cared about other people. One day during a visit he said, “Mom, don’t be mad but I gave my new shorts to this kid who came in and didn’t have anything.”
Again, he didn’t even know the other kid.
Getting help is not as easy for military families as it looks.
It isn’t that the help wasn’t there for us. It was. It isn't that the military was the cause of TJ's problems. But “getting help” is more complicated than it seems to outsiders.
I started getting help for my son when he struggled with cutting in the eighth grade.
We came out of a troubled home following the end of my marriage. TJ couldn’t process all the pain he was feeling without cutting. He saw a therapist on base for quite a few months. The therapist helped TJ see that he didn’t have to carry all the pain inside of him.
The therapist got TJ to start talking to me and my husband Richard (who was a real father to TJ). For a while, the cutting stopped. It even got to the point that I quit asking TJ to show me that he wasn’t cutting.
Then, in 10th grade, TJ told me that he was hearing voices. We immediately got him an appointment with a psychiatrist. TJ was hospitalized to try to get his medications right and then he came home. It seemed like he was getting back on track.
Other military teens are troubled, too.
TJ had many friends. His style was punk with a little Goth mixed in. So all different kinds of kids would walk through my door with TJ.
I would have Goth kids, jocks, preppy, country, hip-hop ... you name it. He didn’t care how anyone looked or what they had.
After TJ’s death, these kids started coming to me telling me that TJ saved their lives because he kept them on the phone and talked them out of killing themselves.
These kids have told me how prevalent cutting is. Being a teenager is a lot different than it use to be. A lot harder.
So is it any wonder that military teen suicide and suicidal thoughts are so common? Is it any wonder that military life can turn up the intensity of what teens feel? This is a problem that is more widespread than we think it is and something needs to be done.
Time does not heal all wounds.
I hurt as much today as the day I found him. I miss my baby. There will always be something he should have been at that he was missing.
This is the most difficult thing I've ever gone through. Because of base counselors who came and left our area during the time of TJ’s death and the PCS move we had to go through after TJ’s death, I sunk into a hole that I could not get out of.
At the new base, I ran into the same problem. Base counselors would start therapy with me, but they would be moved before we could get anywhere. I had to ask to be seen off base.
I am better at channeling things now. I still have bad days and flashbacks but not as often. The pain will never go away. I know that with help this can become manageable. I find I smile more when I think of TJ today than cry.
I hope that you will never let your own child forget they are loved. No matter how angry you are at each other, I hope you will always let them know in some way that though you may not agree with some choices they are making you are always in their corner.
Our military children go through a lot in their lives. If something can be done to help teens like TJ and his friends, shouldn’t we be doing it?
Carrie Goodman is an Air Force wife currently living in Dover, Delaware.
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