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Jim Kenyon: Family Therapy

The second-floor bedroom has been unoccupied since last June, but the radio, tuned to a local country station, plays on from early morning to bedtime. The stuffed animals that belonged to the teenage girl who slept here are scattered across the bed. The girl’s favorite black skirt, which her mother always thought was a tad on the short side, is neatly folded in a chest of drawers.

“I’m not at the point yet where I can let go,” said Tanya DeMond. “I need Ashley’s things around me.”

Ashley DeMond was a high school freshman when her mother opened the bedroom door on the morning of June 7, 2013, and discovered her daughter’s body.

Ashley had killed herself. She was 14.

When I interviewed Tanya and Kelly DeMond shortly after the memorial service for Ashley last year, they talked candidly about their daughter’s bipolar disorder and her struggle with depression since elementary school. She was undergoing mental health counseling outside of school before her death.

In the obituary that appeared in the Valley News, Tanya and Kelly wrote that Ashley’s death was a suicide. It’s not a detail that many families feel comfortable making public. But as Kelly told me a year go, “Our daughter had an illness. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Last Wednesday, I stopped by the family’s apartment at Northwoods, a housing complex not far from downtown White River Junction. As in our conversations last year, Kelly and Tanya talked mostly about their children.

Jessie, 13, is a seventh-grader at Hartford Middle School, and Jimmy, 17, is a junior at Hartford High. Jimmy’s picture recently appeared in the Valley News for having earned an “outstanding student award” in automotive technology at the Hartford Area Career and Technology Center.

After Ashley’s suicide, Jimmy mentioned to his mother that their lives were “never again going to be normal.”

“No, bud,” replied Tanya, trying to console him. “We’ve got to come up with a new normal.”

And that’s what the last year has been about.

Jimmy has found it helpful to spend a lot of time at his grandparents’ home in Hartford. He’s talked with his parents about joining the military after graduating.

Kelly continues to work as a school bus driver. Along with his morning and afternoon routes, he drives Upper Valley high school athletic teams to away games. He’s also lined up some custodial work at a local school this summer.

The DeMonds could use the extra income. They now have a new mouth to feed. They recently bought a horse for Jessie. “After what happened with Ashley, Jessie really needed a friend,” said Kelly.

Jessie learned to ride when she was in elementary school. She collects model horses, reads books on their care, and watches the RFD-TV channel with her dad. “She had everything but a real horse,” said Kelly. “It’s been her dream.”

Tanya had a horse growing up and Kelly, when he was in his 30s, rode in summer rodeos at Pond Hill Ranch in Castleton, Vt. Financially, Kelly and Tanya knew that buying a horse, and everything that comes with it, would stretch their budget. Before going ahead, Tanya discussed it with Dalene Washburn, a child and family therapist, who works with her and Jessie.

Washburn is a big believer in using animal-assisted therapy to aid with treatment. “Animals can sense when a person is dealing with trauma,” said Washburn, who talked with me after receiving Tanya’s permission. “They can be very valuable in the healing process and a distraction from the pain.”

From his rodeo days, Kelly was aware that Pond Hill Ranch sold horses. With their income tax refund in hand, Kelly and Tanya drove to Pond Hill. Jessie settled on Wyatt, a 10-year-old American Quarter Horse from a ranch in Oklahoma.

For the cost of a decent used car, they now have a horse that they keep at a farm in Enfield. Jessie, Tanya and Kelly, when he’s not working, are there every evening after supper and on weekends. “That’s what I love about this family,” said Washburn. “Their priorities are very child focused.”

Along with riding Wyatt, the DeMonds clean stalls and fill water buckets. In exchange for helping with chores, they get a break on boarding fees. “It’s still expensive, but this horse has been a huge savior for Jessie,” said Kelly.

Since Ashley’s death, the family has looked to keep her memory alive. The Rev. Jo Shelnutt-Melendy, who presided at Ashley’s memorial service, suggested they focus on her love of music. Whenever she was in her bedroom, Ashley played her favorite country and pop songs. Last spring, she sang solo in Hartford High’s talent show.

“She sang like a bird,” said her grandmother Judy Clock.

During last Sunday’s Hartford High School Senior Awards Ceremony, Tanya, Jessie and Clock presented the Ashley DeMond Memorial Scholarship. Seniors Emily-Newton Smith and Justin Gere were selected by teachers for their musical contributions to the school. Each received $500 for college.

Some of the money came from memorial contributions. Clock also came up with a unique — and ambitious — way to supplement the donations. She collected $800 worth of bottles and cans from friends, neighbors and where she works. Her husband, Jim, helped with the sorting. Clock cashed in the refundable bottles and cans. She already has $600 in the bank to go toward next year’s scholarship award.

“It’s very good therapy for me,” Clock said.

Much like a horse named Wyatt.