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Jim Kenyon: A Family’s Gift of Honesty

Obituaries are a staple of many daily newspapers. Last year, the Valley News published more than 1,100 of them. Obituaries are a source of news — who died and when — that provides details, like where the deceased was born and how many grandchildren he or she had, that only family and close friends might otherwise know.

Sometimes, particularly if the person had battled a form of cancer, the cause of death is mentioned. But when a person dies by suicide?

“That’s not often mentioned,” said Ann Duckless, a community educator and prevention specialist with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Concord. “Suicide is such the elephant in the room.”

Kelly and Tanya DeMond, of Hartford, have taken on that elephant. After their 14-year-old daughter, Ashley, killed herself on June 7, the DeMonds sat down with Rich Landry, the director of Knight Funeral Home in White River Junction.

Landry told them that they weren’t obligated to specify in the obituary how their daughter had died. But people are going to wonder, he said, particularly with someone as young as Ashley. Today, when social media often shapes discussion, it’s hard to keep anything secret for long. Even family secrets. “With Facebook and everything else, everyone knows,” Landry told me. “If people make the announcement themselves, it can it make it easier for them. People aren’t going to be asking the question.”

After talking with Landry, the DeMonds believed that the truth needed to come out. They also wanted the obituary to give a sense of what their daughter had been dealing with for much of her young life. Ashley had faced a “long struggle with emotional issues,” stated the obituary. “Even though she struggled with depression, Ashley tried her hardest to always be upbeat.”

Last week, the DeMonds told me that their daughter had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was undergoing mental health counseling outside of school at the time of her death.

“Our daughter had an illness,” said Kelly. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Ashley had a weekly appointment with a mental health counselor. “People treat it like a taboo,” said Kelly. “It’s not a bad thing that your kid is in counseling.”

By sharing the details of what their teenage daughter was going through and stating publicly that her death was a suicide, the DeMonds may have helped in ways they may never know. “They’re so courageous,” said Duckless. “Any time a family is able to be so open about it, they are giving a gift to the community. They are destigmatizing suicide and mental health issues.”

By acknowledging their daughter took her life, “It allows people in the community to treat suicide as a public health issue,” Duckless added.

On June 15, another Hartford teenager killed himself, police said. In an interview with Valley News staff writer Sarah Brubeck, Deputy Police Chief Brad Vail said, “Suicide is a touchy subject and there are people who may be feeling ashamed that it happened to someone in their family. But if people stick their heads in the sand and don’t deal with it, it’s not for the greater good. We need to have an open dialogue about it and there shouldn’t be any feeling of shame from a family.”

At a June 12 memorial service for Ashley at Quechee Community Church, speakers chose their words carefully. They didn’t want to send the wrong message to the dozens of young people in the audience.

“This isn’t a celebration of death. This isn’t glamorous. This isn’t cool,” said Jessica Shepley, who heads a therapeutic day school in Brattleboro, where Ashley was a student for two years before returning as a ninth-grader to Hartford last fall.

“If Ashley could have truly understood what she was doing, she wouldn’t have done it.”

The Rev. Jo Shelnutt-Melendy, who presided over the service, told the large crowd that it was a chance to “give thanks for Ashley’s life, to release our anger, to admit our confusion and together face the tragedy of her much too early death.”

The DeMonds want to do what they can to keep alive their daughter’s memory. They asked Hartford High School officials to help them start a music scholarship in Ashley’s name. “Ashley loved to sing,” her mother said. “Whether it was in the shower or at school (in a talent show), she was always singing.”

Carla Benson, who manages the school bus company that Kelly drives for, has taken it upon herself to start another fundraising drive. She’s raising money to help the DeMonds, who have two other children, with funeral expenses. Until they come up with the money to buy a cemetery plot, the DeMonds are keeping Ashley’s ashes on a bureau in her empty bedroom. Benson said checks to the DeMonds can be sent to Butler’s Bus Service, 43 Pine St., White River Junction, Vt. 05001.

Last week, I stopped by the DeMonds’ apartment. I hoped I wasn’t intruding. “You’re not,” said Kelly. “It helps to talk about it.”

After I’d been there a while, Jimmy, Ashley’s 16-year-old brother, left to hang out with a friend. “Make sure you’re home for dinner,” said Kelly. “I’m making spaghetti.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.

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