Special Report: Moving Forward

The school year is winding down, and for many students, teachers, and families it’s a time to reflect on all that’s changed in the past year. But in one Northern Michigan community, the past 12 months have been some of the most painful they’ve ever experienced.

9 & 10’s Bill Froehlich went to Kingsley, to talk with some of those affected by three teen suicides to find out how the community is “Moving Forward.”

When the final bell rang last June, students walked the halls and walked out the door for summer. But the happy feet and sights set on sunny days ahead didn’t last long. A dark day rolled over Kingsley.

Superintendent Keith Smith tells us, “Our first student took his own life the day after school got out. That was tragic news, heartbreaking news.”

Staff at Kingsley Schools barely had a chance to catch their breath, before it happened again.

Smith says, “As we’re kind of thinking about what are we going to do for this next year, we had our second student take his own life the day before school started.”

That second student was 14 year-old Kayden Stone. Fresh from 8th grade graduation, Kayden was just one day away from starting high school.

His dad, Bill Stone, says, “You know, he played sports, played videogames, but those were not his passions. His passions oddly enough were politics, cultures, religion.”

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among people ages 10 to 34, according to the CDC. 

Stone says, “My son was a very intelligent kid. Some would say he was intellectually advanced, and he had aspirations of going to an Ivy League school. He had a lot going for himself. And I only say all of that to make this point: it can appear on the exterior like somebody has it all together, but you never really know what’s going on in someone’s mind especially if they don’t tell you.”

In Kingsley, the statistics aren’t as important as the students, families, and community that are affected. With counseling in place special school and community events to raise awareness, Kingsley felt like they were getting a handle on things.

The Superintendent says that’s when it happened again: “And then we had the third suicide.”

Three lives lost in a small town of only 1,600 people. Pastor Colleen Wierman at Kingsley United Methodist Church says her sanctuary became a sanctuary for more than just her congregation.

“I did two of the services for the youth, out of the three, and I don’t ever want to do them again,” Wierman says.

Smith says, “This was the first time in my career, there was a day I broke down crying at home. It just became too much to deal with.”

He says it’s been hard on the teachers, too. They’re the ones who see the students every day. Until suddenly, they don’t.

Smith says, “They really haven’t had time to grieve, to deal with their own emotions. You know they’re expected to be right back with the kids the next day with a smiling face, to be supportive.”

Emily Ruby is a counselor with the Kingsley schools. She says, “It’s been probably one of the hardest years for me and our staff working in education… (with the) grief and loss. There’s just a lot of heavy things sitting on our community.”

Every day is heavy for Bill and Melissa Stone, as they look back on Kayden’s life and the joy he brought to their family.

“Even eight months later I still can’t come up with a word that truly articulates that pain,” Bill Stone says. “You know you can put on a smile and I can speak with people, but it doesn’t tell the story about what’s going on internally.”

There’s also a worry bubbling under the surface in Kingsley that there could still be a next time.

Pastor Wierman says, “When I’ve spoken with parents just in general, there’s a fear. About, ‘could it be my kid? Am I missing something?’”

One young woman who was suffering with anger and anxiety and a host of other feelings says it could have been her.

Isabel Weathers says, “Just a bunch of, you know, emotional scars from the past just coming to light that I held down for so long. It all just fell apart.”

It fell apart for Bill Stone and his family. He says every day is hard.

“The desire to see your child doesn’t go away, it only grows. And when you know you never will it hurts. It’s painful and it consumes you,” Bill Stone says.

There is pain. But this is also a story about healing, and helping, and sending a message.

Stone says, “I can assure you that if my son ever expressed to me his pain, his struggles, there’s not anything that I wouldn’t have done to make sure that he’s still here today. So, the conversation has to be had.”

Emily Ruby agrees. “Whether we talk about it or not, the weight is there.”

It’s a weight many teenagers carry with them, sometimes carried silently.

For Isabel Weathers, “Just thinking maybe the world would be a better place without me, maybe. I tried to attempt suicide. I left my mom and note and everything.”

Thankfully it didn’t happen to Isabel – and since then she’s had support in Kingsley, and now hopes to help others.

“I care about people and I don’t want them to go through with this. It hurts to see these people suffer and I know what it’s like to be in their shoes,” Isabel says.

Experts say for parents, it starts with having the tough conversations with your kids.

Ruby says, “I would say that unfortunately we see as young as 4th grade kids here who make comments about wanting to kill themselves. So, if your kid is talking about that it’s something you need to take seriously.”  She adds, “It is a totally scary topic to talk about. But talking about it doesn’t plant ideas in kids’ heads. By avoiding the conversation you’re putting the kid at risk.”

Bill Stone agrees. “There are going to be struggles, there are going to be difficulties, there are going to be hard times. And if you have people around you that you can vocalize your pain to, they will help you through it. But you have to be willing to tell someone.”

Everyone we talked with agrees, you should set aside any fears about the stigma of suicide. Whether you’re a parent, or a teen worried about a friend.

Weathers says, “Friendship is important. Checking on one another is important, it’s not all laughing and flirting. It’s okay to have serious conversations like that once in a while.”

Keith Smith says, “Maybe you don’t think they’re serious, maybe you don’t want to betray their trust.”

And Pastor Wierman adds, “You’re not going to be ‘narc-ing’ on the kid or breaking that trust. You’re going to be offering help. So, you need to speak up and tell someone. Because that shows care, that shows love, that shows that you love your friend enough to get them some help.”

Speaking from experience, Bill Stone says, “You have to be willing to have those conversations. They’re uncomfortable. They’re awkward.  But love doesn’t care about that.”

Emily Ruby compares the importance to any other health concern.  “If your kid has the flu or cold or ear infection you’d take them to the doctor. Mental health is the same thing.”

Despite all the pain that walks the Kingsley halls, and the pain carried by those driving down the Kingsley streets, there is a growing sense of community.

Bill Stone says, “I’ve realized I can’t do it alone. I’ve got a tremendous support group. And without them like I can honestly tell you I wouldn’t be sitting here right now if it weren’t for that.”

Emily Ruby says, “Despite the weight and struggles our community has, we have seen people rise up and work together and the kids here care about each other.”

And Pastor Wierman adds, “I’ve seen this community step up to try to do everything they can to wrap their arms around these kids to let them know they’re loved and cared about and somebody’s willing to listen to them.”

Bill Stone says talking about his son is therapeutic, and he feels like it’s important to tell the story, because there’s an important message to share.

“Awareness needs to be out there,” he says. “And the more you talk about it, the more people will be aware of it. And hopefully prevent other people from sitting in the chair. Because it’s not a place anyone wants to be. (It) doesn’t take away the pain of missing Kayden but it lets me know that he didn’t die in vain.”

See more of our interviews with Bill Stone, Pastor Wierman and Emly Ruby below.

Resources are listed below:

Third Level Crisis Center: 24 Hour Hotline 1-800-442-7315

The Trevor Project (online chat) www.thetrevorproject.org/get-help-now  or Text Helpline – text START to 678678, both available 7 days a week 6am-1am

Crisis Text Line – 24/7 connection to trained Crisis Counselors – text CONNECT to 741741

National Alliance for Grieving Children: 10 Ways to Help https://childrengrieve.org/resources/10-ways-to-help-a-grieving-child

For the National Suicide Hotline call: 1-800-273-8255.