John - 'If We Only Knew, If He Only Told Us'

by John Halligan

John - 'If We Only Knew, If He Only Told Us'

Ryan in 2002.

Life for us will never be the same as it was before Oct. 7, 2003. There are no words to describe the shock and horror of finding your 13-year-old son dead from suicide just as another typical school day was suppose to begin.

Our son Ryan was a sweet, gentle and very sensitive soul. He developed a wonderful sense of humor, enjoying mostly physical comedy, loving to make people laugh with a goofy look or gesture. Other kids his age quickly gravitated to his warmth and friendliness.

But there were early concerns with Ryan's speech, language and motor skills development as he neared kindergarten. Ryan received special ed services from pre-school through the fourth grade. By the time he reached the fifth grade, he was assessed to be on grade, no longer needing special ed. But as he became older, he also became more aware that he was not as book smart as most of his classmates. This bothered him deeply. He had to work much harder at homework and re-read assignments several times to comprehend the material. He was hard on himself, no matter how much we tried to lessen the academic pressure.

It was during the fifth grade that we first began to encounter a bullying problem. A few kids picked up on Ryan's academic weaknesses and his poor physical coordination. But since he was not physically bullied, we advised him to just ignore them, walk away and remember that he had good friends to count on. We even went so far as to get him professional therapy to further help him develop coping skills with verbal bullying and to boost his self-esteem. By the end of that school year, he seemed fine and, on the therapist's advice, stopped the sessions.

Things started to get tougher for him during the seventh grade. School was still not easy for him and he often brought up the concern of being put back in "sped" (special ed). By December, a few kids were tormenting him to the point that he hated going to school and often cried about it at the kitchen table. You can't imagine the sense of helplessness a parent feels in this situation -- torn between wanting to be his bodyguard all day and feeling he needed to learn how to manage the situation as part of growing up. What Ryan wanted was for us to help him learn to defend himself, so I began working with him on a "Taebo" boxing program.

That February, we got a call from the assistant principal after school one day saying that he had just broken up a fight between Ryan and one of the bullies. When we found Ryan walking home, he was both scared and elated. He was shaking but said he had gotten a few good punches in and felt good he was able to hold his own. He said that kid probably wouldn't be messing with him anymore. We were all feeling pretty relieved that day for him, for not being seriously hurt and for seemingly making it through a typical teenage rite of passage.

It was during this school year that he took an interest in computers, and spent a lot of that summer in his room and on his computer. It was a rainy summer that year in Vermont, so it was hard to discern that this was a sign of a problem. However, as we got closer to the new school year, we expressed our concern with what seemed like excessive time being spent online. He assured us he was only chatting with friends.

At the start of eighth grade, Ryan seemed to be doing fine, but we came to find out after his death that we really only knew what he was willing to share with us. A few days after Ryan's funeral, a classmate approached me online and told me that the bully Ryan had fought with later befriended Ryan, only to turn around and spread a rumor through school and the Internet that Ryan was gay. Other classmates who corroborated this story described the teasing as a feeding frenzy. I also came to find out that one of the popular girls pretended to like Ryan and engaged him in Instant Message conversations, and then embarrassed and humiliated him by sharing their private correspondence with others. She later told him she would never want anything to do with such a loser. He told her it was girls like her that made him want to kill himself. This all happened towards the very end of seventh grade and the first month of eighth grade and we had no idea. Knowing my son, he was probably too embarrassed to tell his parents, instead keeping the hurt inside.


At the start of eighth grade, Ryan seemed to be doing fine, but we came to find out after his death that we really only knew what he was willing to share with us.


Ryan's time on the computer had another dark side. I discovered after his death that Ryan was friends with a kid we never met in person, nor knew he was friends with, who seemed to be obsessed with death and even suicide. The two of them had a lot of anti-popular kid conversations and questioned the worthiness of life. There was a short exchange between them just two weeks prior where Ryan said, "Tonight's the night, and I think I'm going to do it. You'll read about it in the paper tomorrow." And the other kid replied, "It's about ****ing time!" You cannot imagine the anger at this kid that filled up inside of me when I read this.

A week before his first eighth-grade progress report arrived, he came to me tearful, telling me that I would be disappointed in him. During that conversation, he said he was just a loser and that he would never amount to anything, and what's the sense of living. I tearfully hugged him and told him how proud I was that he had the courage and maturity to warn me ahead of time about his progress report. I reminded him how much I loved him and I asked him to promise me that he would never get that desperate and do what he was thinking. We then discussed how we would develop a plan to work together in my home office to get him back on track. I said, "Damn it Ryan (with a smile), I'm not going to let you fail the eighth grade!" We both laughed and hugged one more time.

How I wish I had probed deeper that evening.

We do not blame Ryan's suicide on one single person or one single event. Ryan had struggled for years with school and in the end, was clearly suffering from depression. But we have no doubt that bullying and cyber-bullying were significant factors that contributed to Ryan's depression. As parents, we failed to hold the school accountable to maintain an emotionally safe environment for our son while he was alive.

We decided to take all this intense pain and channel it into productive areas to help other young people avoid the same fate as our son. There is a new law that we spearheaded in Vermont that hold schools much more accountable in preventing and responding to bullying. We also worked closely with i-Safe America to raise awareness about cyber-bullying and the severe emotional impact it can have on a young person. We've done several national and local news media interviews to spread this story. And we continue to collaborate with various suicide prevention groups to drive into our Vermont schools more education and screening for depression among middle school and high school students.

Nothing will ever bring back our Ryan. Nothing will ever heal our broken hearts. But we hope by sharing the personal details of our tremendous loss, another family will have been spared a lifelong sentence to this kind of pain.

Please never forget Ryan's story and the fragility of adolescence.


Facts about Bullying

  • In a 2001 survey by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, over 16 percent of students in grades six through 10 reported having being bullied. Experts estimate that at least one-quarter of all youth are involved in bullying, either as a victim, a perpetrator, or both.
  • Bullying is most common among students in grades six through eight.
  • Bullying can be physical (hitting, pushing, stealing), verbal (name-calling, taunting, making threats), or psychological (social exclusion, extortion, spreading rumors).
  • Cyber-bullying involves an individual's or group's use of information and communication technologies such as email, cell phone and pager text messages and Instant Messaging for the purpose of harassing another, spreading rumors, or supporting hostile behavior intended to harm others. Cyber-bullying has become one of the most potent and difficult to control forms of bullying among middle school students.
  • Research in various cultural settings has linked involvement in bullying to low self-esteem and self-worth, poor emotional and social adjustment, health problems, as well as depression and suicidal ideation. More research is needed to understand the interrelationships among these factors, and to identify factors that predispose students to being a bully or a victim of bullying.
  • Although bullying is frequently identified as a factor in youth suicide, studies to date have not controlled for the presence of depression or other risk factors in suicide victims who have been bullied. Thus, the precise role of bullying in precipitating suicidal behavior is not clearly understood.
  • There is clear evidence that bullying is linked to the larger issue of youth violence in this country.