Suicide. It wasn’t until two weeks after Daron died that her parents were able to utter the word.
“We were living it, and we couldn’t say it,” Stephanie Richardson recalls. She and her husband, Ottawa Senators assistant coach Luke Richardson, had detected no sign that their beautiful, outgoing and athletic 14-year-old was depressed, let alone thinking of ending her life.
Her death last November shocked and galvanized the city, bringing together schools, mental-health professionals, scientists and community groups to tackle suicide prevention. The Richardsons launched Do It For Daron (DIFD) to get people talking about the problem.
Although devoted to the campaign, which has raised more than $500,000, they have carefully protected their privacy. In fact, they explain during an interview at their home on the banks of the Ottawa River, the venture began as a way to help Daron’s friends and those of her sister Morgan, 17, cope with the tragedy.
“The kids were rattled,” Mrs. Richardson recalls. “We had to give them a voice, a way to make sure, as one of them put it, that this didn’t happen to anyone else’s friend. One of them said to me, ‘How come we are allowed to save the whales but not allowed to save the kids?’ ”
Teens remain a driving force of DIFD – an army clad in purple, Daron’s favourite colour, for the bake sales, softball tournaments and other events held to raise money and awareness.
“It has been so good for Morgan and her friends – instead of feeling like a victim of suicide, she, they, have become champions,” Mrs. Richardson says. “I find it overwhelming to see how brave they are.”
The campaign has required that the Richardsons share the fears of friends, neighbours and even strangers who appear at their door. The dining-room table is stacked with letters, cards and e-mail printouts. While most carry messages of solace and support, some hold painful secrets.
One couple describe finding a rope hanging in their child’s closet – they put it away, no questions asked, not recognizing it as a warning sign. A Saskatchewan man wrote about the pain of being unable to discuss his teenage brother’s suicide with his parents. “They sent me to camp.”
After one young woman’s visit, the Richardsons began to refer to their campaign simply as DIFD – she was angry that Daron’s death had received so much attention while that of her friend had gone unacknowledged.
“It is not a memorial, it is a cause,” Mrs. Richardson says. “We didn’t want other families to feel their child wasn’t celebrated.”
And yet, she says, Daron was a force – a talented hockey player with close friends on her team and at school. Even her doodles seemed upbeat. The week before she died, a friend taught her to write her name in Chinese characters on a piece of tissue paper her mother found in her backpack. She had added a green tree with branches outstretched, a bright sun and colourful fish leaping out of the ocean. And yet something very different was happening inside.
“It makes me sad for our daughter, to think how scared she must have been,” Mrs. Richardson says.
She and her husband discussed many difficult issues with the girls – sex, drugs, drinking and driving. “But you would never say, ‘If you are feeling funny, be it sad, or feeling off, or struggling with something, if you would ever feel you would harm yourself, we need to talk about this.’ Never. We would have done it, if we had known.”
Mr. Richardson says that talking about such things is hard and suggests that if children don’t embrace the subject at first, try again. “It might be because they are still digesting it.”
“If we had the chance, we would be having that conversation,” he continues, admitting that “it is easy for us to say that now, but hopefully other people will see that it is way too precious not to – way too precious.”
He and Stephanie take comfort from knowing that because of them, others are more alert to the danger of suicide. They are heartened when thanked by parents who have had the conversation they wish they had had with Daron and by teens who sought help because of the campaign – there has been a dramatic increase in demand for treatment.
“I think when I hear kids say, ‘This has saved my life,’ it is powerful,” Mrs. Richardson says. “But to be honest, it is hard to take it all in. It is all part of the shock of Daron’s death.”
Sometimes they’re simply drained by the sheer effort required to remain composed at fundraisers, to be “on” even as they must face their pain and help Morgan cope with hers.
“I think where it takes its toll,” Mrs. Richardson concludes, “is that people think you are doing better than you are because you rise to the occasion.”