Their friendship is forged in tragedy. Leah Parsons and Carol Todd, grieving mothers on opposite sides of the country, are finding strength in each other after the shockingly similar deaths of their teenage daughters, Rehtaeh and Amanda.
They text each other at all hours, chat on the phone or send Facebook messages. Last month, Ms. Todd, of Port Coquitlam, B.C., came to Halifax, and they spent a day together, touring – including a drive to Peggy’s Cove – and, of course, talking.
“We know what that pain feels like,” Ms. Parsons says. “We were able to connect and share things that we don’t necessarily share in public, just different things about our daughters.”
“It’s weird how tragedy can bring you together,” Ms. Todd says. “You can open up a conversation that you can’t open up with anyone else. You can’t talk about the whys and the what-ifs and … what you saw and how you feel with just any other person. Even my closest friends, who haven’t gone through it, can’t talk about it.”
For Ms. Parsons, this has been a particularly difficult week, as she marked the first anniversary of her daughter’s death on April 7. Ms. Todd was just a text away.
“How are you holding up? I know how hard it is,” wrote Ms. Todd.
“One more interview tomorrow evening then the walk [in Rehtaeh’s memory],” Ms. Parsons replied, “then will crash … I feel an emotional tsunami coming on.”
“I am here for you,” Ms. Todd wrote back.
Amanda Todd was 15 when she died by suicide in October, 2012, after being bullied, both in person and online. In a video she made, she used flash cards to talk about the bullying and abuse. “I’m constantly crying now. Every day I think ‘why am I still here?’” she wrote.
Rehtaeh Parsons was 17 when she attempted suicide. Days later, her parents took her off life support.
Like Amanda, Rehtaeh was bullied online. She was persistently tormented after a photo of her allegedly being sexually assaulted was circulated around her high school. The alleged rape took place at a house party in November, 2011. She felt let down by police and school officials. After her death, two young men were charged in relation to the distribution of the photograph; the case is now before the courts.
Ms. Todd sent a Facebook message to Ms. Parsons the day she read about Rehtaeh’s death. But it wasn’t until a month later, after they met briefly at a roundtable on cyberbullying in Winnipeg, which the Prime Minister attended, that they started to trade e-mails and texts.
As their friendship grew, they discovered other similarities between their children. The teenagers were both cheerleaders; Amanda was born on Nov. 27, which Ms. Parsons says was Rehtaeh’s due date, though she was born on Dec. 9. April 4 is Ms. Todd’s birthday; Ms. Parsons noted that was the day “Rehtaeh hung herself.” A documentary about Amanda’s case revealed that the day she received her last threatening Facebook message was the same day as the alleged assault against Rehtaeh took place. Ms. Parsons immediately texted her friend when she saw that.
Rehtaeh is the one who showed her mother Amanda’s video. “She said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to come see this,’” recalled Ms. Parsons. “Rehtaeh … said, ‘I am just so upset because nobody cared about her when she was alive.’”
Ms. Parsons remembers thinking: “How can people be that cruel? It’s shocking.” About a month later, Rehtaeh was dead.
Ms. Todd struggles with that, asking herself if her daughter’s video in any way glamourized suicide. “Deep in your brain you always sometimes wonder,” she says.
She and Ms. Parsons have spoken about it: “I sure hope that Amanda’s death did not trigger anything in your daughter. And she said ‘no.’”
The more they talked, the more they realized they shared feelings. “As much as our girls were parallel,” Ms. Todd says, “we are parallel, too, in our emotions, our physical health, our tiredness.” Gradually, their conversations evolved to other subjects, but usually circle back to the girls. And there is one constant: The women are determined to keep alive what their daughters fought for – respect, acceptance, forgiveness and dignity.
Both women are well-equipped for this role – Ms. Todd is a special education teacher; Ms. Parsons has a degree in counselling. Articulate and frank, they feel progress is being made in their crusade against cyberbullying and harassment. But they say there is more to do. The two women spend a lot of time speaking publicly about their daughters – next month, Ms. Parsons is talking to 800 Grade 8 students in New Brunswick. Ms. Todd was speaking in Ontario this week. Their daughters, Ms. Parsons says, “tried so hard to stand up for themselves. They were trying to get a message out there. I just feel and I think she does, too, we are here to carry that message forward.”