In opening their teen daughter's memorial to the public, an NHL family ignited a national discussion on a topic that's usually taboo for its dark and painful nature: youth suicide.
Instead of grieving in private, the family of 14-year-old Daron Richardson, daughter of Ottawa Senators assistant coach Luke Richardson, held a public memorial on Wednesday at Scotiabank Place, the team's arena, to mourn her unexpected death. Daron killed herself on Friday at the family's home in Ottawa.
The family "openly shared the circumstances of her death to remove the stigma of pain and fear associated with suicide," Roshene Lawson, chaplain of the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said at the arena. "They want to spare other families the pain they are suffering."
Thousands trickled into the arena to remember the young woman. But their presence also provided a stark reminder that adolescent suicide should not be kept hidden. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, and fourth among those in the younger age group, according to Statistics Canada.
"The Richardson's family decision, at perhaps their darkest hour, was such a courageous decision. ... Without question, they've inspired our community to have a dialogue about this issue that people didn't want to talk about," said Tim Kluke, president and chief executive officer of the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health, a non-profit organization that is the recipient of donations in memory of Daron.
The reality is that while the majority of teens who engage in suicidal behaviour exhibit telltale signs, not all do. Experts in the field say that the spotlight shone on the issue by the Richardsons encourages parents to be alert for subtle hints, such as mood and sleep pattern changes, performance at school and whether their child is acting differently in social situations.
Ian Manion, executive director of the provincial centre of excellence for child and youth mental health at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario, said not everybody who has committed suicide has demonstrated mental illness. The Richardson family's decision to share the circumstances of Daron's death and to hold a memorial has opened the door to the issue.
"I know for a fact that there have been conversations all over this community between parents and kids over the last 48 hours," Dr. Manion said. "Parents are worried. They don't want the same thing to happen to their kids, so they're more vigilant. It may have opened a lot of doors for parents to reconnect with their young people."
But Robin Everall, a professor in the department of educational psychology at the University of Alberta, said while the public display of emotion for Daron keeps the subject front and centre, there is a disadvantage. There's very little publicity in the media about suicide. That's not because people want to hide from it, but because often there is concern about copycats. "I do know there are people in the suicidology area who feel very strongly that the contagion issue kind of overrides," she said.
Still, Prof. Everall is hopeful that the memorial and publicity around Daron's death will force parents and their children to speak about the issue. "This is a real problem. We don't want to lose our children," she said.
Daron was a student at Ashbury College, an elite independent school in Ottawa, and by all accounts was popular, athletic and a good student.
Her parents donated her organs soon after her death. Four people have benefited from transplants.
Her father, Luke Richardson, was a defenceman who played 21 seasons in the National Hockey League with teams that included the Ottawa Senators, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers. A host of NHL players attended Wednesday's memorial service.
With a report from The Canadian Press