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By JON MARK BEILUE
Posted: May 19, 2012
Douglas Rhodes is trying to see beyond the grief, past the questions and through the pain. As hard as it is, he and his family are trying to turn the focus outwardly while inwardly the agony can be overwhelming.
“I just don’t want anybody to go through what we’re going through,” Rhodes said. “If my son felt the way every day that I do today, then I’m surprised he made it as long as he did.”
Last Wednesday was two days after the funeral that was so large it was shown on closed-circuit television at First Presbyterian Church. It was five days after Natalie Rhodes found Jack, their 16-year-old son, dead in his Amarillo bedroom, having taken his own life.
In the wake of that solemn day, Douglas Rhodes sat behind the desk in his study with his father, a younger brother and his best friend. He could turn his laptop screen to the website already up — jackduncanrhodes foundation.org.
Most striking on the website are Jack’s smile and his features that could have been on the page of a Ralph Lauren advertisement. Most lasting, his father and family pray, is the help, education and awareness that it will provide.
“Maybe it’s through grief I want to do this, but it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I just want to help prevent teen suicide because it’s obvious it’s on the rise.”
Statistics bearing this out are plentiful. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 60 percent of high school students have thought of suicide, 19.3 percent have seriously considered suicide, and about 900,000 planned their suicides during an episode of major depression in one year. For those ages 15 to 24, suicide is the third-leading cause of death behind accidents and homicide.
While writing last weekend what seemed at one time unfathomable — Jack’s obituary — extended family began to bounce around ideas, to think out loud.
“I am surrounded by friends and family a lot smarter than I am, and it just snowballed from scholarships into a foundation,” said Rhodes, regional sales manager for Suddenlink. “We brainstormed for two hours, and we narrowed it down to preventing teenage suicide through education, awareness and communication.”
What they envision is a website to find qualified speakers for teen groups, a clearinghouse for peer counseling where a troubled teen can turn, a foundation that would financially fund scholarships for those studying in the mental health field, to send at-risk teens to Hidden Falls camp and help pay for counseling for those families who can’t afford it.
“It’s evolving,” said Mark Strickland, a close friend. “What you see here is a start.”
“I don’t want my son’s life and his death to be wasted,” Rhodes said.
Grasping at straws
While Rhodes rewound in his mind the past 15 months of struggle for his son and himself, Natalie Rhodes was upstairs, understandably too torn to join the discussion. But they could be so many other parents raising a teen in these turbulent times. Only a naive family can say they are immune from the shock of suicide.
“For a while, maybe 90 days, we were in denial, thinking he’s going through puberty and these are just normal adolescent issues,” Douglas Rhodes said. “There’s not one incident in his life that started it. It was just this big black cloud that slowly kept pushing him down.”
Jack made A’s, was a first chair in the Amarillo High School orchestra, was on the debate team, had gone to Mack Brown football camps at the University of Texas and loved the outdoors.
A little more than a year ago, things began to change. Jack began to smoke marijuana, and his group of friends changed. His mood was somber. For the first time, he was getting into trouble at school.
“We had really been dealing with it head-on since January of this year,” Douglas said. “Until then, we thought it was adolescence acting out. We could see the change in him, and my wife said, ‘Jack has lost his mojo. We got to get him back.’”
They tried everything. Jack was in professional counseling. He was on antidepressant medication. Douglas Rhodes’ sister, Helen, a medical doctor, was his confidante, telling him the steps they were taking were correct, but it would take time. There were difficult tough-love conversations, especially about the increased pot use, and behavior commitments he was challenged to make. Care and communication was a constant, but so was worry.
Four months ago, they found a note Jack had written that could be termed suicidal. He was confronted about it, but told his parents he was just blowing off steam, and would never do something like that. Nevertheless, they cleared their home of guns.
“My wife and I told each other numerous times that it looks like we have the depression licked,” he said. “Now we have to battle the marijuana use. We actually thought we had the depression licked.”
Over the last 90 days, Douglas Rhodes said, he and Natalie were grasping at straws. They considered sending Jack to a special camp in Colorado or to military school. They canceled business trips to be with him. They also kept the issue private.
“I don’t know if keeping it confidential was a good thing or not,” he said. “But I want to speak to people, speak to at-risk teens and say this is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about. It happens. You need to reach out for help.”
The last three months, Douglas Rhodes said he and Natalie basically baby-sat Jack. He would be driven to school, picked up for lunch, picked up after school, do chores with Douglas after work.
“We had conversations every day, and never did he give me or his mother the impression that ‘I’ve lost all hope, and the only way out is suicide,’” he said.
On May 10, Jack was suspended from school. After three days, he would finish the year at North Heights Alternative School. Jack told his father that was fine with him, that way he could focus on his studies. Rhodes told his son he was disappointed this happened, but they would get through it.
Jack went to bed at 8 that night. Plans were for Douglas and Natalie Rhodes to go to work early the next day and be home around 10 a.m., when they guessed he would be up. Natalie arrived home first. Their lives changed forever after that.
To lose a child, it’s always been said, is a parent’s worst nightmare. To lose one like this is beyond the comprehension of pain and grief. Yet way too many families have been crushed by suicide, and way too many could be.
Douglas and Natalie Rhodes have been overwhelmed in the past week by the kindness and comfort of hundreds and hundreds.
Douglas wonders aloud how they will ever thank everyone. Maybe this foundation will one day do just that. If it prevents just one family from having to confront what the Rhodes family has, it will be enough.