One reason for writing about his death is to make one aware of some of the potential signs that a person is contemplating suicide. I can honestly say we are not aware of, nor did we see, any signs in our son's death. I say that from a somewhat unique perspective and let me share a bit of my background.
When I was 17, I'm 62 now, I use to go on the weekends to our state mental hospital in Raleigh, N.C., Dorothea Dix Hospital to volunteer to work with the patients. It was one of the grandest mental health facilities in the U.S. The patients worked, all who could had their own small garden and the hospital itself was fairly self sufficient using patient labor to stay clean and keeping the patients working. I would go on the weekends since I had a full time job and was in school full time. I had dreams of one day becoming a psychiatrist and wanted to learn more. Of course the real reason was to understand myself better, and what a wonderful way to learn while helping others.
Eventually I ended up in the military, this was the Vietnam era, and was what is called a "psychiatric technician" and worked with the Marines and Navy in that capacity. In my volunteer status, as well as my full time 4 year status, I was fortunate to work with many patients suffering from many emotional illnesses. I felt I was pretty good at picking up on mood, affect, body posture, temperament and especially good at working with patients who were suffering from some form of depressive reaction. Having lead many "group sessions" it was important to not only observe but also help others to learn to observe the words and actions of other patients to better qualify them to help themselves. The quiet passive voice, with the masked angry teeth gritting face did not add up. No matter what the patient said the actions stood out. To verbalize "I'm not angry about it" did not coincide with the actions while speaking and discussing. We were tuned in to non verbal communications.
That is part of my background so you will understand as I go forth. Immediately after our son's suicide I was surprised at how many people remarked they could not imagine anyone contemplating suicide, especially one so young. This was very surprising to me to hear this as it had always seemed to me that there are moments in practically everyone's life when suicide is considered an option. The key is not choosing that option and being able to live for another moment, another day. One does not have to live forever, but only choose a moment longer. The moments add up to the point that suicide is not undertaken.
We were asked about what "signs" our son exhibited if any. This was especially voiced by those who knew him and literally exclaimed they never saw any signs of an unhappy child or any signs of contemplation of committing suicide. The one area that one has to be careful of with any person, even children, is the use of drugs or alcohol. Obviously alcohol is a depressant which only complicates matters and certain drugs destroy rationality and fear. Our son did not use alcohol or drugs. He was a happy fella.
Another point is are there signs of depression? Is the person sleepy most of the time, do they avoid interactions with others, do they stay in their room, or feel isolated at school or in life? Are they bullied, do they voice concerns of being worthless? All of these observations would make most people wonder if something is going on. Graham showed none of those signs, in fact he was one of the happiest, joking, carefree kids in the school. Great grades, community service, very likable to not only his peers but also his teachers, and adults. There were none of these signs and if so no one ever saw them, nor in hindsight think they may have seen but missed. It was confusing to all and very sad.
After his death we were told of him saying to a friend that as early as the 6th grade he had contemplated suicide and was going to do so with medicine he could get in the medicine cabinet. Now this bit of information was found out post death. Again even if he had those thoughts, there were no outward signs or verbalization of such. Years later he told one person of those thoughts. One thing that I learned from years of dealing with psychiatric patients, is you should take heed if anyone says they are contemplating suicide and they have gone so far as to figure out how to do it. That is one sure sign to take action and heed them at their word. Thought, coupled with how to do it, is a red flag. That one thing is the only thing we've ever been able to understand that might have been some precursor, but again it was after the fact.
My purpose in describing this is so many people feel "guilt" after a suicide and wonder what could I have done, why didn't I do something etc. but the bottom line is one can only do as much as they are capable of doing. It's very important for one not to heap blame on themselves, not to sink into hopelessness but learn and go forth having the wisdom to try to not let it happen to others. My wife, our two girls, went through the time of self doubt, however in my case it was not for extended time as I realized what my Dad had told me decades earlier, "You can only do as good as you can, nothing more, so don't beat yourself up as you go forward". Our family's response, with the help of the school principal, David Mahaley, was to create a foundation that honored that all time leading sentiment we all should have: "Life Is For The Living".
We created a foundation, the GJCAE, not to mourn our son's passing as that is a process of dealing with Old Man Time, but to celebrate those who remained with us, especially our two girls, each other, and the friends all of us had, including our son. The worst thing to do is to self punish, to drop out, to forget the ones that matter are those who stand beside you daily. Sometimes events happen that you have no control over and you have to learn to accept it. Good acts don't come from events, good comes from what one decides to do with an event.
We hope the work of the Graham Johnson Cultural Arts Endowment will be to honor those who remain, those who concentrate on the people here and now and strive to make things better. When people are happy, when they have self confidence, when they are motivated, when they see light at the end of the tunnel, then there will be fewer suicides, fewer bad days, less suffering for those left behind. The Graham Johnson Cultural Arts Endowment, through the efforts of the volunteer board, the many volunteer friends of our son and this community survive knowing what matters is Life is for the Living.