She found herself reading the note over and over again.
Written in pen, it allowed for no mistakes. Every mark was permanent. A mispelled or mispoken word couldn’t be erased, only scribbled over, leaving a scab-like mark on the ruled page.
Darla French has pored over all the words, wondering what her son, Tanner, was thinking as he wrote it. She sees a smudge stained into the right margin.
“Was that from a tear?” she said.
The note is the last message she has from a 19-year-old who took his own life.“None of this is your fault,” it read. “You did everything you could to turn me into the man I should be today. The real world is tough to handle, and when you get down it’s hard to get back up. I’m so sorry I had to do this. I can’t handle the everyday stress anymore…”
That cold February day in 2011 seemed like any other Monday. Darla had gone to work that morning, and at the end of the workday she went to Wal-Mart to buy some groceries before heading home. She returned home to a nightmare.
“He tried to call me earlier that day at work, and I was busy so I didn’t answer,” French said.
She still regrets not answering that call. She tried to call him back later, but he didn’t answer. Later Tanner texted his mom that he loved her.
She replied that she loved him too and asked why he had called earlier. He replied “just to talk.”“I was driving home,” she said. “I had tried to text him a couple times to see if he was home to help me unload groceries, but I didn’t hear from him. Then I tried to call him but no answer. For a few minutes, just because of the problems he’d been having, I thought, ‘What if he’s done something to himself?’
“I got home, and his car wasn’t on side of the driveway where he usually parks. So I hit the garage door opener. And as the door started lifting I saw him sitting in the lawn chair behind his car. It kind of looked like he was asleep.”
She thought he was sitting there listening to music or because of his unique sense of humor maybe playing a practical joke.
“Then I thought ‘Tanner, this is not a funny joke.’ That’s when I went around the car and saw the blood running under him. Then I saw the gun. The car was still running.”
Autopsy results and phone records determined he had been dead for approximately four hours when she found him. A crowd soon gathered.
“Breckenridge is a small town,” French said. “We lived about a block off Main Street. There were police cars, sheriff’s cars and ambulances parked up and down our street. Within an hour there were at least 75 people there. When the police got there I was lying in the grass. They put the crime scene tape up around the yard, and at that point I just wanted it down because it made it all too real. I was screaming and running to try and take the tape down. People were holding me back.”
She told one of her friends to go get her a “for sale” sign because she couldn’t stay there anymore.
“I spent the night there a few more times after that, but was hardly ever there by myself,” she said. “If I was there by myself I would go to that spot in the garage and stand there and look around and try to think about what was going through his mind. I wondered if he was crying or if he was scared.
“And the first few times I pulled in the garage I would just imagine him pulling his car in and writing the note, and wondering what was his plan. That drove me crazy for a few months because it was like a horrible movie playing over and over. I wouldn’t go through the garage because I couldn’t stand to see the garage go up. If I had to go into the garage it would be from the inside so it would be from a different view. And still today if I see garage doors go up …”
French left her home in Breckenridge and moved to Lake Bridgeport to be close to her daughter, Madyson Cox, 24.
“I get mad at Tanner because at 45 years old I started my life over,” she said. “I sold my house. I moved to a town where I didn’t know anyone. I got a new job. In my mind it was his fault I had to start over. But sometimes anger gets you through.”
Sometimes anger is all that’s left.BLINDSIDED
Family members never saw it coming. Tanner was always the bright spot in the room.
“He didn’t act depressed,” French said. “He was always upbeat. He was always happy-go-lucky. It someone was depressed he’d do all he could to make them laugh. A lot of his friends referred to him as the Band-Aid. He was random and funny. If you saw him you wouldn’t think he was depressed. But a lot of people are like that. You don’t know what’s going on the inside.”After graduating from high school in 2010, Tanner earned a full ride to a nearby college in Abilene where he was majoring in culinary arts. He had big plans of opening his own restaurant one day.
“He was one you couldn’t stay mad at because he was such a jokester,” his sister said. “That’s why this is so hard to figure out. He was known for making everybody else laugh. But deep down he was hurting and just worried about making everybody else happy.”
There were signs, but as in most cases they weren’t apparent until it was too late.
“He always had a sparkle in his eye,” Darla said. “He was funny. He had his own sense of humor and personality at a real early age. He always had a lot of friends, he was real tenderhearted. He just got in with the wrong crowd later. He got in with some of the ones doing prescription drugs, the Xanax, the hydrocodone, Ambien. I think after several wrong turns he just got to the point where he didn’t know how to fix what he’d gotten into.
“These days it’s easy to get in with the wrong ones, and once you get in it’s hard to get out.”
“Breckenridge is a small town,” Cox said. “There’s not a lot to do except people getting in trouble.
“My brother’s dad lived out in Cross Plains, in the middle of nowhere, but he wasn’t there for him. When my brother was itty bitty he would pack his bags and wait by the door thinking his dad was coming to pick him up, and he never did.
“I think that had a lot to do with a lot of his problems. When he did break down, that’s what he would talk about. When Tanner graduated he went to hug his dad and his dad just stuck out his hand to shake it. I just think boys need their dads.
“He had a lot more problems leading up to it, but that was always there.”
Tanner had dropped out of college. He’d gotten behind on car payments. His mom noticed him selling some of his stuff to keep pace with his habits. And though he never opened up to family members about his darkest thoughts, a desire for his own death, he had revealed these feelings to his friends. None of them took it seriously.
“He would get drunk and talk to friends about going to do it,” Cox said. “They didn’t believe it. They just thought he was doing it for attention. He talked about it at least three or four times.
“If someone is giving little signs or talking about it, don’t think they are just trying to get attention. Take it seriously. Because looking back, all his friends knew he had talked about it. If someone is talking about it, get them help because it probably is a cry for help. Some people, if they don’t exhibit any signs, they probably can’t be helped. But if they do they want help. Get them help. Don’t ever shut them out because you don’t want to go through this.”
“If he was depressed, he was drinking and taking Ambien and hydrocodone on top of that,” French said. “It was depressants on top of downers. I think it definitely had something to do with it.”
Depression mixed with prescription drugs is a deadly combination. Ninety percent of all people who commit suicide suffer from depression or substance abuse or a combination of the two, according to the National Institude of Mental Health.
“The scary thing is there are so many kids who are doing this,” French said. “And there are so many parents who are in denial. I was. I knew he was doing it, but I thought, ‘He’s 19, what can I do besides talk? He’s an adult.’ Parents need to know it is a very real thing.”FACEBOOK CLUES
There were also cryptic status updates on Tanner’s Facebook page leading up to his suicide.
Just a night or two before he shot himself with a 22-caliber hunting rifle, Tanner had posted a lyric from an Eminem song “When I’m Gone.” The song is about dying and for people not to be sad about the death.
“When I’m gone, just carry on, don’t mourn; rejoice every time you hear the sound of my voice,” it said.
“We didn’t think anything of it at the time,” French said. “He always put quotes and stuff on his Facebook.”
He also put up another post but it didn’t mean anything to his family until it was too late.
“He posted on Facebook the day before ‘Times up, G2G,’ Cox said. “He also posted a happy face with a tear instead of a sad face with a tear.”
“I didn’t know what (G2G) meant at the time,” French said. “But it means ‘got to go.’”
Now, whenever she sees anything suspicious on someone’s Facebook page, she’s quick to react.
“I’ve become very paranoid,” French said. “Whenever I see posts that look a little funny on Facebook or allude to that, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a post and called someone or their parents about it.
“If Tanner can save one life then he didn’t die in vain. People need to know tomorrow is a new day. It’s going to get better. It might get worse before it gets better, but it’s going to get better. That’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Hopefully if somebody is thinking about it, they’ll think about what it not only did to me but to a whole town. Suicide is a horrible, awful, violent thing to live through for the survivors.
“You can look back and say ‘This is a sign’ or ‘That is a sign’ but at the time I didn’t see any, or I would have done something. I think when anybody passes away suddenly you think there are signs that should be caught.”LIFE AFTER DEATH
Eventually, suicide strikes into the core of every community.
One out of every 10,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 dies from suicide every year, according to the National Institue of Mental Health. It’s now the third-leading cause of death for people in that age group.
While those who take their lives are gone, it’s up to the surviving friends and family members to carry the heavy burden of grief and guilt.
“If I’d answered the phone that day, is there something I could have said to talk him out of that?” French said. “Being a single mom, I was pretty tough. I thought I had to be. I was always independent and could do things on my own. I taught my kids to be the same way. Maybe that’s why he didn’t look for help because he thought he had to handle it on his own. But now I think I might have taught them the wrong way. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to need somebody. I’ve had to get help from other people after this. I’ve learned about myself from this.”
Tanner’s mom and sister have turned to support groups to help get them through the grieving process.
“My daughter found a Survivors of Suicide group in Fort Worth two weeks after,” French said. “It’s a group where everyone in it has lost someone to suicide – whether it be a parent, spouse, brother, sister or kid. I go there once a month.
“When you talk to these parents who’ve also lost kids, you realize you’re not going crazy and other people also have these same thoughts. You also see that you can survive this.
“It also helps to help others. When there are new people in the group and you see the pain they are experiencing and you can tell them how you’re getting through it.
“If you haven’t lost a child you have no idea. I also have friends who have lost a child from an accident, but that’s not the same as suicide. (At the groups) we have the same anger, blame and guilt. It just helps to be with people who understand. I feel safe there. It’s an emotional thing. Tears are cleansing for the soul. That’s where it’s safe to do that.”
Cox also carries guilt. She was going to drive home that Monday, but had postponed her trip until Thursday.
“I could have came home that day and talked to him, and maybe it would have made a difference,” she said. “It’s a hard thing, but we have to blame him. I don’t think anything we did could have stopped it. It’s like a cup about to overflow. It just takes one little drop to make it overflow. Who knows what that drop was?”
The group has also taught them that everyone handles grief differently. Darla is very vocal about Tanner and what happened.
“There is a stigma,” she said. “You can see the look on people’s faces when you tell them you lost a kid to suicide. You can almost see them take a step back. But I tell them I want to talk about it. If people know what it puts people through, maybe they won’t do it. It’s the most selfish thing you can do, and I think it’s almost an epidemic.”
“I don’t talk about him a lot because I feel if I don’t talk about him I don’t have to think about it,” Cox said. “That’s how me and my mom are different. I do think about him every day. He’s always there. But I don’t like to always talk about it. You have to move on. He wouldn’t want us to be unhappy all the time. I feel like I have to stay positive for my mom.
“I still, to this day, don’t break down in front of her because I think I have to be strong for her,” she said between tears. “When you’re trying to be strong for everybody else, it’s really hard.”
One of the hardest things for her to understand is why some people fight so hard for life while others think their own lives are worthless.
“I get frustrated because you hear about cancer patients fighting for their lives, and here was a healthy 19-year-old who just threw his life away,” Cox said. “I think a lot of days what gets me through is anger, because I’m very mad at him for it. It’s selfish. And when my mom gets sick and as she gets older and I get older – it was supposed to be us together to help take care of her. Now it’s just me.”KEEPING TANNER’S MEMORY ALIVE
Darla has tried to make something positive out of the tragedy.
She’s organized memorial walks for Tanner in Breckenridge. So far they’ve raised enough money to give out six scholarships in his memory. They’ll give out six more again this year.
“I talk about him everywhere I go,” she said. “I talk about him every day. As long as I’m here he’s not going to be forgotten. I want people to wear the shirts with his name on it. It’s touching when I go back to Breckenridge and see someone with the cross decal on their car with his name on it.
“I don’t know any magic key to survival. You just have to keep going. Especially if you have other kids, you have to keep going for them. I know people hate to hear these words, I did, but it does get easier every day. You have to find a new normal. I know my life is never going to be the same, but I have to find out a way to live without him.”
“If you’re considering (suicide), don’t do it,” Cox said. “It’s not worth it. Think about your family. It always gets better. There’s nothing that bad. People just see no other way out. They don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But just because you’re having a hard time for a little while you shouldn’t end it forever because there are people who love you whether you know it or not. It hurts your family so much.
“Tanner was so smart, so funny. He had everything going for him. He had so much potential. I think he thought he was a burden, and if he left it would just make his mom’s life easier. He didn’t think he was going to ruin our lives. He didn’t think about the heartache. He couldn’t think past the point that he was worthless. But that wasn’t the case.”
All Tanner’s mom has left of him now is a note, written in ink, that can’t be changed.
FOR MORE INFORMATION ON SUPPORT GROUPS CONTACT:
- Survivors of Suicide (SOS) meets the first Tuesday of every month from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at the Mental Health America of Tarrant County located at 3136 W. 4th Street in Fort Worth. Contact them at (817) 335-5405.
- Compassionate Friends meets the second Tuesday of every month beginning at 7:30 at The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills. Contact Jeff and Marty Martin at (817) 991-9121 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Helping Other Parents Endure (HOPE) meets every Thursday night from 7 to 8:30 at The Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Room 208, or call (817) 581-3303.
Darla French is also open to helping others going through a similar situation. Contact her at (254) 246-5521.