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Grieving a son: Three months after teen’s suicide, a family struggles to cope

  • Paul Dickey wipes off the snow from the grave marker of his son Jason at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Friday, December 22, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Paul Dickey wipes off the snow from the grave marker of his son Jason at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Friday, December 22, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Paul Dickey shovels off the snow from the grave site of his son Jason at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Friday, December 22, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Paul and Martha Dickey still struggle coming to grips with the death of their son Jason at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Friday, December 22, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • The Christmas tree Martha and Paul Dickey bought for their son Jason’s grave site at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Friday, December 22, 2017. The Dickeys were worried the tree wouldn’t have many ornaments but Jason’s friends have filled the tree along with relatives, some as far as California have contributed. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Martha Dickey looks over the Christmas decorations on the tree that they brought at their son Jason’s grave site at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Friday, December 22, 2107. The Dickeys don’t have a tree at their home up for the holidays. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Paul Dickey wipes off the snow from the grave marker of his son Jason at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Friday, December 22, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • Paul and Martha Dickey embrace at the grave site of their son, Jason, at Blossom Hill Cemetery in Concord on Friday. The Dickeys are going away for the holidays as they don’€™t want to wake up on Christmas morning in their home. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Saturday, December 23, 2017

The snow bothered Paul Dickey.

The way it fell, steady and unforgiving, and covered his son’s grave.

On days like Friday, Paul goes to the cemetery early to shovel, clearing a path to the wreaths and stuffed animals that surround Jason’s headstone, the patch of still-fresh dirt where he’s buried.

It’s become a ritual since that early snowfall in November, on the first day Paul tried to go back to his job as a bus driver for Riverbend Community Mental Health. It was the two-month anniversary of 19-year-old Jason’s suicide.

The first part of Paul’s shift went as planned, picking up passengers and greeting familiar faces. It wasn’t until his lunch break, when he decided to go up to Blossom Hill Cemetery to visit Jason, that things fell apart.

“I noticed there was a thin layer of snow covering the ground, and I just thought to myself, ‘he’s really gone,’” Paul said. “I completely broke down.”

Paul sat in the Riverbend bus, crying. He finished the work day, but told himself he wasn’t ready to go back full-time. He said his doctor told him not to go back too soon, that he should wait for himself to heal.

Paul has mostly kept busy while trying to come to terms with his loss, but he hasn’t gone back to work. On Wednesday, he was notified by Riverbend he had been fired.

Under Family and Medical Leave Act regulations, an employee can be out on leave for up to 12 weeks. Paul had been out 13 weeks.

“It was hard news to hear,” he said. “And ironic, from a mental health facility that’s supposed to be helping people get well.”

The call from Riverbend

Paul was in the parking lot of his therapist’s office when he got the call from the Riverbend’s human resource office saying that he was officially terminated.

The human resource officer told him that his FMLA leave had expired, and that they couldn’t wait for him to return to work any longer. He told them he could try to be back in late February or March, at the latest. It wasn’t enough.

They told him life insurance and benefits were cut off and asked him to turn in his keys and any badges or other Riverbend property he might have.

Paul has applied for long-term disability, which would pay him 60 percent of his salary while he is out of work, but that’s not a given.

Riverbend CEO Peter Evers said he would be happy to try to arrange something with Paul when he’s ready to come back – but they needed to fill the position.

“You can’t really be on the books and not working,” he said.

The lessons Paul has endured in the past few months have been hard.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself in this process. I thought I was superman. I thought I could just do everything,” he said.

He said he’s used to just being able to brush off the tough stuff, and move on.

“I can’t do that with this,” he said. “He was my son – I can’t just push it away.”

‘Everything is broken’

In the immediate aftermath of Jason’s death, there wasn’t much time to think.

Paul and Martha were busy making arrangements for Jason’s funeral and burial. They were trying to find ways to support Jason’s friends and his three older siblings, who they knew were going through a rough time.

Paul wrote a letter in the newspaper thanking the first responders that notified him and Martha of their son’s passing, and continued to check in on them in the days after. They invited Jason’s friends over, and gave them each one of Jason’s themed holiday ties – some adorned with Santas and trees, others with shamrocks, a bunny and Easter eggs.

The couple also gathered with Jason’s siblings, Garrett, Kaitlyn and Ryan, and other friends and family, to release hundreds of blue balloons inscribed with messages for Jason at his grave site. 

But as time went by, the truth set in and the pain got worse. The Dickeys became acquainted with grief as an unpredictable force that could creep up at the smallest moments: When a Patriots game came on TV, like the ones Jason and Paul used to watch every Sunday, or when they saw salt and vinegar Pringles – Jason’s favorite snack – in a grocery store aisle.

Getting out of bed became a struggle, and basic everyday tasks, like feeding the cat or making dinner, felt impossible.

The couple had to come to terms with the fact that it’s not only Jason that’s gone, but also the family’s plans for the future. Paul and Martha built their house in Boscawen three years ago with the idea that Jason would live there one day – that he would start a family and grow old on Corn Hill Road.

Now, the house is just a quiet reminder of what they lost.

Even though Paul knows his son has passed, there are days when he still waits for Jason to come home; he sleeps on the couch, facing the door.

“I just never imagined a person could actually feel this way,” Paul said, of his grief. “Everything is broken.”

A new winter ritual

It was snowing hard on Friday when Paul and Martha arrived at Blossom Hill. The cemetery was silent except for Paul’s determination to keep the snow off Jason’s grave.

As the flakes picked up, the snow soaked into Paul’s sweatshirt as he bent over to clear a path.

“I’ll be back to clear it at least once more tonight, probably before we leave tomorrow,” he said.

Paul and Martha are going to Lincoln for the weekend to avoid being in the house without Jason over the holiday. It wouldn’t be the same without Jason in the Christmas pajamas his mother got him every year. They had already bought him presents – a jacket and some shirts – that they can’t return.

Like so many other things these days, the trip is new for them.

In the past three months, Paul and Martha have watched the weather change, leaves fall and the air turn frigid. Jason would have turned 20 in October. His grave transformed from a flat patch of fresh dirt, to a memorial filled with flowers with an engraved headstone overlooked by a granite bench.

But it’s still never seemed real.

“I never thought in a million years that my 19-year-old would be in a cemetery,” Paul said. “It just blows my mind. Even when I’m up here, I don’t believe it.”

They didn’t decorate their house this year, instead they put up a 5-foot tall spruce tree next to his grave with ornaments and his picture. Some of his friends have brought trinkets and gifts and hung them on the tree, or left them by the grave.

Jason’s youngest sister, Ryan, made a Christmas tree shaped out of pallets where loved ones can write messages for her brother when they miss him. 

“I’m scared people will forget him,” Martha said, wiping a tear from her eye.

Paul says he expects to learn to cope with time, but never totally heal.

Martha agreed.

“Our lives will always be defined by September 14,” she said. 

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.).

If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention raises awareness, funds scientific research and provides resources and aid to those affected by suicide. To make a donation in Jason Dickey’s name to the ASFP, click here.

For additional resources, visit NAMI New Hampshire's Connect Program at www.theconnectprogram.org.