Learning from loss: Family of 16-year-old who committed suicide hopes his story will save a life

  • Wearing Alec White's flannel shirts, his sister Joli (left) and mother Tina White display the matching tattoos they share with Alec at Grace Episcopal Church in Concord on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Wearing Alec White's flannel shirts and displaying the matching tattoos they share with him, his sister Joli (left) and mother Tina White (right) stand with step-mother Carrie James who holds the wooden box Alec gave to her that will hold his ashes at Grace Episcopal Church in Concord on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Jeffrey White holds the Father’s Day card his deceased son, Alec, made for him from his hospital stay earlier this year at Grace Episcopal Church in Concord on Thursday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • The White family prepares for a celebration of life of Alec White, a Loudon teenager who took his own life last week, at Grace Episcopal Church in Concord on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Mark Ciarametaro talks about the guidance office resources for students at Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook on Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Jeffrey White knew something wasn’t right with his son Alec.

It hit him in the face when the 16-year-old tried to overdose last spring. He knew his son needed help and he tried his best to get it for him.

Just last month, White, 46, went to a suicide prevention forum at Merrimack Valley High School, asking that more be done for his son and others who were struggling with depression.

“This is one of those things that’s so important that it needs to be drilled into their heads,” he told school officials at the meeting about the help available for teenagers.

Then, last week, Alec tried to take his life again. On Thursday, his family went to Grace Episcopal Church in Concord and prepared to lay Alec to rest.

They sat in the red fabric pews – Alec’s 19-year-old sister Joli sitting between her and Alec’s parents, Jeff and Tina, Alec’s stepmothers Carrie and Kris and his grandmother Barbara sitting in pews on either side of them. Light shined in from a large, colorful stained glass window.

At the entrance to the church, two posters were filled with photos of a smiling young man with brown hair – sometimes cut short, sometimes long and wild – in front of a Christmas tree, sledding with his sister and wearing a white karate gee.

Joli and Tina, 50, wore Alec’s oversized blue, yellow and red flannels to the church because they said the clothes reminded them of him.

Tina said the family doesn’t really go to church, but they had to find a place for Alec’s service. She said the staff at Grace couldn’t have been more welcoming.

On Thursday morning, they met with the pastor and reviewed what would be said to eulogize him at the 11 a.m. services on Friday.

When talking about Alec, his family smiled and cried a little, but more than anything they wanted to share stories about a wonderful kid they loved.

Alec’s mother Tina described him as a quiet, mischievous and gentle child with a sharp wit and a quick grin.

He was active and loved being outdoors, they said.

His family set up a display with a few of the items that meant the most to Alec: his skateboard, a soccer ball and his skis.

Alec had been skiing with Jeff since he was four. More recently, he skateboarded daily at the Loudon skate park. In the winter, he would bring a shovel and clear snow from the ramp to skate.

Alec was always restless, his mother said. The family would be asleep and he would be awake reorganizing his room at 1 a.m.

Alec was always talking about his next project or big idea. He loved taking photos from the time he was a child.

Most of his photos were of trees, flowers and abandoned places. He loved going to antique stores and picking up old signs and license plates and storing them in his room.

“He just had an eye for the different and unique,” Tina said.

He also loved woodworking – Alec built the family sand barrel stands for the winter, a shelf for his dad, a flower box for a friend, a generator box and a side table for his bed.

More recently, he built a small wooden box for his stepmother Carrie. His family said it will be used as Alec’s urn.

Carrie described Alec as “an old soul.”

“There was a lot of depth to Alec that you don’t always see in a 16-year-old boy,” she said.

Sensitive side

Tina said Alec put out a hard exterior, but those closest to him knew how sensitive he was.

“Even when he was all tough and arguing with me, he’d have tears coming out of his eyes,” Tina said. “The emotions were raw with him – hot and cold.”

He would fight with his parents at times about how much freedom he was allowed. He was always exploring, climbing trees and even buildings – but he didn’t always tell his family where he was going.

“As his parents, our hearts were always in our throats,” Tina said. “We tried to find the fine line between giving him his space and protecting him.”

The first time Alec attempted suicide by overdosing on pills was on a normal Tuesday last May after a night of watching television with his father.

Jeff remembers waking up at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning to Alec getting sick.

“I asked him, ‘Did you eat something, did you drink something, did you take something?’ ” Jeff said. “He said ‘No, I just don’t feel good.’

He lied.

When Jeff got up for work at 5 p.m., he knew something was wrong. Alec was still up and didn’t look good.

“I said, get dressed, we’ve got to go to the hospital,” Jeff said.

Later, the family watched a security video tape of Alec taking the pills in Jeff’s kitchen. They said it was surprising to see the ease at which Alec was able to make the decision.

“It was really weird,” Tina said. “He just nonchalantly came downstairs, got water, ice, saw the pill bottle on the counter, took the pills and walked back upstairs.”

Afterward, Alec volunteered to go into a treatment facility in Hampstead.

When his family went to visit him, there were times when he refused to see them. But they felt comforted that he was getting help.

About a week later, he was discharged. He came home with little fanfare. The family was nervous, but hopeful that Alec would turn a corner and start getting better.

Five days later, Alec crashed his Hyundai Accent 50 yards from his house. It was raining and he swerved off the road into a ditch.

He told his parents it was an accident, but they said they later found videos on his phone of him going 80 on the wrong side of the road.

Jeff said after seeing that video, they knew that something was seriously wrong.

“It was a downpour. You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” Jeff said. “Most people would have been driving 20 or 30.”

Alec went back into treatment.

When he came home the second time, the family did something to commemorate it.

Tina said she wasn’t a fan of tattoos, but knew that Alec wanted one.

“I just thought, life is short, we almost lost him, let’s just do it,” she said.

Alec, Tina, Joli, Carrie and a friend from treatment took a road trip to Vermont. Tina and her children all got matching tattoos on their forearms of a three-inch tree, with three bluebirds in the branches to represent each of them.

It’s the same design that’s etched into the box that will serve as his urn.

“It meant a lot to us,” Tina said.

Hope for recovery

Even with all of the support, Alec never really got better.

His mother said he wasn’t the same person coming into this year. He stopped working at the Smoke Shack in Boscawen, where he had worked for years.

“I think his illness started to eat away at him,” Tina said.

Throughout his illness and hospitalization, the family tried to keep things as normal as possible.

On his mother’s 50th birthday, he worked with his sister to decorate his hospital room. They couldn’t have utensils in the psychiatric unit, so they bought cupcakes.

Alec was also in the hospital on Father’s Day. He made his father a card out of red construction paper, with “Happy Father’s Day.” Inside, it said, “Sorry.” Jeff had the card with him at the church on Thursday.

“He fought hard to get better,” Carrie said. “I was proud of the fight I saw him making to stay here with us. He didn’t want to hurt us. He wanted to protect us, right up until the end.”

Last Friday afternoon, Alec went missing. After a more than 24-hour search, police found Alec’s body in the woods near their home. It broke the family’s hearts.

Alec’s family knows how hard it is to have a loved one who is suicidal. They said they can’t imagine what that’s like for people who don’t have access to the resources they did.

“We had all the tools that are available to any family at our fingertips,” Carrie said. “But even with all of that, he still lost the battle.”

Alec attended high school at Merrimack Valley for two years where they have guidance councilors who have been trained to deal with potentially suicidal students. The school is in the midst of implementing a program called Signs of Suicide” into its required curriculum.

Merrimack Valley guidance counselor Mark Ciarametaro said there is an ongoing weekly grief support group for students who need support processing loss.

“We certainly don’t pressure students to come,” Ciarametaro said. “But for those that do come, it’s been a pretty good source of support for them.”

Alec started being homeschooled last year and enrolled in the CRTC program at Concord High School.

Concord High offers its students help through its seven guidance counselors and a school pscychologist.

Outside of school, other resources exist, like NAMI NH, suicide hotlines and treatment programs paid through insurance.

Jeff said he worries about the people who are suicidal without insurance who go to a hospital or the emergency room, but struggle to enroll in a treatment center or get therapy. Something that might help is introducing education around suicide early on in a child’s education, he said.

Tina said although the experience of losing her son has been painful, she is grateful to see people coming together to help others.

“I wish I had the words to express how powerful and how strong this community is, how much they’ve come together and how much they care,” she said. “They’re trying to use this momentum to try to save another life.”

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.

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