For a Concord mother, Memorial Day is a time to remember son lost to suicide
|Published: 05-31-2021 3:58 PM
She sat in the grass and moved two fingers down the side of the granite marker, as though comforting her son with a gentle touch to his arm.
She used the same care as she moved across the top of the gravestone, perhaps feeling his dark hair. Patricia Cloutier, in fact, did a lot of things one might expect from a mother who’s lost her son.
In this case, while serving in the Army, Sean Cloutier took his own life at his home in Kansas. He’s buried at the New Hampshire Veterans Cemetery in Boscawen. The second anniversary of his death was May 19.
His mother’s pain has not dulled.
Through her tears and her gentle touch and her stories about Sean, Patricia made it clear the day before the anniversary of his death that in no way would she contribute to the powerful stigma that already attaches itself to mental illness.
She’s got nothing to hide. She’s part of a movement desperate to draw attention to mental illness, barriers to treatment and the way in which it affects those who serve.
“How many died here by suicide?” Patricia wondered. She mentioned that research shows about 600 veterans die by suicide each month nationwide. That number is popping up a lot.
“That’s too many,” Patricia said. “Something is failing these guys and girls. Something must be broken.”
She wants to talk about suicide and she wants you to listen. She couldn’t save her son, which haunts her to this day. She’s mad at the Army for not doing more.
Maybe her experience can help someone. She’s familiar with this dark story that hides in the dark. She knows Sean’s story. About the pressure of a new marriage and military service put on a young soldier, a kid, really, leaving questions for the parents with no clear answers.
Sean had already tried to take his own life once before, Patricia said. He received medical attention, but not enough. Just two months later, he was dead.
She said she feels guilty. She felt that her son and his wife, whom he met in the military, had married too young.
Besides, she knew his lifetime goal of fighting for his country had been reached. He’d been thinking about it since Sept. 11, 2001. Sean was 5. The world changed that day. So did a little boy.
“He came home from school and had on his birthday crown,” Patricia remembered. “I was glued to the TV and he saw a glimpse of it and heard something about terror. He asked what happened. He said he’d join the military and “get those people who made my birthday bad,” according to Patricia.
“I just thought that, ‘The sky’s the limit for you,’ ” Patricia said.
He meant it, never considering another line of work. He was on medication to counter his ADHD, and it was later discovered that he was bipolar as well. But the kid from Concord never stopped thinking about one day getting a crack at al Qaeda.
An Army recruiter advised him to attend college first, mature a little and earn money to pay tuition. He chose to bypass college and hope another chance to enlist would emerge.
He posted online his desire to join up. A different Army recruiter saw it and signed him. He graduated from boot camp in February 2016. His parents went to the ceremony.
“He lit up and I was proud of him,” Patricia said. “He was really happy. He seemed happy.”
He met his wife while stationed in Kansas. They married 16 months before Sean died. Patricia never met her daughter-in-law until Sean had passed.
“Yes, yes, I feel a little guilty,” Patricia said. “I could have called. I could have texted.”
She had harsh words for the Army. They should have monitored him closer, for emotional support and for his own protection.
“I’m fighting for mental health treatment in the military,” Patricia said. “I believe after his first attempt, if he had a battle buddy with him, or if someone had been told to stay at the house with him, he might be alive today.”
Instead, after no one could reach him, military police discovered Sean’s body. He was pronounced dead on May 19, 2019. He had been married by 21, and he died at 22.
The Veterans Administration says it takes suicide and suicide prevention seriously.
“No matter what you are experiencing, suicide is preventable, and there are proven resources and effective treatments for overcoming suicidal thoughts,” reads a statement on its website, complete with links to steps a family can take after a member of the military attempts suicide, both short-term and long-term, like reaching out for peer support and utilizing a live Veterans Crisis Line.
The knots in Patricia’s stomach tightened on May 1 last year, nearly a year after Sean was found dead, and they reappeared again this month as anniversary No. 2 loomed.
“That’s when it hits me, the first of this month,” Patricia said. “Mother’s Day is in May. I completely hate May.”
She visits Sean’s grave a few times a month. She sits on the perfectly manicured lawn and tries to figure out what happened. She remains hard on herself, feeling guilty, but realizes Sean had stopped taking his medication somewhere along the line. There was little she could do so very far away.
She draws strength through her faith. She pointed to the sky the day we met, saying different cloud formations resembled an angel with wings spread proudly. That’s what she saw. Her eyes came down to find Sean’s headstone, lined neatly with others, dozens and dozens, each a smooth gray with black writing. It says Sean was an Army Specialist.
A framed photo of Sean rested on a different stone, a few feet away. He was wearing his fatigues, cover and all. His boyish face, 19 at the time, could have passed for 16. His eyes were dark and piercing. He had a lot to look forward to.
“I wish I knew what he was thinking in that photo,” Patricia said.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
■The N.H. Community Behavioral Health Association is an organization comprised of 10 community mental health centers throughout New Hampshire. The association serves as an advocate for a strong mental health system across the state.
■Riverbend Community Mental Health provides specialized behavioral health services for children, adolescents, adults and their families.
■NAMI N.H. is a grassroots organization of and for people of all ages, their families and friends who are affected by mental illness. Through NAMI N.H., you’ll meet other individuals and family members who have struggled with mental illness. Call 225-5359.
■The Veterans Crisis Line number is (1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, text 838255). Veterans considering suicide and their families are encouraged to save the number on their phones.