Finding Hope: Holly Fenn wants you to know about her son Dalton

  • Holly Fenn greets retired New Hampshire Supreme Court justice John Broderick before their mental health presentation at Windham High School on Wednesday night. Fenn was handing out materials from her suicide prevention foundation. GEOFF FORESTER photos / Monitor staff

  • GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Dalton’s suicide has become a call to action for Holly Fenn and her family. Fenn’s 17-year-old son, Jeremy, (left) began telling the family’s story as part of NAMI’s loss speakers program, and her 25-year-old son, Josh, joined her foundation’s board of directors. Her husband, Bryan, (center) began speaking about mental health once a year to his track and field team at Windham High School. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Holly Fenn touches the photo button of her son Dalton at Concord’€™s Out of the Darkness Walk at the State House in September.

  • ABOVE: Holly Fenn (right) talks with Tina White (center) and her wife, Carrie James, during the Out of the Darkness Walk in Concord in September. The couple lost their son Alec to suicide. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Dalton Fenn Courtesy of the Fenn family COURTESY—Holly Fenn

  • LEFT: Dalton Fenn during a family fishing trip.

  • The Fenn boys. Courtesy of the Fenn family COURTESY—Holly Fenn

  • Dalton Fenn’s graduating class of Bow High School in 2013. Courtesy of the Fenn family COURTESY—Holly Fenn

  • Holly Fenn greets retired New Hampshire Supreme Court justice John Broderick before their mental health presentation at Windham High School on Wednesday night, October 2018. Fenn was handing out materials from her Reach1, Teach1, Love1 Foundation as people were arriving. GEOFF FORESTER

Monitor staff
Published: 10/20/2018 6:26:22 PM

Holly Fenn never gets tired of saying her son Dalton’s name.

She talks about his easygoing personality, that he would eat anything she bought from the grocery store as long as it was healthy. She remembers when he would wake with his uncles at dawn to go fishing during the family’s annual camping trips in Lancaster. She cherishes the small moments they had – the times they stayed up late watching American Idol, and their “mom and son” dates to get hibachi.

These used to be hard memories to share. In 2009, Dalton died at age 14 by suicide, and Holly – silenced by grief, shame and guilt – ran away from it all.

“It took me so long to realize that I’m not helping the situation by keeping it under a rock, because I’m doing what everybody else is doing,” Holly said about her middle child, the one with endless energy and a smile that everyone in Bow knew. “I didn’t choose this path, it was given to me – we just need to get the word ‘stigma’ out of the equation so this does not continue.”

For two years now, Holly has advocated for suicide prevention as the state finds itself in the throes of escalating suicides among young people. Last year was the deadliest year among those 24 years old and younger in a state with rates far higher than the national average. She said she hopes telling Dalton’s story can make a difference.

Speaking out

After Dalton took his life, Holly said it felt right to withdraw.

Everything in Bow – the community where the family had lived for 15 years – was a reminder of something missing.

Holly couldn’t stand to be in her home, where Dalton’s room was, or to drive by the practice fields where he played football. People in the small town who greeted them couldn’t mask the pity in their eyes.

So the Fenns moved 30 miles away to Londonderry, where no one knew them or their story.

“Then one day, it hit me: I am just a part of the stigma, because no one here knows,” Holly said. “I realized I couldn’t do that anymore.”

Holly asked her family if it would be okay if they started sharing Dalton’s story. Holly founded a foundation, Reach1Teach1Love1, which takes her to schools to speak with students about suicide.

Her 17-year-old son, Jeremy, began telling the family’s story as part of NAMI’s loss speakers program, and her 25-year-old son, Josh, joined her foundation’s board of directors. Her husband, Bryan, began speaking about mental health once a year to his track and field team at Windham High School.

“We saw immediately how people took to that and how people started talking to us because of that,” Holly said. “Kids with tears streaming down their face would literally follow me out into the hallway and line up to talk to me, looking for support.”

Out in the community

When Holly talks about Dalton now, she doesn’t shy away from what happened.

At the Out of the Darkness Walk for the American Federation for Suicide Prevention in downtown Concord in September, she stood behind her organization’s table covered with pamphlets, pens and bracelets. She wore a large button pinned to her purple T-shirt with a photo of Dalton smiling.

She called out to people as they walked by, shaking their hands and spending time with others who wanted to share their own stories of loss.

Recently, Holly and Bryan and another Reach1 board member recently went to Alvirne High School in Hudson and gave a presentation to the entire freshmen class.

Holly said some kids approached her after the program, wanting to tell her their stories and talk about friends who may be struggling. They talked about starting support groups at school and looking out for each other more.

Through sharing Dalton’s story, Holly has become more comfortable sharing her own. Holly said she struggled with clinical depression and suicidal thoughts, but has since been able to find a balance in her life.

“My wish is that people are inspired by my story and don’t just look at me and say, ‘That poor woman,’ ” she said. “The reason why I am so vulnerable and open is I want someone to understand and relate to at least one part of my story and find hope.”

A brother’s love

Jeremy, who spoke about Dalton at the state suicide prevention conference last year, said his brother’s death is something that has defined his childhood. He was only 8 years old when Dalton died.

“Usually with something like this, people will say there’s a ‘before the event’ and ‘after the event.’ But for me, there’s no before the event,” Jeremy said. “At this point, most of my life has been without him. More than 50 percent of it.”

The memories Jeremy has of Dalton are few and far between: He remembers his brother’s laugh; he remembers getting into pillow fights, and watching Dalton and Josh, who is nine years older than him, play video games. Sometimes his older brothers would play jokes on him while they were playing, unplugging the controller and handing it to Jeremy to make him think he was playing, too.

But Jeremy said he doesn’t remember Dalton’s face from memory – he just knows it because of the photos he’s seen over the years. He doesn’t remember his personality, or all the little quirks he had.

“What memory do you want to leave when you leave this Earth?” Jeremy says when he speaks to crowds. “What if your siblings are so young that they wouldn’t be able to remember you? How would you feel?”

The future

Now, the family is hyperaware of suicides – especially those involving young people. This year, there have been at least two 11-year-olds in the state who took their own lives. Holly said she keeps a newspaper article on her desk about a young girl who died this year as a reminder.

“Seeing other kids die – and how normal this has become – just tears into me,” she said.

Holly said part of the stigma is the perception that a child’s suicide is the fault of his or her parents. She said it has taken years to shed her own guilt.

“I dedicated my life to my kids, stayed home with my kids, loved my kids, talked with them, and things happen. I don’t blame myself,” she said. “I pray for the parents that feel that this is their fault. Their child made that decision. They didn’t make that decision.”

After the loss

Almost 10 years after his death, the family tries to do little things to remember Dalton.

The Fenns light a candle on holidays, like Christmas, and the anniversary of his death. Every year on Dalton’s birthday, they go out for Chinese food – Dalton’s favorite.

When Josh married last summer, he wore a tiny framed picture of Dalton pinned to his chest. Jeremy was his best man. The family said the experience has brought the boys, born nine years apart, closer.

As time has passed, Holly said she has learned something that she never would have believed when she first lost her son 10 years ago – that she could get through it and feel joy again.

She said she knows that she can’t change the loss she experienced, but she hopes that she can change the way people think about suicide. It’s still hard for her to think of the people who walked out of her life because they couldn’t handle it.

“People need to know that when a person does have a loved one close that dies, that it’s okay to tell them, ‘I’m sorry for your loss, and I just don’t know what to say,’ ” Holly said. “Avoiding the person who is grieving hurts the most.”

 

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

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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.

Those who want to donate to Reach1Teach1Love1 can do so here: www.reach1teach1love1.org/donate/

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




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