ACTON — He always picks up some Entenmann’s or whatever pastries happen to be on sale. Jim Flanagan, coordinator of youth ministries, sets them out in a back office at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church, in a space like an old rec room. Worn carpet. Hand-me-down sofas piled with mismatched pillows.
The kids roll in, a few at a time, trying to make sense of another suicide. They want to talk. Or they just don’t want to be alone.
They pray for their lost friend, for another family near mad with grief, for those who struggle, for any who are loved and yet still feel alone.
This is their ritual, now achingly familiar.
Flanagan opened the room after Megan took her life, in 2016.
And then after Matthew took his, just after school started that fall.
And Sid, off in college in Minnesota.
And Thomas, a classmate of Matthew’s.
And Tylen, in 2017. He was 10.
And then Jacob, this past July, who took his life in his treehouse.
Six young people from two small towns lost to suicide in 30 months. A cumulative grief that seems without answers, a weary desperation to make it stop, and the inescapable fear it may happen again.
Acton and Boxborough are close-knit neighbors about 30 miles west of Boston. Some 30,000 people live in these wealthy, wooded suburbs veined by twisty country roads. The towns share a highly regarded public school system and are often thought of as a single community, known as A-B. The district’s strong reputation attracts families who want their children to have a top-notch education, and students are held to high expectations.
“I grew up in the community and I know pressures are high,” says Katie Gorczyca, 28, director of Danny’s Place, a youth services provider in Acton. “It’s internal, it’s external — a pressure to be the best.”
There seems no straight line between that pressure and these suicides; no easy way to understand or to respond. Loss by suicide is like no other, and the succession of deaths has left a void at the heart of the two towns, as if they were struck by a meteor. The aftershocks of numbing sadness, pulsing outward in every direction, have spared almost no one.
“All losses leave a hole,” said the Rev. Cindy Worthington-Berry, senior pastor at United Church of Christ Congregational in Boxborough. “But I think when there is complicated grieving, when there is a traumatic aspect to it, there is a different consistency to that hole. It’s not just the absence of that person. It’s a ripple of grief.”
A question hovers in the air here. It’s at the gym, at the grocer, shared among parents watching their kids at sporting events.
“The question, heartbreaking and hard, is what is wrong with us?” Becky Manseau Barnett, a lead pastor at Highrock Church in Acton, said last month at a community meeting about suicide prevention. “Why is this happening? And how can we stop this?”
* * * * * *
Megan Durand was beautiful. Even when she was little, people remarked about it. She drew attention she didn’t quite know what to do with. Megan was the second of Kristen and Jeff Durand’s four daughters. The family settled in Acton in 1998.
Megan grew up a giddy, fun-loving girl. She’d get mad and slam a door once in a while, but rarely cried. In eighth grade, though, her best friend’s mom died of cancer. It is the first time she realized life is not always good or fair.
“So much happened to her at a critical time, as an adolescent when so much is changing,” Kristen Durand said of her daughter. “Your hormones are raging, you’re meeting new friends, the whole boy-girl thing is going on. Such a stressful time and for her it was a perfect storm. She had a bunch of things happen that maybe just one of them wouldn’t have sent her down that road.”
In her freshman year, a boy reached out to Megan’s parents. You ought to know, he said, Megan is cutting herself.
Megan had a hard time explaining to them why she cut. Somehow it soothed her.
Finally, she admitted she was being bullied. She begged her parents not to interfere, but they brought their concerns to administrators. For a time, the bullying only got worse, Kristen said.
In her junior year, Megan was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. That began years of exhausting encounters with hospitals and therapists. During her senior year she tried to take her life and woke in an ICU.
Megan was open about her struggles and became an advocate for reducing the stigma around mental illness. Not everyone understood she was fighting a disease that can debilitate and kill as ruthlessly as a cancer, her mother said.
“People think, ‘Well you’re a cheerleader and you’re beautiful and you have a great family life, so what’s wrong?’ ” she said.
Megan graduated in 2014, and enrolled in High Point University in North Carolina. College was a clean slate. She made great friends and had a good freshman year. But as a sophomore, Meg didn’t get into the sorority she wanted to join, and was going through a long, difficult breakup with a boyfriend.
In January 2016, Meg went missing at school. Friends couldn’t find her. Kristen had an awful feeling.
The mother of one of Meg’s roommates called, hysterical. The roommate had found Meg and she was not breathing.
Then a college administrator called. She couldn’t bring herself to say what had happened.
“Just say it,” Kristen told her. “You have to say the words.”
Through her grief, the depths of Megan’s distress became so terribly clear.
“When Megan died, I looked up and I said, ‘Now I know how you felt,’ ” Kristen said. “The pain was so unbearable I couldn’t breathe. And she had felt that way for years.”
* * * * * *
Acton-Boxborough High School didn’t formally mark Megan Durand’s death, but most everyone knew about it. She had graduated just two years earlier, and two of her sisters were still students there. Meredith Durand was a senior; Molly Durand, a junior. Todd Chicko, chair of counseling and psychological services at the school, delivered the eulogy at Meg’s funeral at St. Elizabeth.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Chicko said.
Molly Durand said, “I think Meg’s death really shook people [in school] because they didn’t think that could happen to people they knew.”
Meredith graduated in the spring. That fall, Molly and the class of 2017 returned from summer break, back to the familiar rhythms of another school year. In late September, Molly got a strange text from Flanagan, from St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish. I’m so sorry, he wrote, I’m keeping you all in my prayers.
Molly texted: What is this about?
The answer came back. Someone in your class passed away.
* * * * * *
Matthew Pierce was born in 1998, the fourth of six children. His parents, Scott and Cynthia, moved the family to Boxborough in 2006. The kids were active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and in sports. Matthew was a slim, good-looking boy, easygoing and easy to parent, responsible with his homework and piano lessons.
In sixth grade, though, his mother noticed Matthew seemed withdrawn. He eventually told his mother he had been bullied. His parents got the school involved, the bullying stopped, and Matthew “seemed to pop right back,” his mother said.
When he was in eighth grade, his mother discovered a suicide note scrawled in permanent marker on the wall, hidden behind a Boston Celtics poster in Matthew’s room.
Matthew acknowledged he had written it, two years before, when he was having a hard time. I’m OK now, he assured his folks. They painted over the note.
In freshman year, though, he started developing unexplained headaches. That spring, a doctor performing a routine sports physical said that Matthew was having suicidal thoughts, and that he needed treatment. He was briefly hospitalized. Once doctors found the right medication, his depression was managed reasonably well over the next two years, though nothing seemed to help the headaches.
During the summer of 2016, Matthew’s provider at New England Center for Healthy Minds weaned him off his medication to try something new, an antidepressant that also had pain-relieving properties, Cynthia said. She said that after an introductory dose, he started the new drug on a Saturday in September 2016 and did poorly. He told his mom he felt low. They decided to give it a few days to see how he adjusted.
Two days later, Matthew stayed late at school for a project and didn’t get home until 10 p.m. His mom let him sleep in the next morning and they had breakfast together. They talked about his plans for the next day and for the weekend, and the possibility that Matthew would do a senior internship in Utah.
Matthew went to school. Cynthia went out for meetings.
Matthew left school in the middle of the day, came home, and took his life.
He was 17, and the first student still attending the high school to die by suicide in recent memory.
Matthew’s parents said they see his death as a result of a prescription medication error, that he was given a medication that should not have been prescribed to someone of his age and genetic makeup, and which had the unintended effect of increasing his suicidal thoughts. They said he had benefited greatly from the medical care he had received over the final three years of his life, and feel they could have lost him much earlier without treatment.
“Whether that failure was in part due to his medical provider, big pharma or even the FDA, the reality remains that...we have a shortage [of] mental health providers, especially pediatric mental health providers, and further research to improve treatment options, safety, and availability is desperately needed,” said Cynthia Pierce.
A manager for New England Center for Healthy Minds did not respond to requests for comment.
* * * * * *
The next day the school was unnaturally quiet, the mood solemn and sad.
Staff read a note to students, explaining what had happened and describing the resources available for those grieving, said Molly Durand, who had lost her sister and now a classmate. She found the response scripted and impersonal.
“So many teachers were like, let’s get to work,” she recalled.
Some students wondered: Why isn’t this a bigger deal? Why no major school assembly?
Administrators say they followed the advice of experts and dealt with students individually and in small groups. “When we talk to kids about emotional issues and suicide, I want our people to be able to see the student’s eyes,” said Larry Dorey, now Acton-Boxborough’s interim principal. “I want eyes on every kid.”
Cynthia Pierce invited the whole community to Matthew’s visiting hours. Hundreds of students came. She embraced each of them, as if to keep them safe.
“I put my arms around every one of those kids that night because I wanted to say this doesn’t have to happen,” Cynthia said. “I put my arms around them and said, ‘No more of this, no more of this.’ ”
One of Matthew’s classmates who paid his respects that day was Thomas Zarola. The boys knew each other, but were not close friends. Thomas came home with a remembrance card with Matthew’s picture on it. He kept the card pinned to a bulletin board in his bedroom.
Like Matthew, Thomas fought mental illness. He was on medication for depression, anxiety, and ADHD. The past two years of his life had been a struggle.
“He was focused on that boy’s death,” said Thomas’s mother, Trish Zarola. “It was on his mind. And that worried me.”
* * * * * *
The day after Matthew died, a school more than 1,000 miles away was in mourning. Students at Carleton College, in Northfield, Minn., gathered to remember Sidharth Ramakrishnan, a member of Carleton’s class of 2019, who died of an apparent suicide at school, the student newspaper reported. People knew him as Sid.
Sid Ramakrishnan had graduated from A-B in 2014, the same year as Megan Durand. He was 19.
Five hundred people came to his campus vigil. They lit candles and remembered him with a moment of silence.
“It was a hauntingly beautiful scene,” said Carolyn Fure-Slocum, the college’s chaplain. Many students left origami cranes for him in the chapel. Fure-Slocum brought some of the paper cranes to Massachusetts for his family.
Sid loved the great composers, Mozart and Beethoven, and played clarinet in the college orchestra, according to his obituary. He also loved the SpongeBob cartoon and Ferrero Rocher chocolate. He wanted to study physics or chemistry so that one day he could cure mental illness.
“Even in his last moments, Sidharth was focused on helping others, asking for his possessions to be donated to those who need it most,” read a memorial page.
It was the third suicide of a young A-B person in nine months. Three lives, shimmering with possibility, gone.
One month later, a fourth.
* * * * * *
Thomas Zarola was born in England. After a stop in Toronto, his family moved to Acton for work about when he was entering kindergarten.
He had a history of concussions, his mother said, beginning at age 5 when he was run over and knocked unconscious by a cyclist in New York’s Central Park during a family visit. Medical scans found no problems, but for days he could not walk a straight line. He was different after the incident, his kindergarten teacher told his parents. He didn't focus as well and would stare off.
But he seemed to bounce back, and grew up a bright, funny kid, with a big smile and dark eyes. Very agreeable.
“You asked him to do something and he just did it,” Trish said.
He loved soccer, both playing it and following the European leagues. Manchester United was his team.
Thomas sustained about four or five concussions playing soccer, his mother said, and his doctor advised the family in freshman year that he stop playing. Thomas was upset. He loved the game. He worked at a local soccer shop, fitting people for cleats. He bought himself a pricey pair even after he stopped playing.
His mental health began to deteriorate the next year, Trish said. He stopped doing homework. He spoke about suicide, and was hospitalized for about 10 days. He had a battery of tests, and the family found him a psychiatrist and psychologist.
Later, he would become overly intense about a tumultuous relationship with a girlfriend, and in the months before his death would fly into rages at home. One of the professionals he was seeing wondered if Thomas had CTE, a brain disease associated with repeated concussions, Trish said.
A counselor recommended a fresh start with a new group of peers, and the family brought Thomas to tour the Hyde School, a prep school in Bath, Maine. He seemed to really like it. He liked that it had a relationship with Southern New Hampshire University, where he hoped to study sports management. He agreed to transfer. Thomas and his mom went shopping for new clothes and shoes. Thomas seemed genuinely excited.
“He was like, ‘Wow, it’s all coming together,’ ” Trish recalls. “He just didn’t make it.”
Thomas tried to take his life on Oct. 19, 2016, just days before he was to start school in Maine.
Paramedics revived him, but he did not recover. He was kept alive by machines and died four days later. His family donated his organs.
Tests after his death did not find evidence of CTE, Trish said.
* * * * * *
At the high school, the cumulative impact of the deaths was staggering. Students banded together, to be supportive and kind. But with each death came a weary desperation.
“Now we can expect it to happen,” said Molly Durand, Megan’s sister. “When is the next one? We were still very upset about it but it was like, ‘When is this going to end?’ ”
Kelly Dixon, who graduated from Acton-Boxborough in 2017, said the deaths of Megan, Matthew, and Thomas “just changed my life drastically.”
“Meg struggled obviously with depression, as do I,” Dixon said. “It was very easy for me to talk to her because she understood.”
It was the same with Matthew and Thomas.
“They didn’t have to explain to me when they were down. Sometimes you can’t explain it and some people don’t get that. I was just someone who did, and they were each someone who did.”
Now 19, Dixon finds socializing difficult; she can’t bear to lose any more friends.
“I fear putting myself out there and making connections. It’s just very heavy on my heart.”
After the suicides, school administrators worked closely with mental health experts, they said. They convened the school’s crisis response team, created a list of students believed to be most affected by the deaths, and messaged parents to share resources on how to talk to their children. Staff met with students in small groups, and the school made counseling available for several days. Members of the school’s counseling department continued to meet with students who struggled with the losses throughout the school year, and the school enhanced its suicide prevention programming.
For administrators, the suicides took a terrible personal toll.
“There’s no word that describes it,” said Dorey, the principal. “It just sucks everything out of you.”
Fingers were pointed at the school. Do students face too much academic pressure? Too much stress? Too much homework?
Administrators say the circumstances of each death were unique, and they do not believe academic demands were to blame.
“Suicide is one of the most complicated, complex, multifaceted things,” said Dawn Bentley, the district’s assistant superintendent for student services. “As we looked back at each event they were all so very different.”
Matthew Pierce’s mother said school pressure had nothing to do his suicide. People who suggested otherwise “were using our situation to promote their agenda,” Cynthia said.
Nor does Trish Zarola blame the school or academic stress. She said A-B was on top of Thomas’s struggles, and provided valuable help and advice.
* * * * * *
For the towns, the deaths were a call to action. In late 2016, the Acton-Boxborough United Way helped organize two emergency meetings with community leaders, human service providers, faith leaders, school officials, and police to educate themselves and begin to sketch out what a community-wide response to youth suicide would look like.
The effort formalized into a volunteer group called A-B Cares. It continues to organize community meetings, public presentations by experts, and stories of resilience from suicide attempt survivors now leading good and hopeful lives. The Acton-Boxborough United Way awarded a grant for free public suicide prevention training, which teaches how to question, persuade, and refer potentially suicidal people to the proper help.
The pervasive sense of loss also helped forge new bonds. As 2016 drew to a close, a local family that had lost a daughter in a car accident sent out a series of invitations for an extraordinary Christmastime gathering.
Kristen Durand was there. Cynthia Pierce and Trish Zarola, too, along with several other local couples. All trying to get through Christmas without a child.
Emotions were still so raw, Cynthia recalled. But she appreciated the love and support that went into the invitation.
“I don’t think anyone can understand the difficulty of the road somebody is walking,” she said, “until they’ve been through it themselves.”
* * * * * *
There is no consensus medical definition for a suicide cluster, no minimum number of deaths within some defined distance and time. People say it’s a cluster when it feels like a lot of suicides, and the same questions inevitably arise.
“Is it caused by something or just chance?” said Matthew Nock, a Harvard University psychology professor who studies suicide and self-injury. “That’s really difficult to know. I know that is not a satisfactory answer. But that’s sort of where we are.”
Prevention experts speak often about the concept of contagion, the notion that a suicide nearby or certain kinds of splashy media coverage of suicide can make vulnerable people more likely to take their own lives. A study showed that suicides in the United States increased by 10 percent in the four months after intense media coverage of the suicide of comedian Robin Williams in 2014.
There is not enough good data, but “the thinking is that if there is any kind of social influence, it is not totally random in the way the spread of a viral disease is,” Nock said. “You’d have to have some kind of vulnerability. Maybe it is among people who are depressed. Or among people who are already thinking about suicide. A suicide in the community could increase their risk.”
It could also be, he said, that what looks like a cluster is, in fact, a series of individual tragedies occurring near each other by chance.
Rising suicide rates, especially among the young, have generated nationwide news coverage and speculation about the cause. Nock suggests also taking a longer view.
“I think the more important statistic is the suicide rate now is identical to what it was 100 years ago,” he said. “We could focus on the fact that it’s been rising over the past few years and we should; what’s more concerning is the rate hasn’t changed over the long view.”
In 100 years, we’ve slashed mortality rates for heart disease, cancer, pneumonia, accidents.
But not for dangerous diseases of the mind.
* * * * * *
Tylen Cunningham was a fifth-grader at McCarthy Towne Elementary in Acton. He adored all kinds of animals. Dogs, especially. Cats, too. Even caterpillars, said his mother, Emma.
He liked action movies and Power Rangers and the Ninja Turtles. He was teaching himself to play the drums. He really liked candy. He would sneak candy into his room and hide the wrappers behind his bed. He was a 10-year-old who would do anything to get a laugh. He was also very sensitive, and would say something nice to a child on the playground if someone else said something mean. He had grown-up thoughts about the world. He thought everyone deserved to have food and to be warm.
“He would have a conversation about politics with an adult and it wasn’t a silly conversation,” Emma said.
This is how Emma prefers her son to be remembered. For the way he lived, however briefly.
Tylen took his life Jan. 7, 2017.
His death “had a huge impact on the community,” said Bentley, the assistant superintendent. “People just couldn’t understand how that could happen.”
Tylen was an impulsive boy, his mother said, and she believes his suicide was an impulsive act that went out of control.
“I don’t believe he actually meant to do this,” she said.
Emma is active in a support group for parents of suicide victims under the age of 14.
“It is absolutely heartbreaking, but this is becoming a problem in that age group,” she said. She thinks prevention programs should start in elementary school.
“I’m in the unfortunate position of having hindsight,” she said. “I don’t think it just falls on the schools. It falls on the community. It falls on the parents. To reduce the stigma. People need to not be afraid to talk about mental health. They need to not be afraid to talk about suicide. We all bear responsibility in that.
“My son was only 10. I never thought it would happen to me. I never thought it would happen to him. And the only way I can move forward in this is by talking about it, so hopefully another parent doesn’t have to go through it.”
* * * * * *
In 2017, the Durand family left Acton.
“I started feeling like I saw Megan around every corner and for me that wasn’t healthy,” Kristen explained. “I feel she’s with us always in our heart.”
They went to Maryland, where they still find themselves fighting the stigma around mental illness, one conversation at a time. When she is asked how many kids she has, Kristen will say: Four daughters. We lost one daughter two years ago. She suffered from depression and she died by suicide.
Most people will bring up someone struggling in their own family.
“They feel free to talk about it as long as they know that you won’t judge,” she said.
* * * * * *
Cynthia Pierce and Shannon Goyette have been friends for about 12 years, since their kids became pals in kindergarten. Whenever the boys played sports, the two moms sat together in the stands.
Shannon reached out when Matthew died.
Her son Jacob Goyette grew up the youngest of three boys. He loved running track. He loved to train. He had that run-till-you-drop drive that great runners have.
As a 16-year-old this past June, he ran the 4x100 relay at the New Balance Nationals in North Carolina, an elite outdoor meet. He loved being with his friends, his mother said, and did well in relays because he never wanted to let his teammates down. His dream was to make the Olympics.
Running also helped with his anxiety, Shannon said. He had been diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD. The family got good advice from therapists to help Jake be more successful. They worked with his teachers and he did “pretty well,” his mother said.
He was a creative kid who couldn’t sit still. He loved woodworking and baking. On a whim one night last summer, he was inspired to whip up a batch of strawberry Swiss rolls at midnight.
Jacob Goyette was decisive. Once he set his mind to something, he was committed.
“Jacob was 120 miles per hour with no brakes,” Shannon said.
He took his life July 13 in a treehouse in his backyard.
The Goyettes keep the door to Jacob’s bedroom shut because the room still smells like him and they want to keep it that way. The bed is still unmade. Medals he won in track hang from a rack.
His family had no clue Jake was suicidal. His brother Luke had been treated for depression, so the family knew the signs, Luke said. Jacob never showed any.
“There was definitely a part of Jacob we didn't know,” his mother said. “He walked around with tinted windows.”
In October, a lawyer representing the Goyettes, Jeffrey Beeler, wrote the school district, saying Jacob’s parents had recently learned that before Jacob died, the school “had been informed of concerns about him that were sufficient for him to be referred” to a clinical social worker — and these concerns were apparently not sent along to Jacob’s parents. The family was seeking answers “about the events that led to their son’s death so that they can decide what additional steps are warranted.”
Peter Light became A-B school superintendent on July 1. One of his early duties was informing the school community about Jacob’s death.
Light said he could not get into details about the claims in the letter. He said the district’s goal is to provide the family as much information as possible, and for the district to continuously learn and improve. Upon reviewing what happened, the school district decided to “move on” from a staff member “who no longer works for the district,” he said.
* * * * * *
Shannon Goyette still has a hard time leaving the house.
“Every day I wake up, Jake dies again,” she said.
About two months ago, a boy who had known Jacob knocked at the Goyettes’ door late at night, she said. He told Shannon that he was struggling and wanted to end his life. He didn’t know who else to talk to. The Goyettes called his parents and they all stayed up talking until 4 a.m.
“This is a crisis,” Shannon said. “This is not the end. We’re trying to make it the end.”