Deegan’s Story

On October 1, 2023, my husband and I were planning to spend one of the last beautiful fall days out on Lake St. Clair. Our youngest son, Deegan, was home that morning. He’d promised us earlier that week that he’d come out with us, but decided at the last minute that he really needed to study for the AP Stats exam he had the following morning. We tried to convince him to study on the boat, but he insisted that he wouldn’t get much done. So we joked with him a little, told him we loved him, and started our 55 minute drive to the lake.

We put the boat in the water at Selfridge, and started making our way across the lake. We were passing Harsens Island as I sat in the back of the boat with my face to the sky, loving the warmth of the fall sunshine on my face. And then I got a text message from Libby, my older son’s girlfriend of five years: “Hey, is Deegan okay?”

I received that text message at 1:13 pm. For seven minutes, I called Deegan over and over, each call going straight to voicemail. We tried to locate him using Life360 and Apple’s location services. Both were disabled. We called our older son, who was away at school, and asked him to start calling, thinking maybe he’d answer his brother. At 1:20 pm, I began texting him, and each of the three messages I sent went through green. Every iPhone user in the world knows what that means: Sent as text message. Not, “delivered.” 

While my husband navigated us back to the boat launch at speeds I’m confident weren’t safe, I called the police. I also began texting everyone I knew, begging them to go look for our son. At the same time, my husband was calling and texting Deegan’s friends and their parents to see if anyone had seen him. Before we made it very far, we got a call from Libby’s mom, who’d gone out to look for him. We’d given her the last location we were able to see Deegan on Life360: Davisburg Road. When I answered her call, Libby’s mom was sobbing, “Lori. They have Davisburg Road shut down. I can’t see anything, and they won’t tell anyone anything until the parents get here.”

Eight days prior to October 1st, Deegan had a few friends over. They spent the night, and I thought it was odd that in the middle of the night, Deegan came upstairs and slept in his room alone. The following day, my husband and I were unpacking the boat when Deegan pulled in the driveway. He asked me to get into his car, drove us to the end of our street, put it in park, and turned to me–broken. I had never seen my son so sad. He was sobbing.

Deegan and I talked in his car that night for almost an hour. He shared that the night before, he’d “connected the dots” to discover that one of his friends had asked the girl he’d been spending most of his time with last year to homecoming, and she’d agreed to go. “Mom, everyone knew except me, and they were all making jokes.” I can’t imagine how he must have felt. Humiliated, betrayed, embarrassed, hurt–in his home, his safe space.

He’d also learned that the homecoming proposal was made at a bonfire he’d been excluded from, some of his friends feeling he should “get a clue.” I discovered much later he’d been placed in a “group time out,” which is just what it sounds like. When the friends in the group decide you’re in time out, they isolate you. You’re not allowed to do anything with the group. No one talks to you, or even acknowledges your presence.

I asked Deegan that night if he wanted to take a mental health day the following day. I’d never done this with either of my boys before, but as the words came out of my mouth, I watched the stress physically melt off of him. I kissed him goodnight that night, but when I climbed into my bed, I found myself unsettled. I forced myself to walk back into my son’s room, and ask him the most difficult question I’ve ever asked either of my boys: “Deegan, do you feel like you might hurt yourself?” 

With almost a roll of the eyes, he said, “No Mom.”

I wasn’t letting myself off that easy though. “I need you to promise me that if you’re ever feeling that way, you’ll come to me,” I said.

“I promise. And Mom, thanks for talking to me. I feel a lot better.”

A week later, he was dead. When my husband and I finally made it to Davisburg Road that day, 2.7 miles from our home, we discovered that our 17-year-old son had driven the car that he’d worked and saved for since he was 14, into a 200-year-old Oak tree at more than 150 miles per hour. There were no skid marks, no signs of hesitation–he’d left zero room for error.

He was the kid that was always smiling, always making a joke, and always cracking up laughing with anyone around him. He hated to see people sad, so he made it his business to make sure you weren’t (even if it meant getting kicked out of class). He played sports, had a ton of friends, and a job he wouldn’t have traded. He loved all things with motors. He rode jet skis and dirt bikes, and he’d just hunted down and brought home his dad’s old GSXR-1000, with plans to race it at the drag strip like his dad did. His Subaru WRX STI though, was hands-down his most prized possession.

While I don’t think many people would’ve guessed that Deegan would take his own life, myself included, he had been expressing that he was suicidal to friends for months. He’d even told them that he’d planned to drive his car into that particular tree. And no one said a word. As a mom, you’re probably feeling all the feels right now, but these are 17-year-old kids who made a bad decision with their hearts in the right place. They felt like they were keeping their friend’s secret, and helping him through his struggles. So why would I even share that then, right? I’m sharing that part of Deegan’s story, with permission from his friends and their parents, in hopes that we can involve our kids in this culture shift.

Immediately following Deegan’s death (and by immediately, I mean the very next day), people began asking us: What are you going to tell people? The stigma surrounding his death was instantly evident. We knew this might be the case. We’d decided that the good that could come from telling his story – no matter how difficult that might be – was something we couldn’t shy away from. We felt that if we impacted even one single person that might be feeling the way he did, then Deegan’s story wouldn’t end with his death. So I looked people dead in the face and said, “I’m going to tell people that my son took his own life.” We genuinely feel that if talking about mental health were more normalized, Deegan may have felt comfortable asking for help.

Did you know that according to the CDC, someone in the United States dies by suicide every 11 minutes? That someone makes a suicide attempt every 20 seconds. I didn’t know that either. Our country is facing an epidemic that no one wants to talk about. People, especially men, are shamed for feeling mentally unwell. They’re perceived as weak, dramatic, or whiny. People who are willing to speak up are faced with finding help on their own, and the realization that resources are very limited.

We can educate ourselves. We can learn the warning signs that tell us our kids might be in danger. They likely won’t say, “I want to kill myself,” but they may say things like, “I wish I wasn’t here,” or, “Things would be better without me.” They may say that they feel like a burden, or they may express hopelessness. You might note reckless behavior, a change in eating or sleeping habits, or a sudden lack of interest in appearance. They may withdraw from (or say goodbye to) friends and family. Or, they may give away the things that are most important to them.  

We can also teach our kids some things that most of us are fortunate enough to have never even considered. Teach them the warning signs. Teach them the urgency of speaking up when they feel a friend may be in danger of suicide. Help them understand that sometimes ratting your friend out may save his life. Also teach them kindness, and help them understand that while something so simple may seem insignificant, that too, may save a life. Above all, teach them that there’s ALWAYS hope in tomorrow.

If I could leave you with only one piece of advice, it’s this: Talk to your kids about mental health. Use Deegan’s story to start a conversation. Talk to them today, and tomorrow, and a lot of times going forward. Make sure they know that feeling “not okay” is something most of us have felt at some point. And that it’s okay to ask for help.

Most importantly, I’ll share a message on behalf of many kids that have reached out to me on social media: If you’re privileged enough to have your child reach out to you for help, don’t roll your eyes. Believe them.

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