Its the worst thing that could happen to a parent: losing a child. But what if your child took his or her life? I hesitate to type the words, so terrible is the thought.
But Carolyn Zahnow of Youngsville lives it every day. Seven years ago, her 18-year-old son, her only child, Cameron Stephenson, took his own life.
How has she survived?
There are a lot of different coping skills, but I started by going to a support group for other people who had lost someone to suicide, says Zahnow, who grew up in Raleigh.
At the time of her sons death, she and her husband, Dan, Camerons stepdad, and Cameron were living in Texas. The support group helped, and then her sister suggested journaling.
I journaled every morning, which helped me get out a lot of the whys so I could actually function during the day, Zahnow says.
The whys were complicated. Camerons dad died when he was 15.
Cameron adored his father, says Zahnow, who was divorced from Camerons dad. He wouldnt share anything about his grief, which was frustrating. Id bring up things about his dad; I didnt want him to think Id forgotten him. But that didnt really spur any conversation. He just started going deeper and deeper into depression.
Camerons depression led to alcohol and various drugs and culminated in a methamphetamine addiction. Zahnow got her son into rehab, and Cameron was clean for six months, but the staff warned her he could relapse. It was a constant struggle.
Looking back, youve got to get them before it gets too bad, Zahnow says.
In addition to journaling, Zahnow delved into research and also underwent facilitator training to work with children and teens from the Dougy Center (The National Center for Grieving Children & Families) in Portland, Ore. To help survivors of suicide, she has also received training from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Her desire to understand what drove her son to suicide, and to help others avoid her experience, was and still is intense.
In 2010, Zahnow published a book called Save the Teens: Preventing Suicide, Depression and Addiction. In the book, she talks about her experiences with Cameron, warning signs and more.
Zahnow is convinced depression led to Camerons substance abuse and, ultimately, his death.
Depression is really common for a lot of kids. Theyre lonely; they have low self-esteem, Zahnow says. Parents dont see it; they think its just teenage stuff. If it lasts for more than two weeks, you need to be seeking some help for your teenager.
Shes spoken at many local schools, including Cary and Green Hope high schools and Daniels Middle School, among others. Her most recent invitation was a somber one to speak with parents at Franklin Academy in Wake Forest, which recently lost a student to suicide.
Zahnow is in the process of forming a nonprofit, The Shore Grief Center, under which several support groups will operate. The first is an adult group she founded several years ago, Wake Forest Survivors of Suicide Support Group, which meets at Wake Forest United Methodist Church.
The second is a group at Franklinton High School, Save the Teens, for teenagers who have lost someone they love. Zahnow and a school counselor co-facilitate the group, which meets during the day at school. Shes open to expanding to other area schools.
And Zahnow just launched a group for kids ages 6-11, Camerons Kids, at Wake Forest United Methodist Church.
Zahnow hopes forming the nonprofit can help her access more resources to help more people.
Starting this nonprofit is such a culmination of all the things Ive been doing. Its such a relief to know that this is what Im going to finally do, Zahnow says. My main message now is for parents to reconnect with their teenagers. Know whats going on in their life and be there for them. Dont shove them aside just because they look grown up. Theyre still little kids. They need you.