Trigger warning: suicide
Danielle Bencze never imagined she’d be living the life she’s been living since May 26, 2018.
That Saturday, her 12-year-old son Jack went outside as he often did in their New Hampshire neighborhood, perhaps to play with his collie in the nearby woods or to visit with the elderly neighbors that lived down the road. There was no thought in Bencze’s mind that anything was amiss. But when Jack didn’t come home, the family started a frantic search that ended in every parent’s worst nightmare: Her sweet, kind-hearted son had hanged himself on their property.
No one would blame a mother who had lost a child by suicide for retreating from the world in her grief. But Bencze is channeling her pain into helping prevent other kids and parents from going through the same thing. By sharing what she’s learned through this experience, Bencze hopes that Jack’s death may end up saving another child’s life.
In an interview with Scary Mommy, Bencze says that Jack, the second oldest of her four children, was “a light” and “a joy,” always giggling and making jokes. “He was kind and witty and could always show me a completely different perspective on something,” she says. “He loved his animals and he still wanted to hold my hand at 12 years old in the grocery store.”
But Jack faced challenges as well. He had high-functioning autism and battled anxiety and OCD. Despite his sweet nature, he struggled to make friends at school. “He always wanted to belong to a group—he wanted the camaraderie,” says Bencze. “It would hurt when everyone on his soccer team had sleepovers but he wasn’t invited, or driving by kids’ houses and seeing them all playing basketball. He wanted that. He wanted friends.”
The day before his death, Jack had been involved in a conflict in the schoolyard. School officials told Bencze afterward that it had been a “play fight”—but it had ended with a boy taunting Jack and telling him to go home and kill himself.
Bencze only learned after Jack’s death that kids with autism are at much greater risk of suicide. According to research published in Research in Austim Spectrum Disorders, the percentage of children with autism rated by their parents as “sometimes” to “very often” contemplating or attempting suicide was 28 times greater than that of typical children. Bencze says that like many autistic kids, Jack battled obsessive thoughts, which may have played a role in taking his life. She points out that other invisible disabilities, such as ADHD and bipolar disorder, are also at increased risk of suicide.
Bencze doesn’t blame the kids at school for Jack’s death, but she says that parents can play a big role in preventing bullying. She feels parents need to be teaching kids that “some have strengths and weakness that might not match your own and not everyone looks the same. Some disabilities like autism are not visible just by looking at the child. Compassion and kindness and love are so hard to show sometimes but it’s so important.”
Schools can also take conscious steps toward encouraging inclusion and interaction in positive ways. “Cut through some of the cliques,” Bencze says. “Partner up different kids. Get them out of their comfort zone. Work on projects together and let them see someone for themselves. Teachers need to pay attention to how the kids are interacting. I think it’s pretty obvious what kid is always getting picked on. Speak up for them. When a child wants to report something don’t blame them.”
“Also, don’t let them be picked on more for speaking up for themselves,” she adds. “They are children trying to navigate their self-worth and relationships, and it’s our job as parents and educators to help them not let them down. Bullies need to be held accountable and repercussions need to follow.”
Bencze wants to raise awareness about suicide and warn parents that it doesn’t discriminate. “Other moms were just like me four months ago—clueless, thinking I was rocking being mom of four,” she says. “Life instantly changed.”
One challenge, says Bencze, is that some normal signs of puberty can also be signs of depression. And clear warning signs aren’t always there. “Your family can sit down to dinner every night, take family vacations together, and one day open your child’s door and he’s gone. No warning signs, no red flags,” she says. “On the flip side, you could see signs and they can tell you they feel suicidal. You do everything you can to help—therapy, medication, treatment program—and still lose them.”
She suggests parents search for side effects of medications they give their children. They also need to get nosy with their children’s electronics use, check their history, see what they’re seeing. “Suicide is all over YouTube,” she says, “Ways and methods to do it. All a child has to do is google suicide with dog leash and it will show you exactly how to do it. It’s mind-blowing and so scary.”
Bencze says Jack’s habits of helpfulness and kindness inspire her to speak out about her family’s experience. “People say I’m strong and brave for sharing our story, but I don’t think that at all. I can’t imagine having the knowledge I have now and not sharing it with others. I wish I knew some of this— never knew about half of this because it never entered my mind that it would ever happen to Jack.”
“I need to take what goodness and helpfulness Jack had and keep putting out there in the world,” says Bencze. “He would give you the last dollar he had. He picked flowers with his little brother for me daily. He was always trying to get me the blingiest gifts for holidays. Helping others made him the happiest, and I feel like this is his legacy—to help another Jack or mom.”