Their Classmate Died By Suicide — Now They're Petitioning For An Empty Chair At Graduation In Her Honor

by Colleen Dilthey Thomas
Originally Published: 
Courtesy of Maureen Zamenski

Trigger warning: suicide

Anna Zamenski met her best friend, Julia McCarthy, when they were in kindergarten in the Rockwood School District in St. Louis. The two grew up together until, tragically, Julia died by suicide the summer before their sophomore year of high school. Anna does not want her friend’s memory to be lost among the pomp and circumstance of graduation — one that she would have attended. She has petitioned the school to leave an empty chair at graduation in her honor. At first the school said OK, but now, they have changed their tune.

Maureen Zamenski, Anna’s mother, told Scary Mommy that all her daughter is asking for is a chair. She does not want a statue erected or her name even spoken at graduation. She simply wants her remembered by her classmates and those attending the graduation.

Zamenski and her friends started a petition in an effort to change the administration’s mind. What began as a piece of paper has turned into a large online campaign. It is their feeling that if they have enough support from the community, it will prove that they are ready to see an empty seat at graduation. That petition has more than 33,000 signatures.

Courtesy of Maureen Zamenski

Parents have also gotten involved. They have emailed several members of the administration showing their support of their children. Many feel that they are prepared for such a memorial. Don Re, a concerned parent, said in a Facebook Post, “I was thinking about this last night. Most of the kids sitting at that graduation will be old enough to vote and to join the military and fight for this country. If they are triggered by the sight of an empty chair or by hearing the name of a classmate they lost then the school has failed them.”

Rockwood Summit High School Principal Dr. Emily McCown emailed concerned parents stating in part, “Our decision comes from discussions with our counseling staff as well as local experts from West County Psychological Associates, whose training sessions we have attended. The advisement of experts is for schools to not create physical memorials for students who have passed. We certainly understand that for some these may be viewed as memorials to celebrate but for others, it can be a trigger for their mental health.”

Courtesy of Maureen Zamenski

Some students don’t feel that the school is helping them to grieve the death of their classmate or taking suicide or mental health seriously enough. Hannah Menke, a junior, posted to a Rockwood Summit parents’ Facebook page that she doesn’t feel supported by her school, “Freshman year I went to get help because I wasn’t doing well mentally. I went to see the counselors. The counselor was busy. They sent me to the principal’s office. The principal was not prepared for what I was going to say. He wasn’t a counselor but the counselors were busy doing schedules so my mental health was pushed aside. Eventually the counselor told me that I wasn’t suicidal. She just said that. She said I had goals for my future and that meant I wasn’t suicidal. I had one counseling session and was sent right back to class. That is the help they give. I haven’t been back since.”

She is not the only person feeling unsupported by the school’s counseling department. Zamenski told KMOV, “When I made the petition, half the kids didn’t even know she had passed.” She said the school made no announcement nor offered help. “When I went to my counselor, I was basically told to get over it.”

Courtesy of Maureen Zamenski

Scary Mommy contacted McCown for comment, “Thank you for reaching out to better understand this story. Unfortunately some of the narrative that is out there is not accurate. We have every intention of honoring and remembering Julia as part of this graduating class. We always have a moment of silence as part of our graduation ceremony in remembrance of our students who have passed. We have spoken with Julia’s family. They understand and have given permission for us to honor Julia in this way for our graduation.”

But the families involved are not giving up. It is their hope that the school will reconsider and place an empty chair to honor Julia McCarthy the way that they feel she deserves. Maureen Zamenski said, “Anna came up with the chair idea. Her thought process was those who knew, knew and that was all that was important to her. Now it’s turned into a circus and nobody wins. It was never supposed to be about winning.”

When asked about the students’ concern for the treatment of mental health and the discussion of suicide, McCown did not respond.

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