Remembering Nate: Parents of local suicide victim open up about the impact of loss

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Spicer Family

Nate Spicer was only 17 years old when he took his own life.

Note: The Tribune does not and will not solicit stories from families in moments of such deep sorrow.  After our first article on the rash of 2017 suicides, the Spicer family contacted us, asking to be interviewed. They hoped that their story might paint an accurate picture of the emotional aftermath of such a tragedy, and thus help prevent a future tragedy from occurring to someone else.  The emotions were fresh and raw.  The Spicers spoke from a standpoint of deep sorrow and emotional turmoil; some of their statements might be offensive to certain people involved in various aspects of the case.  It was not the intent of the Tribune to offend, but to allow the family to speak openly, and to present their story as we received it.

As publicized details of suicide events have been shown to promote repetition, we have removed specific references to the method of suicide.  

CULLMAN – Suicide victims often express the feeling that they are a burden, that their families or friends might be better off without them.  The following story, though, should prove two points: first, that suicide does not help loved ones but devastates them; and second, that young people are more important and far more loved than they sometimes think they are.

Late on the evening of Jan. 17, Nathaniel Elijah “Nate” Spicer walked out the door of his family home.  A short time later, his mother and brother found him in the back yard, where he had attempted to kill himself.  His mother and a neighbor performed CPR until emergency medical services arrived.  Nate died several days later at UAB Hospital.

Nate had been in trouble before over drug use, so was enrolled in Cullman County’s alternative school program, and was involved in an outpatient rehabilitation program at The Bridge, Inc. in Cullman.  After expressing suicidal thoughts, he was temporarily hospitalized.  Eleven days before his suicide, he was discharged from short-term treatment at Children's of Alabama in Birmingham, after doctors there reportedly gave him a clean bill of mental health.  Friends reported to the family that he was well-liked at school, though he had been the target of some bullying from unknown sources.  Like many typical teen boys, he suffered from what his family defined simply as "girlfriend trouble."

Following are the accounts of Nate’s parents Cathy (C) and Daniel (D) Spicer, who were interviewed together.

First Impressions

These were the Spicer’s initial statements.

C-"It's absolutely devastating; whatever pain Nate was feeling, it has been magnified and multiplied onto us.  There's no words to describe what it feels like."

D-"My first response to what he done was to want to commit suicide myself, and I'm not even that kind of person.  I mean, it's such a shock to the soul, you just can't even understand; it's just so hurtful.  We don't even know how to pick up and move on.  He was 17 years old; and he was just starting to get his life started.  Kids these days, we just don't (know) what goes through the mind of a child these days.  It's a terrible situation all the way around.  We just don't really understand."

C-"We will forever want to know why.  We've gone through all of his social media accounts that we can get into.  He protected himself pretty good: he changed passwords, deleted messages, all his contacts.  He sent out one last message through Snapchat before he did what he did.  After that, he walked out of the house and (…).

Nate

D-“He was a great kid, he really was.  He ran track for the school and played Parks and Rec basketball.  Just an amazing kid.  Loved to skateboard, amazing at video games.  Sit and laugh all day long.  I’m talking about having you cracking up.  Man, he was so funny.  We would just laugh so hard.

“There was a girl there at the hospital, and I asked her how she knew him, and she said, ‘Well, I was actually crying in the hallway at school and he walked up to me; and by the time he got done, I was laughing.’  And that was how she met him.  That’s the kind of personality he had.”

C-“He always had a smile for everybody.  He never met a stranger in his entire life.

“We donated his organs, because he was that kind of person.  We didn’t want his death to mean nothing.  Yeah, he chose to go out like he did, but we wanted him to continue to help people.  He definitively helped seven people.  One of those was a child who flew all the way from California to get his pancreas.  He helped some little kid be able to go out and play, and that was him.

“He was the kid that, if you were bed-bound, he’s going to come to your house to play checkers with you; so we know he would have wanted to do that.  That’s just who he was.

“It’s just completely floored us, because he was that kid.  He was just amazing, and he didn’t know his own worth.  He was buried with, I’d say, about 20 love letters from girls that wanted to ask him out.  He didn’t think he was that kid.  He didn’t think he could just go up and ask a girl out.

“Some of his friends have come forward and said that he was being bullied, but he was trying to handle it himself.  He never told us.  We don’t know what about or what was going on.”

D-“As many people as I saw come to his funeral, I could hardly see him being bullied.”

C-“I couldn’t either, because there were so many kids there: football players, basketball players.  The basketball team wore bracelets for him while he was in the hospital (at UAB).  The whole school was praying for him to pull out of it.”

Previous efforts through mental health services

C-"When he verbalized that he was feeling suicidal (approximately three weeks prior to his suicide), we immediately put him into Children's Hospital.  He had just gotten discharged from the psych ward at Children's Hospital 11 days before he did this.  They told us he was fine.”

Tribune- How long was he there?

C-"He was there for 10 days.  They said he was fine.  They didn't put him on any depression medicine, no anxiety medicine, no nothing.  They said he was just suffering from 'teenage issues.'”

D-"Just a little depressed from being in teenage life.  That day I got him with me, and I talked to him.  I said, 'Look, if you're thinking about hurting yourself, we need to know.  Don't BS me on this.'  And he looked at me and said, 'No, Dad, I'm not.  I'm really not.'  But clearly he had other plans.”

C-“And he had his follow-up with Cullman Mental Health, and they felt that he was just fine.”

D-“They’re not taking these thoughts of suicide very seriously; they didn’t when he was down there.”

C-“At Children’s (Hospital), we were supposed to go down there and have family meetings, and it never happened.  When they discharged him, they were supposed to give us a discharge summary.  He was at lunch when we got there, and they didn’t even come into the room with us or tell him goodbye, nothing.  The nurse just gave us some paperwork, said ‘Sign this,’ and walked out of the room.  And then he got there 15 minutes later, and we left.  So they completely dropped the ball on his care, completely.

“I talked to the therapist two or three times on the phone about medication, and she’s like, ‘Well, maybe the doctor will assess that’…never a definitive answer.”

D-“They should have taken it a little more seriously.”

The Spicer family in the last days before the suicide

D-"We didn't even know he was feeling the way he was feeling.  He was a little depressed.  We were trying to talk to him and ask him if he was thinking about hurting himself, but he promised us he wasn't.

“At first, we took it a little lightly, because we wasn’t sure.  That’s why (after his stay at Children’s Hospital) we took time and set him out: personal time—I took personal time, she took personal time, and set him down and said, ‘Look, if you really are thinking about hurting yourself, we need to know.  You’re our son, and we will get you some help.’  But he said, ‘No, Dad, I’m not thinking about it.’

“We tried to take it seriously.  I don’t know why he didn’t tell me the truth; I really don’t.”

C-“I don’t, either.  I look back at our text messages.  From right before he went in the hospital, we went from pages and pages of messages—long, drawn out, everything going on in his life, to messages like just, ‘I get off work at this time.’  I thought it was just because everything was so busy.

“During these last couple of weeks, he had ropes (a therapy program at The Bridge) on Tuesdays and Thursdays; and he worked Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.  I drove him everywhere: I took him to school every day, picked him up from school, and took him to wherever he had to be in the afternoon.  So we had all that one-on-one time in the car, and we talked every day.  I knew there were things bothering him, because he had been in trouble; but just the Saturday before, he was telling me about this girl he wanted to ask out, and ‘What do I need to do to make that happen?’  Like everything was okay.

“He did this on a Tuesday.  On Monday he was bragging to me that he’s going to graduate next year, exactly 20 years to the day from when I graduated, and that he was going to walk in my favorite color.  Just one day before he did that.

“We knew that things were going on, but he was still normal.  He wasn’t devastated, depressed.  He hung out with his brother, played video games. He laughed, he cut up.  He assured us verbally that everything was okay.”

D-“We believe that he put on that front, like there’s nothing wrong, because of what he was thinking and feeling inside, and he didn’t want anybody to see that.

“We kept telling him, ‘Look, if it’s the trouble you’re worried about, you just need to get some distance between you and your mistakes.  It ain’t that bad.  You’re still a kid; you’ve still got time to work things out.  And he was in juvenile trouble.  It would’ve went away as soon as he completed his probation; everything would‘ve been gone.  But he let it get to him.”

The role of media

D-“There's a viral video of this girl who had (…) (committed suicide by the same method Nate chose).  And it's been going around, and we've been trying to rally to have it taken down.  He was talking to me, telling me about that video, just a couple of days before he done it.  He was telling me, 'Man, that's messed up, Dad.'  Then he went out and done the same thing, the exact same thing.  Other children, instead of using it as a sad story, are using it as an educational tool."

C-"Even in his message he sent to that girl (a message sent on the day of his suicide, only a short time before the incident), he says, 'I have now figured out the way to do it.'  And he had been watching that video over and over.  It's in his history on his computer, and that's like one of the last things in the history.  He watched it so many times, that he mimicked it exactly.  And now there's another girl that's done the same thing on Facebook Live.  That's crazy!  You're already going to devastate your family, but them having to watch it, too…”

Nate Spicer’s suicide

C-“We just thought he was being a teenager.  He had gotten into some trouble; he got caught smoking a cigarette in the house.  I thought that he was just cooling off.  I thought he'd just gone outside to walk it off.  Me and his brother, we called some of the neighbors to see if he was there; and he wasn't there.  So we went outside and walked around the house, shined a flashlight into their fort, and there he was.  At first we were like, 'What are you doing? You're being creepy.  Stop!'  And then his brother said, 'You don't think…,' then we both just started running. 

“He was ice cold.  I beat on his chest, and I breathed in his mouth, and I got some color back.  A few minutes later my neighbor started doing actual chest compressions.  They (EMS) sat in front of the house a good 30 minutes, trying to get his heart back started before they took him to the hospital."

Nate was kept on life support at UAB Hospital for more than five days, until a seizure caused his brain function to cease.  His funeral took place on Jan. 28. in Cullman.

The aftermath

D-"It's been devastating to our family: we can't eat, can't sleep.  I've had to go on anti-depressants and anxiety medicine.  I mean, it's just killing me.  I can't understand why he done what he done; it just wasn't worth it.  Kids these days feel like they've got so many problems in school and whatnot.  He sent that message to that girl, and she didn't even try to help him."

C-"Apparently he sent a mass message to a bunch of kids.  They've been telling us that they called 911, but nobody tried to contact us.  Nobody even attempted to contact us.  We found out about this message from our youngest son, because he happened to see the message from somebody else.  He saw it on the investigator's phone, because it had been forwarded to the investigator from somebody else.  I don't know what was going on elsewhere, but all these kids have said they called 911, then tried to call his phone.  I had his phone; I didn't get any calls until it was too late- hours later.  They're saying they tried to help and do what they could do, but if three hours later is doing what you could do, I just don't see it.  If your friend sends you a message and says they're checking out, you need to call somebody.  You need to call everybody, anybody.”

(Of the scene and moment when she found her son):

“I can just look over there and see him.  I'll see that forever, and there's nothing I can do to make it go away.  His little brother was right there beside me, and he saw it, too; and it's never going to go away."

D-"He's devastated, too.  He won't even sleep in his room."

C-"We were by his (the younger brother) bedroom window when we found him, and he's afraid that he's going to roll over during the night and see that view.  We've rearranged his room and everything.  The other night, I had to sit in there with him until he was completely asleep, and he still woke up with a start, looking for me.  The next night he stayed in there with his best friend, and he made it all night long.  Last night, we all had to sit in the living room with him to fall asleep on the couch.  He’s terrified.  I don’t know when that will go away, if ever.”

D-“To be honest with you, I’m still just devastated.  I can’t get his image out of my head.  I think about him—in the mornings is the worst time in the world.”

C-“Every day we have to tell ourselves over and over, ‘No, Nate’s not here.  He’s not coming back.  This is what happened.’  Every morning.”

D-“The circumstances surrounding his death are so bizarre, we can’t make heads or tails of any of it, really.  We’re trying to understand.  What we’re hoping to do is to try to help people get some kind of understanding about suicide, to really understand how bad it hurts the family.

“I haven’t even been to work, can’t eat, can’t sleep.  I had to go on anti-depressants and anxiety medicine.

“He was my son.  He was my fishing buddy.  Our first-born son, and now he’s gone.  I don’t know how to cope, don’t know how to live.  I’m not sure how I’m going to live without him.”

C-“I haven’t been back to work, either.  People say that suicide is selfish; I don’t think they realize just how selfish it really is.  Yeah, your pain is gone, but look what you’ve done to everyone around you.  There were over 300 people at his funeral.

“Kids were telling us, ‘Nate was the one who kept me from killing myself; Nate was the one who stayed on the phone with me all night long to keep me from doing it.’  I’ve had so many kids come up to me and say that in the last six months they’ve tried to kill themselves, and said Nate was the one that talked to them and made them not do it.  And now he’s the one that went through with it.  It’s just crazy.”

Thoughts on suicide prevention and the mental health system

D-“So many kids these days…I don’t know what they think is so bad about life, but there was a bunch of kids who came down to the hospital and were admitting to us that they had been trying to commit suicide or thinking about committing suicide: probably 20 or 30 kids that came down there.  It’s becoming a serious issue.”

C-“It’s an epidemic.  Every one of them has told me that if you call that suicide hotline…I called it for myself, to make sure they weren’t lying to me.  You get the local mental health emergency help line: they refer you to CRMC. CRMC refers you to somewhere in Birmingham.  Birmingham refers you over to some other place.  By then, I was so pissed off that I just hung up, because I never spoke to a person.

“And then the actual suicide hotline, if you’re serious, they don’t even ask you who you are or where you’re at, or anything.  If you’re actually serious and you’re going to kill yourself, they’re just going to listen to you do it, and that’s it.  It’s ridiculous.  There is no way to actually help somebody through these hotlines.  Yeah, call all day, but it’s not going to do anything.  They’re not going to help you at all.

“And the people at Mental Health, they clearly don’t take it seriously.  It’s very frustrating that these kids just don’t have any help.  They’re calling out to their friends, and their friends don’t know what to do.”

D- “Counselors at school, they don’t really seem to do well, because there’s things they (students) don’t want to tell them.  It’s like being a parent.  They don’t want to trust the school.”

C-“There’s a lot of fear in who they think they can talk to.  ‘I don’t want to talk to this one, because what if this happens and I get in trouble instead of getting help?’  It’s got to be someone they trust.”

To parents

Tribune- What would you say to parents?

D-“Really pay attention to your children.  Even if they’re trying to say that there’s nothing wrong, really try to pay close attention to them.  We didn’t see it.  Look for that sign.”

C-“Catch what we didn’t catch.  Watch; I mean watch.  I know it’s going to make your kid mad for you to be all up in their social media, but you need to be in it.  You need to know what they’re saying to their friends.  There’s stuff they’re not going to tell you.  You need to be in their business.  They might hate you today, but if it saves their life, it’s worth it.  I would rather argue with him tooth and nail for the rest of my life than have to put him in the ground.”

To kids

Tribune- What would you say to kids in trouble?

C-“Ask for help.  There’s no shame in admitting you’re depressed.  Ask an adult, definitely an adult.  And if they don’t take you seriously, keep searching for somebody that does.  Don’t stop asking for help.  And if you’re afraid to do it alone, bring a friend.  If you need help, you need to get help.”

D-“Ask someone they trust.  Kids don’t want to share some things with their parents; so if there’s somebody they can trust, find that person they can trust, to confide in and get some help.  I wish there would have been somebody he could have talked to.  I would hope he would have been able to trust me, but parents seem to be the last people they want to go to.  As long as there’s somebody they can trust that’ll help them.”

C-“If someone confides in you, go to the next step.  Take the next step.  I don’t care if you make them mad; they will forgive you.  If it saves their life, they will forgive you at some point.”

Author’s note:  It has come to my attention that blame is being assigned from one person to another, especially among Nate’s schoolmates.  This desire is not unusual in moments of tragedy, as people try to explain what happened.  One student specifically seems to have been singled out for particularly vicious accusations.  This story should make clear that everyone could have missed something at some point: family, friend, and the mental health system.  Everyone will at some point ask himself or herself what more they could have done, what they could have looked for, what they could have taken more seriously.  Now is a time of more pain than anyone should have to endure; there is no need to create more. – W.C. Mann

 

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