Losing Joshua

On January 30, He Nearly Killed Himself. On April 16, He Did. A 17-Year-Old's Suicide and the Questions Left Behind

"I'll be right back," Josh says, and then the camera shuts off.

After Josh's death, Debra noticed that some people in town treated her differently. Last spring, she went to a few graduation parties for Josh's friends. Some people stiffened when they saw her. Nobody knew what to say. She stopped going to the parties, and tried to make herself feel better by attending a support group for suicide survivors. That didn't work either. Her grief was so raw that she could not relate to anyone. One of the other women there was talking about her son's suicide, which had happened 17 years earlier.

Josh Graham’s bedroom in Phoenix (pop. 2,251), a rural village northwest of Syracuse.
photo: Jay Muhlin
Josh Graham’s bedroom in Phoenix (pop. 2,251), a rural village northwest of Syracuse.

Not long after Josh's death, Debra herself felt suicidal for the first time in her life. She had never battled depression in the past, but now she felt sad all the time. "Oh my God," she said to herself. "This is what Josh lived with for such a good portion of his life." It seemed a horrible irony that his death had somehow given her new insight into his mind, a new understanding of the demons against which he had long struggled.

For Debra, guilt has become a constant companion. "I know in my mind that I did everything that I could do," she says. "I tried to get him help. But in my heart I still feel as if I failed him somehow, as if I didn't do the right thing. I just knew he was so troubled, and I just knew I was racing against the clock." The same few questions hound her every day. "What could I have said different? What could I have done differently? Why couldn't I save my son?"

In early August, Debra discovered an outlet for all her rage and frustration when she learned about the statewide campaign for "Timothy's Law." Timothy was 12-year-old Timothy O'Clair, who hanged himself in Schenectady in 2001. The bill that bears his name would require health insurance companies to provide the same coverage for mental illnesses as for physical ailments. In September, Debra recruited 150 people, including many of Josh's friends, to attend a rally in Albany. Now, everywhere she goes, she carries a cardboard box with letters to legislators about Timothy's Law, and she solicits signatures from whomever she meets.

When people ask why she is so passionate, she says, "Josh's death cannot be for nothing. His death has to have purpose and meaning." There is another reason, too, why she is devoting so much energy to trying to stop future suicides. Debra heard that in August, four months after Josh's death, a 17-year-old boy who lived in a nearby town had also ended his own life.

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