MOUNT PLEASANT MILLS — Tammy Simpson misses her teenage son every day.
Six years ago, Brandon Bitner, a ninth-grader at Midd-West High School at the time, walked 13 miles away from his home and eventually jumped in front of a tractor-trailer in a suicide that drew national attention and highlighted an underlying theme of teenage bullying. He left behind a suicide note — and many lingering, unanswered questions.
Simpson said one of the hardest parts about the loss is that Brandon exhibited none of the tell-tale signs of being suicidal.
“He didn’t struggle with depression,” she said, “but I think kids are good at hiding things overall.”
She said Brandon was in good spirits and joking with her on the couch watching TV the night before he took his life. There were no indications that he was planning to take that long walk with no intention of return.
“With Brandon, nothing ever changed. He was a straight-A student. He went to school everyday. He socialized,” Simpson said of her son’s behavior.
“In regards to teens and suicide, the warning signs may be different than those of an adult. Teenagers may be withdrawn or less social than adults,” said Kate Morris, a licensed psychologist with Courtyard Counseling in Selinsgrove. “Unfortunately it is not uncommon for teens to exhibit very few warning signs, which is why it is so important to maintain open lines of communication with your adolescent.”
Simpson said she was very involved in Brandon’s life, and because of that she went through a process of “what-ifs” and even blamed herself for not seeing something sooner.
Anthony Butto, DSW, LCSW, director of The Courtyard Counseling Center said parents often question what they missed when a child commits suicide.
“The aftermath of this type of death can endure forever. This is especially true if was a child who took their own life,” he said. “The death of ones’ child is by far the most devastating regardless of how the child died. It is especially devastating if it is by a suicide.”
He noted one of the best ways to cope is to “stay connected to other family members that jointly express their grief and questions with one another. They need to understand that the decision to take one’s own life rests with that person, and of course if they could have prevented it, they would have.”
Some of the ways Simpson herself has coped with the loss has been to seek therapy and to move away from her home.
Mental illness, she said, is something that runs in the family, including a number of loved ones who are bi-polar. Her therapist shared with her that it is likely Brandon was depressed because of all of the bullying and chose to carry his hurt deep within and not show the signs.
“She told me it was probably a relief for him knowing what he was going to do,” Simpson said.
Brandon’s suicide was planned in such a way that he not only left behind a note leaving the reasons for this decision, but because he knew the impact of the truck would have on his body, he would need to be identified.
“When the police came that night, I asked them how they even knew it was him,” she said. “He had taken a Sharpie marker and wrote his information on his arm.”
Simpson said she was inconsolable for a long time after the news. She said did not want to go on living. “It was so hard. My son and I were so close.”
Simpson left Snyder County and moved to Jonestown a few years ago. She said she couldn’t live in the house that was filled with memories of her son.
“The house was a trigger for me,” she said. Losing a child, she said, is the most horrible loss a person can face. She lost her father a couple years after Brandon died, and although that was a difficult thing to go through, it was nothing compared to losing her child.
Sharing the message
Simpson has kept Brandon’s story alive and speaks at public events about bullying and teen suicide. She said it gives her hope to know she could be making a difference and making a teenager think about his or her actions.
“I let the kids know that as much as they think nobody cares, somebody does,” she said. “There are people to go to and talk to. Talk to someone you trust and let them know how you are feeling.”
She said she stresses suicide is not the answer.
Something that is common among teens is copycat suicides where teens get so distressed about a loss of a friend that they decide to take their lives as well.
“Teens feel emotions more intensely than adults, are more susceptible to the contagion of another teen’s emotions and certainly another teen’s suicide,” said Butto. “Teens also tend to think more in the moment than adults, often disregarding the long-term picture or consequences of life’s travails.
“I tell them, ‘We need you here. Once you take your life, that’s it. You’re done. There’s no going back.’”
Teens have come up to Simpson after her speeches and thanked her for sharing her story.
“They realize they need to get themselves help,” Simpson said.
Teens have so much to live for, she said.
Simpson said she often thinks about how Brandon missed getting his driver’s license, going to prom and graduating. He missed meeting his baby nephew, and this October his older sister is getting married.
So many things remind her of Brandon, she said.
“I still have very hard days. I saw picture on Facebook the other day of a mom and son and I lost it. That’s going to be my life now.”