Originally published by the Manchester Journal on Jan. 8, 2018.
MANCHESTER — When John Halligan’s 13 year-old son Ryan committed suicide in 2003, he knew that his life would never be the same.
In the years since, Halligan has worked to turn his grief into positivity, embodying a memorable maxim delivered by his former high school art teacher: you can always turn an ink spot into a butterfly.
Just month’s after Ryan’s death Halligan spearheaded the passage of the Vermont Bullying Protection Law [Act 117], signed by Governor Jim Douglas on May 18, 2004.
Two years later Halligan wrote Vermont’s Suicide Prevention Law [Act 114], mandating suicide prevention education at the middle school level, passed by the State Legislature in April 2006.
On Monday morning, Halligan traveled to share his son’s story with students at Londonderry’s Flood Brook Union School in a presentation coordinated in conjunction with The Collaborative. Also in attendance were middle school students from The Dorset School and Manchester Elementary and Middle School. That night, Halligan also provided a separate presentation for parents with additional information on cyberbullying and teen suicide.
“I feel like this is the beginning of a longer conversation on an issue that kids of this age are dealing with,” said School Counselor Brooke Paxton of Flood Brook, who organized the event. “Having this come together with three schools, that will soon be joined under the Taconic and Green [Regional School District], was really wonderful to see.”
Paxton says that she’s already begun to hear positive feedback on the “powerful” story from both students and teachers. While telling that story will never be easy, Halligan says, the impact it has on audiences continues to propel him.
“I got invited to a school to speak one day. I had no intention of doing it more than once, I just got up and told his life story and let them ask me questions,” Halligan said. “Apparently it had a very powerful effect on the kids; after I left they were apologizing to each other, hugging each other.”
Since then Halligan has spoken at over 1,800 different schools in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and Colombia. He’s also shared Ryan’s story on multiple television programs including Oprah, Primetime with Diane Sawyer, and PBS Frontline.
“What I hear from the kids is that they appreciate it being a real story, rather than someone coming in to lecture them on behavior or internet safety,” he said. “They need to be connected at an emotional level, and have it be real to them. Ryan’s story is real.”
That story came to a crushing end, Halligan says, on Oct. 7, 2003. While on a business trip for his former employer, IBM, he received a phone call from his wife Kelly at six in the morning.
“It was my wife Kelly crying hysterically, `John, you need to come home. Our son is dead, Ryan killed himself,'” he said. “My life, my family’s life, will never be the same as it was before that day.”
The family had moved to Essex Junction in 1993, when Halligan was transferred at IBM. While Ryan had experience some developmental delays, requiring special education courses until the fourth grade, he was an average, if awkward, child.
In fifth grade, however, Ryan began to be bullied by another boy in his class. That bullying ebbed and flowed for a number of years, becoming particularly difficult in middle school. In the summer of 2003, after completing seventh grade, Halligan says that Ryan began to spend much of his time in front of a computer screen.
“It was as if the computer had all of the sudden become an addiction for my son,” he said. “Two days after my sons funeral I was in his room, and I decided to go where my son spent a lot of time: AIM. It was there that the story began to unravel rapidly.”
Through archived messages Halligan discovered that Ryan’s bully had begun to spread a rumor that Ryan was gay during the seventh grade. That summer Ryan began speaking with a girl from school frequently over Instant Messenger, sharing a wealth of personal information as they grew closer.
Little did he know, those disclosures were rapidly circulated between his classmates. Upon returning to school for the eighth grade Ryan approached the girl, and was publicly rejected and ridiculed.
The day that he died, Ryan approached her and yelled, “It’s girls like you who make me want to kill myself.”
As Halligan slowly began to unravel his son’s story, he was at first incensed at the adolescent injustices carried out against Ryan. An investigator later informed him, however, that the girl had not attended school since Ryan’s suicide.
“Word got out about what Ryan had said to her that last day, and now everybody at the middle school was blaming her for Ryan’s death,” Halligan said. “Not only that, we found out that she was now at risk for suicide.”
Halligan wouldn’t wish his pain on his worst enemy, he says, and he and his wife immediately reached out to the girls parents. They forgave her, he said, as well as the boy who had bullied his son for years.
Though that forgiveness did not come easily, Halligan recognizes that what happened to Ryan was more complex than middle school drama.
“I believe in the end my son died of an illness; an illness called depression,” he explained. “An illness that in Ryan’s case went tragically undetected. An illness that I believe in Ryan’s case began with a bunch of these events that started way back in fifth grade.”
Throughout a question and answer session Halligan emphasized the same themes present in Ryan’s story. You are loved beyond belief, he repeats to students, and help is there for those struggling with suicidal thoughts.
His second message is one of forgiveness, illustrated by his family’s ability to forgive those who tormented Ryan. Finally, Halligan encourages students to stand up to bullying rather than acting as a bystander; even when it’s their own friends doing the bullying.
“I’m convinced there is no greater human pain than for a parent to lose a child,” he said. “You can always turn an ink blot into a butterfly; you can always turn a mistake into a lesson learned. You can always turn a bad situation into something good.”
Reach Cherise Madigan at email@example.com.