Time may heal all wounds, but as Denette and Jim Stetler have come to understand, it promises no answers.
It has been four years since their son, Trent, a onetime lacrosse team captain at Haverford High School, took his life as a college junior. Denette and Jim had no idea their oldest child had been suicidal, so they sought missed clues. They talked to friends, teachers, and coaches. They looked back through every recollection of his 20 years on earth: Trent as a dimple-cheeked happy kindergartner who adored his little sister, Kylie. As a sometimes-surly middle schooler. As a charismatic leader in high school.
He was playing rugby and lacrosse at Elon University in North Carolina and had experienced — in some cases hidden from his parents — a number of concussions. But that nugget, like every other puzzle fragment, amounted to mere speculation. They did not know, and still do not know, why their dean’s list son had fallen so low and told no one.
They have come to know this: Struggling kids do not tell their parents but they must. Parents do not ask enough but they must. Everyone must make mental illness a part of family discussions, right along with talk about sex, drugs, alcohol, and hanging with the wrong crowd.
“Mental health issues know no boundaries. They’re everywhere," Jim said as he and Denette spoke for the first time to a journalist about the January 2015 loss that has so profoundly changed their family.
The couple talked about Trent near the same dining room window through which they had seen a hawk land on a fence just days after his death. The hawk had peered at them for what seemed like an eternity. Perhaps, they still believe, it was a message from their boy. Mom still sees signs from Trent - a feather on a beach, a cardinal in the sky.
“'Thanks, buddy,'” Denette whispers when she sees a sign. “It helps.”
Through fund-raisers in Trent’s name over the last four years, the Stetlers have brought speaker sessions about youth anxiety into Haverford Township schools, the local library, the Haverford YMCA.
Their efforts, through unimaginable grief, are commendable. The speakers, themselves having struggled as kids, discuss danger signs and fervently tell students that mental illness is nothing to hide. Sessions for parents after work, sadly, are far less well-attended.
In the stillness of that dining room, the message Jim and Denette shared was that all of us need to talk more to each other: Kids need to tell adults they trust when they feel bad. And parents, even if they think they have a good relationship with their kids, as the Stetlers believed they had with Trent, must dig even when they think nothing’s wrong.
“If you’re struggling,” Jim pleaded, “please reach out.”
Their message, it seems, may be working with some teenagers at Haverford High School, thanks to the speakers whom Denette and Jim have helped bring there for mandatory assemblies. A single speaker last year appeared before about 900 juniors and seniors and inspired 50 students to contact school guidance counselors almost immediately.
“Of the more than 400 talks I’ve given, those sessions were probably among the top 10 [in] response from students,” said Andrew Onimus, 27, of the mental-health advocacy group Minding Your Mind.
About 120 student questions also came in through anonymous text as Onimus, a Drexel Hill native, talked about having been suicidal as an upperclassman football player at Muhlenberg College.
I have a friend who’s really struggling. What can I do?
I’m struggling with severe anxiety right now and my parents aren’t willing to talk to me about it. What can I do?
Unfortunately, only a few dozen parents turned out for their own session with Andrew and a clinician later that night. Because parents are half of the equation here, something more must be done to reach them with this message.
The workshops in this densely populated suburban Philadelphia township have been paid for, at least in part, by proceeds from an annual Trent Stetler “Play Day” begun in 2015 by Trent’s former Haverford High lacrosse coach. The Stetlers became more involved as the event grew. Jim Stetler, 61, a mutual fund company portfolio manager, even joined the board of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention as its treasurer.
They say they are enriched by the advocacy, but it also has taken a toll, and understandably.
“The Play Day, it’s a lot of effort,” Denette, 55, said. “On the one hand we’re doing something positive, something really good. But doing it, it’s hard. We walk in that day and I see this big beautiful banner of my handsome son and it’s like, ooof. That’s incredibly hard.”
“At the end of the day, you miss him and you just [say to yourself], ‘What happened?’” Denette said.
There may be no satisfying answer to that. But there is hope in their generous mission, a gift in Trent’s memory for years to come.