Content Warning: The following article is about suicidal feelings.
SHREWSBURY – Greg Wolfus looks back on life with countless stories of joyous adventures, silliness and good times with his wife Danielle, daughter Zoe and youngest son Isaac.
They were close. They were happy. And then, all of a sudden — August 27, 2020 — Zoe was dead. She committed suicide at age 16.
“Our life was great and we recognized that all the time. I didn’t need that pain to make me realize how great my life was,” Greg said.
Greg and Danielle are still wondering what they missed.
“It’s very common, we’ve learned, for survivors of suicide,” Danielle said. “What did I miss? What did I do wrong? As a parent, how could this happen under my roof? »
What they learned from Zoe’s journals was that she was hiding her anxiety. She thought her brain was a burden. She worked to reassure them that she was fine.
“She even wrote in her diary, ‘I don’t feel up, but I make sure I go into the living room every day to sit with my family so they don’t worry about me,’ Danielle said.
Zoe thought she was protecting the two people who would have done anything to protect her.
Two years earlier, when Zoe was 14, a friend’s parents informed Greg and Danielle of an Instagram post by Zoe that had raised concerns. When they asked Zoe about it, she recognized the message. She was assessed in the ER and soon after began taking medication and undergoing therapy. After a while, she convinced everyone that she felt better.
“That was the last time we knew she was in trouble,” Danielle said.
Danielle said the hardest thing now is living with the guilt of not realizing how much Zoe was in pain. But Zoe’s parents weren’t the only ones who thought she was fine.
The group of friends who met WBZ-TV at Prospect Park in Shrewsbury said they were shocked to learn she had died. Carolyn Salvemini couldn’t believe it.
“I kept thinking to myself, ‘She’s really gone.’ Someone who’s been in your life for so much of high school and just left,” she said. “We hadn’t seen her in so many COVIDs. At the same time, it was like I would never see her again.”
The girls, graduates of Shrewsbury High School, say Zoe was good at everything. She was kind, caring, creative and fun. They also say that Zoe put enormous pressure on herself to succeed academically. Zoe’s parents agree.
“She was a perfectionist, always very hard on herself even though we always said it’s not the grades that matter to us. It’s that you’re happy, that you’re healthy. But that mattered for her,” Danielle said.
After Zoe’s death, community members started talking more about mental health and, specifically, the needs of young people. Right now, across Massachusetts, there aren’t enough counselors to meet critical demand.
Greg and Danielle cite the Shrewsbury counseling center as evidence. They say there is an 11 month waiting list. When people are in crisis, they wonder how can they wait eleven months? The couple strongly support more mental health education in schools, possibly as early as elementary school, and certainly in middle school and high school.
Danielle wants children to feel they can open up, without judgment, when they are having difficulty.
“There’s a disease called cancer and there’s a disease called mental illness. It’s okay to talk about it,” Danielle said.
They also hope talking about mental illness will help break down the stigma that keeps many people from seeking help. Danielle says parents should talk to their children a lot.
“Ask them how they’re doing. Ask them how they’re feeling emotionally. It’s okay to ask if they’re struggling,” she said, nothing that she and her husband had those discussions with Zoe.
“We had a fabulous relationship. She was just incredibly secretive about some things that we weren’t aware of,” Greg said.
He wants people to show more kindness.
“People need help. And unless you find a way to show everyone your vulnerabilities, other people will hide their vulnerabilities,” Greg said.
The couple find solace in nature, in their community of Shrewsbury and in a project called Zoe’s Rocks. Following the death of George Floyd, Zoe expressed her sadness over racial injustice and her support for the Black Lives Matter movement by painting rocks.
After her death, Zoe’s friend Brian Alperson began painting rocks in her memory. Now, there are rocks all over the world (even in the Pacific Ocean) that serve as little memorials and a source of support for people who find them.
Greg remembers how much fun he and Zoe had the day before he died. They painted and drew, he helped Zoé who was learning to drive. They talked and laughed.
“Zoe was awesome for 16 years,” he said.
Looking at the beauty of a garden in the park, he searches for hope.
“I can’t reconcile the past. I’m not even sure I can accept it. But I have another child who means the moon and the stars to me. And I would like to find hope again so that I can live a fruitful life forward,” he said.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or for more resources visit their website. For more mental health resources,