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How one North Texas couple found purpose after losing their daughter to suicide

December 09, 2016 - The Dallas Morning News

Her room is just as she left it.

A pair of scuffed gym shoes in the corner. Bottles of perfume lining a shelf. Some iPhone earbuds, purses, volleyball trophies and a panda pillow. The name ‘HANNA’ stretches in white bubble letters above her bed. A girl with straight brown hair, long eyelashes and a dimple on her right cheek smiles in a photo on almost every wall.

Hanna Clark’s room looks the same as it did 3 1/2 years ago, when the 15-year-old Rockwall High School freshman died by suicide.

It was a school night, April 25, 2013. Her parents, Tim and Raina Clark, were out shopping for groceries at Wal-Mart. Raina texted Hanna to see if she needed anything from the store. Her daughter responded with a list. About 35 minutes later, the Clarks returned home and unloaded the groceries. Raina walked into their bedroom. What she saw, her daughter’s body, is something she wishes she could erase from her memory.

Tim did CPR. Raina called 911.

In a moment, Hanna had taken her own life. Her parents now faced the question of how to go on with theirs — without the only child they had together.

It’s a problem faced by thousands of family members and friends whose loved ones take their lives each year, including the family of a high-profile Dallas attorney. Last week, Brian Loncar was found dead in his car, nine days after the suicide of his 16-year-old daughter, Grace. The Dallas County medical examiner said it could take up to two months to determine Loncar’s cause of death.

The Loncar case has focused attention on the impact of suicides on families, including guilt, depression and suicidal thoughts. Statistics indicate that Hanna and Grace’s suicides are growing more common.

A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the suicide rate for young women between the ages of 15 and 24 has risen dramatically. From 1999 to 2014, it increased by 53 percent from 3.0 to 4.6 per 100,000 population. Each one of those cases represents a tragedy in which those left behind must determine how to move on.

Hanna watched Lifetime movies with her mom. She had one of the best volleyball serves on her team. She still believed in Santa Claus. She had funny-face wars with her dad.

“The pain will never go away,” Raina said. “But it does get better.”

Hanna Clark's bedroom at the home of her parents, Tim and Raina Clark, in Fate. Hanna died by suicide in 2013 at the age of 15. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

As Hanna was growing up, the Clarks never discussed suicide with their daughter. It was a taboo topic. After all, the family had no reason to.

Tim had two grown children from a previous marriage, so the Clarks’ lives were mainly Tim, Raina and Hanna. Weekends were spent cheering on their daughter during volleyball tournaments. They took yearly family vacations, to places like Chicago, to San Francisco, to Florida, picking destinations with one thing in common.

There needed to be a beach. Hanna loved the beach.

Tim and Raina were involved with their daughter’s social life. They had the talks — about drugs, sex and alcohol.

“If this could happen to my family, it could happen to any family. Because we were just normal people, a normal family,” Tim, 55, said. “We never saw any signs that Hanna would do something like that.”

Hanna dealt with waves of depression and insecurity like any other teenager navigating through adolescence. Raina asked fellow parents if her daughter’s experiences were similar to others, and the answers were unanimous: It’s normal.

The Clarks don’t know if Hanna was clinically depressed, but they do know one thing: On the day she died, Hanna didn’t receive proper help.

Hanna and her boyfriend had broken up. She spent that school day in tears, heartbroken. Her parents had no idea how hurt she was. Friends couldn’t get her to talk about it. Three faculty members stopped Hanna to see if she was OK. She brushed off their concerns, assuring them she was fine.

Then, after school, she took her life.

“She made an impulsive decision,” Tim said. “That’s the only thing that we know.”

In the days after, the Clarks thought about selling their house. They wanted to get away. Raina couldn’t sleep or eat. Tim threw himself into researching teenage suicide statistics, trying to find answers. After learning that parents who lose a child to suicide have a high divorce rate, he walked down the hall, found Raina and said, “We’re not going to do that.”

Tim and Raina Clark of Fate lost their 15-year-old daughter, Hanna (background photo), to suicide in 2013. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

Raina took a month off work. She developed an anxiety of being seen in public. She felt like she failed as a parent. For the first time in her life, she had her own suicidal thoughts, and told Tim to keep an eye on her.

“I didn’t want to be here,” Raina, 43, said. “I wanted to be up there with her.”

The two relied on each other and on their faith. They attended faith-based grieving groups but struggled to connect their pain to those who had lost parents or children to illness or accident. It wasn’t until they found a support group tied to suicide that they began to heal.

They spent those first few weeks in a fog. One day, sitting on a couch in their home in Fate, Raina turned to Tim with tears in her eyes.

“Why am I still around? My purpose was that 15-year-old daughter.”

A month after Hanna’s death, another Rockwall girl, an eighth-grader, took her life.

The Clarks were already feeling like they wanted to do something in Hanna’s memory. Three months after their daughter’s death, they created Hanna4Hope, a nonprofit to bring awareness to teenage suicide. The foundation would form committees and clubs within public and private schools, meeting monthly to talk about the challenges faced by teenagers.

“We felt like this was a topic that needed to be discussed just like sex, drugs and alcohol. These kids are under more pressures than I was growing up,” Raina said. “We have got to find a way to just educate them and let them know that, ‘Hey, they’re going to have bad days, and that’s part of it. But tomorrow’s going to be a better day.’

“We’ve got to be there to listen, and be their support and not judge them. Just let them know it’s OK how they’re feeling.”

The foundation gave the Clarks an outlet for their grief. More than three years later, Hanna4Hope is in Rockwall, Brock, Santos, Milsap, Lipan and Fairfield school districts. The foundation plans to organize workshops in Plano and Fort Worth next year. It also partners with a program that teaches suicide survivors coping skills.

School officials lead the clubs and committees, but students are the difference makers. They learn how to spot destructive behavior, talk about their problems, manage anxiety, listen to others and seek help.

“I feel like we failed Hanna that day,” Raina said, noting that she, Tim, the faculty and students needed more suicide education.

Every year, Hanna4Hope hosts a grand event in mid-September, a 5K run/walk for families and teens. A portion of the proceeds goes to the Children’s Medical Center's Suicide Prevention and Resilience in Children program.

The date is important. Hanna’s birthday, Sept. 16, was only a few months after Hanna4Hope began. The Clarks knew how they wanted to celebrate what would’ve been their daughter’s 16th birthday: the inaugural 5K.

“And about a month before the event, we also found out that it was National Suicide Prevention Week,” Raina said. “So we kept it there.”

A photo of Hanna Clark getting licked by the family's cat Patches at the home of Tim and Raina Clark in Fate. Hanna died by suicide in 2013 at the age of 15. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

Three weeks before Christmas, a gold wreath hangs on the front door of the Clarks' home. Inside, there is no Christmas tree, stockings or presents.

“[The wreath] is the extent of our decorations,” Raina said.

The holidays are difficult, especially this one. For 15 years, the family would go to Raina’s mother’s house for Christmas, where Hanna would sit in the same spot in the living room to open presents. After her death, Raina couldn’t stomach the family tradition. Now, they reserve a table at a nice restaurant for an intimate dinner.

Tim and Raina purposefully go to work on Christmas. She’s a CT technologist and he’s a CT-MRI technologist. Old traditions such as attending volleyball games have stopped. But new traditions have begun. During the holiday season, the Clarks now schedule a vacation.

“Anywhere that has a beach,” Raina said. “It has to have a beach.”

This year, they’re going to a little island off of Cancun, where they’ll rent a house on the water and follow their new ritual: Find a pink island flower, walk to the shoreline, say a prayer for Hanna and toss the flower in the ocean.

Raina learned years ago at her grieving support group that the grief would never go away, that it would be a second job, something she would need to learn how to manage.

This year she was finally able to shop alone at Wal-Mart. She avoids her triggers, like scrolling through Facebook and seeing photos of Hanna’s friends growing up. She tells other mothers who’ve lost their daughters: You must be able to talk about it. Keep their memory alive.

Hanna Clark's bedroom has been left the way it was the day she died. (Rose Baca/The Dallas Morning News)

That’s why the Clarks decided not to sell their home. That’s why the living room has more photos of Hanna: one of her wrapping her arms around Raina, one from her freshman year, one of the first family selfie.

Hanna’s dresses still hang in the closet. Her backpack is zipped shut. Tim and Raina and Hanna’s friends sometimes find themselves in her room, surrounded by her belongings, by an unanswered question 3 1/2  years later.

“I honestly today don’t think she realized the true consequences of her action,” Raina said. “It just wasn’t Hanna.”

 

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