When Carolyn Zahnow’s only child died by suicide in 2005, she was desperate for answers.
Zahnow began learning more about the issues that contributed to her son’s death: depression, drug addiction and grief. Her son Cameron Stephenson, who was 18 when he died, was dealing with the death of his father three years earlier.
The family tried counseling and drug rehabilitation, but Stephenson continued to struggle.
“Losing my only child hurt more than words can express,” Zahnow said. “The pain of suicide is agonizing, so much so that ending your own life is not out of the question. When you give birth to a child you also give birth to a future. If that child dies, that future does as well.”
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Zahnow moved from Texas to the Triangle and in 2012 founded The Shore Grief Center. The nonprofit provides free peer-based grief support groups in Wake Forest, Raleigh, Cary and Wilson.
More than 1,500 people have attended the center’s support groups for children ages 6 to 12, teens, adults and survivors of suicide.
Zahnow, 60, has written two books about her experiences: “Save the Teens” and “Beautiful Disasters.”
Here, she talks about her own grief and why she wants to help others.
How did you find the strength to rebuild after your son’s suicide?
A: The first year I researched all the things that had to do with Cameron—meth, why he was addicted to it, why a teenager would want to end his life. All of that research led to a book. And I thought with all of this information maybe I can help other parents. So I wrote “Save the Teens.” And then I started a group in 2008 in Wake Forest called Survivors of Suicide.
How do you think grief support groups help?
A: They help people know they’re not alone.
In hindsight, is there anything you wish you would have done different for your son?
A: Insurance usually pays for six sessions with a therapist. I should have had him keep going, whatever the cost. I regret that.
Team sports is another thing. Cameron always enjoyed it, but after his dad died, he wasn’t interested. I didn’t have him play, but now we know that helps. Being active gets those endorphins going and your brain works better.
Is there a common denominator parents are missing when it comes to depression, suicide and addiction?
I just didn’t make the connection, and a lot of people aren’t thinking about that. They could have had a friend who died by car accident or suicide.
I’d have to say bullying, too. It’s not just someone picking on you; it could be someone excluding them from a group of people.
Some say we are in the midst of an opioid crisis. Is it similar to what Cameron and his peers were going through in the mid-2000s?
A: Yes. Every decade there seems to be something new. I remember standing in our dining room area and looking out the window and thinking, “What happens if he dies? What will I do?”
That was a couple of years before it happened. It’s hard to know what to do. I’d been trying to talk to him about it, but he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to self-medicate.
What do you think causes teens to turn to drugs?
A: There’s something going on in their life. They’re depressed; they’re suffering. They’re trying to take away the pain.
I think a lot of times they’re trying the drugs because their friends are, and then they get addicted. It’s really hard to get out of addiction.
What have you learned since you started speaking to parents and teens?
A: A lot of parents always say, “Mine won’t ...” And I say, “Try it.” If you don’t try, then how do you know if it will work or not—like taking them to a therapist. You could be saving their life.
What’s your hope for The Shore Grief Center?
A: There are more people I haven’t reached. I talk to people and they say, “There’s nothing close to me.” An organization in Wilson wanted me to start a group because there are so many overdoses in Wilson County, so I did. I just want to do more.
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Born: March 16, 1957
Family: Husband, Dan
Work: Executive director and founder of The Shore Grief Center; author and speaker on teen grief, depression and addiction; started a local chapter of Bereaved Parents of the USA
More info: theshoregriefcenter.org