David James with his son, Peyton
When I was researching the Peyton Heart Project, I reached out to Peyton's father David. I quickly realized that telling his story was important too, and I am honored that he is allowing me to do that, here.
For the past twenty seven years, David James has worked as a high school English teacher. He is a husband, a father, and he is active in his community. He coaches the swim team at the same high school where he works, in Woodlands, Texas.
David regularly models for his students the cathartic nature of writing personal essays. He is an engaging writer and along with publicly sharing his thoughts on his own blog, his writing has been featured in the Houston Chronicle and other online and print publications. David's writing is both heartbreaking and inspirational. It is in the sharing of his personal story that his courage shines through.
David James is a survivor of suicide loss.
I want to tell you that this is an anomaly. I want to tell you that the loss of someone so young to suicide is unusual.
Except it is not. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged ten to twenty four years old.
This is a horrifying statistic. And, as with statistics of any kind, it is important to humanize the loss. People need see the human beings behind these numbers.
We are losing the children of our neighbors and our co-workers. We are losing our nieces and nephews and grandchildren. And the parents of those who have died by suicide, are suffering the greatest loss of all.
David James knows this. He lost his son, Peyton.
Peyton Andrew James
June 16, 2001 - October 13, 2014
When David talks about Peyton, he describes a boy who is sweet and sensitive. Peyton wasn't interested in athletics, but instead enjoyed reading, Pokemon, Dr. Who, and video games. He was very smart, but because he suffered from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) Peyton sometimes struggled academically.
Academics were not the only area where school became a struggle for Peyton, he was also bullied. It began early on and increased as he got older.
In the months before he died, Peyton began to show signs of anxiety and depression. His family did what they could to address the issue, and hoped that he would improve. They weren't aware of how bad the bullying had gotten.
As is often the case with kids who are bullied, Peyton both hid what was happening to him, and tried to get help at the same time. On the afternoon of October 8, 2014, Peyton called a teen hot line at his school and reported another student for bullying him.
Still, the effects of the bullying had become unbearable for Peyton. After school on that same day, he hung himself. When his mother found him, she began CPR and the paramedics continued CPR when they got there. After close to half an hour, they were able to revive a heartbeat, but he never again began breathing on his own. Five days later, with his family at his side, Peyton died.
"I was wracked with guilt in the beginning. I blamed myself outright," he said.
It was easy for David to focus on things like his divorce from Peyton's mother or a recent move he'd undertaken, as the reasons for Peyton's unhappiness. It was very difficult for him to set the guilt aside. Some days he understood that the divorce was not the direct cause of Peyton's despair. But, David would tell himself he was still at fault. He'd convince himself that if he'd been able to spend time with his son every day, then he would have been able to stop this from happening.
Finally, David says, he reached out for help through counseling.
"It was through therapy that I learned that it was not my fault. The emotional pain that Peyton suffered is what drove him to die, not me."
David James with his wife Lisa and daughter Emmy
As time goes by, his family continues to help him on his healing journey.
"They know that I am, and always will be, grieving the loss of my son. They know there are days that are good, and some that are bad. They allow me to talk about Peyton whenever I need to."
Peyton James, holding the hand of his baby sister, Emmy
In turn, David makes an effort to continue to share who Peyton was, with them. Especially, his five year old daughter, Emmy. Last year, when Emmy turned four, David wrote her a letter, so that she could learn more about her brother. In the first lines of the letter, David shares with his daughter what he most wants her to remember.
'I want you to know about Peyton. First of all, know that he loved you.'
David instinctually understood that one of the ways to honor grief is to recognize how many parts of it are full of love. It was important to him that his daughter know that she was a special part of the last days of her brother's life.
'You were by Peyton's side when he left us. You were able to hold his hand, kiss him on the forehead and tell him goodbye.'
at an AFSP Out of the Darkness Walk, 2016
In the weeks following his son's death, David began collecting toiletries and other items, to give to Ronald McDonald Houses. Ronald McDonald House lodging is for the parents and families of children who are hospitalized with life threatening conditions. David himself had stayed in a Ronald McDonald House, when Peyton was in the hospital.
David also began speaking publicly about suicide prevention and awareness, especially as it relates to suicide among youth, and the impact of bullying. Sharing his story has been a constant for David. He also credits grief support groups for helping him to move forward.
"I belong to one group in particular that has helped me tremendously," David explains. "When I first attended, it helped me realize that I am not alone, and that there are others out there that have gone through the same tragedy as me."
David recognizes that healing is not just found by reaching out for help, but also, in reaching out to others.
"Over time, I have gone from needing to understand, to helping others to understand. It helps fill a void in my life. Knowing that I can help gives me a sense of purpose as well."
In fact, David is often motivated by empathy. In March of 2017, Hannah Hollis, a student at Pearland High School in Texas, died by suicide. Although he didn't know Hannah, David reached out to the students at the school by writing a letter to them to help encourage their healing. In the letter, he gave them the advice that he himself models every day, for other survivors of suicide loss:
'In the days, weeks and months to come, I ask that you please take care of yourself. Know that there are people out there who care and want to help. Take life one day at a time. Remember to eat, exercise, and talk to others. Keep Hannah and her family in your heart. They will need your strength. Take them a casserole, send them a card or a plant, write them a letter telling them how much Hannah meant to you.
Don't forget Hannah, ever, but whatever you do, keep going.'
Perhaps though, one of the most poignant ways David has contributed to keeping his son's memory alive, is through the Peyton Heart Project.
The project distributes small knit hearts that are made by volunteers, placing them in public places for people to find randomly. The hearts represent the many hearts of lives lost to suicide. Each knit heart also has any one of a number of inspiring quotes attached to it. The Peyton Heart Project describes their mission as such:
"We hope the hearts cause people to stop for a moment and reflect on a young life lost to suicide, on bullying, and on the fact that everyone’s life matters. We want to leave people with a feeling that there is still good out there in the world and we would like to inspire others to join us on this mission of kindness."
David James, holding a Peyton Heart Project heart.The hearts have been ordered by schools, clubs, and individuals, and have been distributed far and wide (even internationally). You can learn more on their website, here:
David James speaks to schools, clubs, and at many events throughout the year. He talks about his son's death because he recognizes that silence further stigmatizes both survivors of suicide loss, and those struggling with suicidal ideation.
"Suicide has to come out of the darkness. Nothing is going to be solved if we shut it in a closet and pretend that it doesn't exist."
Because of the epidemic of youth suicide, David feels that the public has to be proactive and that schools need to devote curriculum and classes to talking about mental health and suicide. He understands that some might feel that these types of conversations should only be handled by parents, but he still advocates for classes at school, as well. He worries that parents may not know when their children are suicidal, or they may not know what to say.
"If the parents don't know, how can they teach these things?" David says.
As for what he personally tries to convey to young people - he always reminds them that there are people who love them, and whose lives would be torn apart without them. To those who are struggling with mental health issues, he says:
I asked David what he would say to his son if he was given the opportunity to have one more conversation with him, His answer was both beautiful and heartbreaking. It speaks to the love and devotion of a father, and to his grief as well:
"Please let me help you. I promise I will stay with you until it does get better. Nothing matters more to me than your happiness and well being."
After having an opportunity to learn more about David, I am once again humbled by the opportunity to speak to a parent who has lost a child to suicide.
Grief is different for everyone, and there is no right or wrong way to express it. However, channeling grief to improve the life of others is a beautiful way to promote healing. Sharing a personal story is also an incredibly brave thing to do, because it requires a person to stay focused on their loss.
Every time David James shares his story with others, he is helping to address the stigma that hurts us all. In this way, David is ensuring that Peyton's legacy includes having made the world a better place. I know that Peyton made his family's life better. I want David to know that his son's life is making a difference to people he's never met, too.
At the end of the letter, David quoted a movie. The quote David used is perfect in describing what it is that propels all suicide prevention advocates to do the work they do, especially fellow survivors of suicide loss.
'As Andy told Red in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,"...hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies." '
You can find David James' blog, here: