Kingsley — Jamie Pobuda went to tell her granddaughter school had been canceled because of the icy weather. But Shea wasn't in bed. She was sitting against the closet door.
Pobuda thought the 14-year-old had fallen asleep while talking to a friend on the phone. But Shea wasn't asleep. She was dead. She had killed herself.
The February suicide was all the more shocking because it wasn’t the only one in this northern Michigan village. Three times in eight months, a teen had died by their own hand.
The grief was compounded when a former high school football coach was charged with stealing money from a sports club and a popular principal was arrested for allegedly groping students.
How much heartbreak could one small town endure?
“It was just blow after blow after blow,” said Lauri Bach, a social science teacher who taught two of the suicide victims. “It was surreal. There was no way this could be happening.”
The school year ended Thursday without another suicide, which brings cold comfort to a community that knows its children's problems don't end with a school bell.
None of the deaths were related to each other or to the arrests, police said.
Besides shocked, the deaths also have the village scared. Parents worry their child could be next.
With fear meandering along school car lines and grocery checkout queues, it was as if the town was being stalked by suicide.
Bill Stone, whose son was one of the three victims, has spoken publicly and frequently about the death, bearing a message that does little to allay the dread.
He said Kayden, 14, was the last person you would suspect of killing himself. He was smart, athletic and popular.
“If you think your family is exempt from experiencing something like this, please don’t,” Stone said.
Part of a national trend
It’s not just happening here.
Teen suicide has grown steadily since 2007, becoming the second-leading cause of death for people aged 10 to 24, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First are accidents.
Among the reasons for the growth are several that lurk in rural areas like Kingsley: social isolation, access to guns, lack of mental health care.
Suicide can be both an obsessive and impulsive act, psychologists said. That is, a person can ruminate over it and then, one day, experience a minor setback and respond to it by killing himself or herself.
Kingsley seems like an unlikely setting for three kids bent on oblivion.
Surrounded by gently sloping farmland, the 1,480 residents hold several yearly events that celebrate their rural roots.
The Adams Fly Festival, named after a prominent fishing lure, was held earlier this month while Big Buck Night comes every February. Among its door prizes this year was a Ruger rifle.
In the two-block downtown, a sign in a pharmacy window announces: “Happiness blooms from within.”
“It’s a close-knit town,” Patti Schneider said while mulling a bid at the fly festival’s silent auction. “Everybody knows each other. We know each other’s kids.”
The trouble began in June 2018.
It was the first day of summer vacation, but DeAnte Bland wasn’t in the mood to celebrate. He was reeling from a series of deaths.
A cousin died from liver failure in 2017, said DeAnte’s mom, Nikki Kitchen. Another perished in a car wreck the same year. And then, a week before school got out, a third cousin committed suicide.
Several months earlier, DeAnte told a friend on the school bus something about killing himself or being better off dead, Kitchen said. The friend told the driver, who told the school, who told his parents.
DeAnte saw a mental health counselor, who said he wasn’t suicidal, Kitchen said.
Kitchen was returning home late one night from her job as a Dollar Tree manager when 16-year-old DeAnte met her at the back door.
“Do you ever have a day where it feels like the devil is in your bones?” he asked her, according to Kitchen.
For the next two hours, the emotional youth railed against life and religion. He asked why his cousin would kill himself and why God would allow it to happen.
He punched the refrigerator, leaving a dent, according to a police report.
“God won’t give you any more than you can handle, buddy,” Kitchen said she told him.
DeAnte eventually calmed down, snuggled his mom, gave her a foot rub and kissed her three times, Kitchen said.
The next day, he was found dead in his bedroom.
Kitchen described her son as a momma’s boy who loved to shower her with kisses and strong hugs. Before his life was invaded by death, he was outgoing and always trying to get a chuckle from people, including strangers.
“We had a lot of loss,” Kitchen said. “It was boom-boom-boom, all piled on each other. We were ravished.”
Suicide at summer's end
Just as tragedy had struck on the first day of summer vacation, it returned on the last day as well.
While DeAnte struggled in school, Kayden Stone excelled in it. He got all As and spoke several languages. He wanted to attend an Ivy League school.
He was on the school debate team because, of course, he loved to argue, relatives said. He would debate anything with anyone at any time. His favorite topics were the taboo ones: politics and religion.
“He always had an aura of confidence. He didn’t let anyone step on him,” said Alex Maue, who had carpooled to school with Kayden.
Kayden turned religious in 2017 and was baptized, wearing an omnipresent wooden cross around his neck.
He was confident and independent with a dash of being strong-headed, relatives said. He didn’t always listen to his parents, sometimes getting grounded.
In September 2018, his parents took his phone away. The livid teen dashed off a note to his parents.
He was later found dead in his bedroom. Lying atop the suicide note was the cross.
“It’s so hard to make sense of any of it,” said Kayden’s cousin, Virginia Cooper.
Shea Pobuda began life with a raw deal.
She never knew her father and was abandoned by her mother, said Jamie Pobuda. She was adopted by her grandparents when she was 4.
Like Kayden, she was a good student, but unlike him she was painfully shy. She loved to read and sing in the school choir.
On Super Bowl Sunday this year, as her grandparents watched the game in the living room, Shea tried to kill herself in her bedroom, according to police.
“I almost just (killed) myself,” she wrote to a friend on Instagram. “But I’m scared to do it.”
She said it hurt mentally and physically to be alive, according to the report. The friend later told police she didn’t take the threat seriously.
Sometime between 8:48 p.m. and the next morning at 5 a.m., Shea killed herself, police said.
Signs of distress
Shea’s grandparents knew she had been sad about breaking up with her girlfriend two weeks earlier.
What they didn’t know is she had contemplated suicide 10 months earlier. She said so in an Instagram message in April 2018, according to the police report.
They also didn’t know Shea had talked with friends about it, the report said.But the friends told police they didn’t take any of it seriously.
“Why she didn’t say something to me, I don’t know,” Pobuda said. “Isn’t that what parents are for? I just don’t get it.”
For the Pobudas, the biggest revelations came from Shea’s journal. They didn’t recognize the person whose writing — angry, profane — filled the ring binder.
The journal included at least seven suicide notes with several addressed to her friends and grandparents.
One note attributed her death to the breakup. Another described how she didn’t know her dad and that her mom didn’t love her.
She alternately blamed herself for her troubles and blamed her friends and grandparents for not noticing her pain.
“I tried so hard to stay alive, so hard to be happy, so hard to stay breathing,” she wrote. “But I’m gonna give up. Every time I try to be happy, someone or something always ruins it.”
Parents search for answers
The third suicide in eight months set the small town ablaze. It felt like the children of Kingsley were self-immolating.
Parents went on a mad search to learn everything they could about the three suicides, looking for something, anything, to distinguish their kids from the ones who died.
The recent measles outbreak is scary, but at least it can be seen, parents said. Suicide seemed like a different type of contagious disease, an invisible one. And what’s the vaccine?
Even if kids say they’re not thinking of killing themselves, how would parents know for sure? Restlessness, poor hygiene, low self-esteem and withdrawing from family could all be signs of being suicidal. Or of being a teenager.
Some residents considered yanking their kids out of schools.
“I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” said Arianna Chaney, who eventually left her daughter in school.
Colleen Wierman officiated two of the three memorial services. She never wants to do another.
Images from Shea’s service in the middle school gym are etched in her memory: the baby-faced photos on a poster board, the placard giving the dates of her birth and death, the eighth-grader in the open casket.
Eighth grade and memorial service should not go together, said Wierman, pastor of the Kingsley United Methodist Church
“It’s such a young age. You wonder what the kid could have become,” she said.
The community and school district had responded to the second suicide by holding programs to educate parents and school staff about the subject.
After the third death, the response went into overdrive.
The schools brought in grief counselors and held programs that offered suicide experts and documentaries. It held classroom lessons and teacher training. It hosted an event that educated 400 students and their parents about suicide.
“You wonder if you’re doing everything you can,” said Keith Smith, superintendent of Kingsley Area Schools. “But, with three kids, it doesn’t matter. We’re not doing enough.”
Each day that passed without another child dying felt like a reprieve, a benediction, residents said.
Keeping memories alive
The parents of the victims remember their children in different ways.
Kitchen keeps some of DeAnte’s clothes in a vacuum-sealed bag to preserve the smell.
“We can’t really part with any of his stuff. We don’t want to,” she said.
Stone goes to school basketball games, just like he did when Kayden played for the team. He feels like he has to be there. It’s a way to connect with his son.
At the games, he notices Kayden’s former teammates are getting older, taller, starting to sprout facial hair. It makes him happy and sad.
Stone smiles and talks with other parents. But that’s just a façade, he said. Within him is a void that will never be filled.
“It’s a fight. It truly is,” he told a local TV station. “There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t think about my son.”
Pobuda keeps an inch-long koala figure in her car.
It’s one of the pieces from a game her granddaughter had to develop for a school course.
Shea regretted taking the class, not realizing how hard it would be. But she persevered, staying up all night with Pobuda to work on the project. The teacher said the game was good enough to be sold in stores.
“I was happy because Shea connected with the class, especially after she resisted at the start,” Pobuda said. “She was smart, I’m telling ya.”
In the game, each time players answer a question correctly, they move their koala farther up a tree.
When you squeeze the koala’s stomach, its arms open up, like it wants to give you a hug.
Suicide prevention advice with teens
- Pay close attention to teens experiencing troubles such as a major loss, substance abuse, chronic pain or public humiliation.
- Ask your children directly if they’re thinking about hurting or killing themselves.
- If a child threatens suicide, don’t react with shock, scorn or disbelief. Instead listen to his or her concerns.
- Quickly seek professional helps if a child makes comments such as: Nothing matters; Everyone would be better off without me; I wonder how many people would come to my funeral.
Source: Mental health professionals