I t had only been a few months since her eldest daughter had taken her life when Jen Hoffman’s sister came to her with an idea.
“My sister came across this flyer last year for a walk to raise money for suicide awareness and she wondered if we wanted to put together a team,” Hoffman. “I was like ‘absolutely, let’s do it’.”
So Hoffman, who lives in Hampton, joined with her sister, Stacy Smith and more than 40 family members and friends to form “Roses 4 Ayden.” The team, named for Hoffman’s daughter, Ayden Burdo, participated last September in the Capital Region Walk for RITA (Remembrance, Intervention, Together we can bring Awareness), sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
In roughly four month’s time, the team raised more than $13,000.
“It was a very emotional and cathartic experience,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman remembers the first time her daughter attempted suicide.
Burdo was a few months shy of her 16th birthday and had struggled with depression and other issues for more than two years.
“She always had social anxiety, even as a girl,” Hoffman said. “In eighth grade she began questioning everything in her existence. She questioned her sexuality. She even questioned her gender.”
On Jan. 10, 2011, Burdo attempted, unsuccessfully, to take her life. She was admitted to an in-patient facility, but she hated the experienced and vowed to never go back. She was prescribed medication but didn’t like how they made her feel.
“It was a battle for four years,” Hoffman said.
Before her senior year of high school, Ayden adopted her new name—her given name was Nekia—and identified herself as a male for about nine months.
“Changing her name was very powerful for her. It allowed her to feel more comfortable and gave her a feeling of empowerment,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman and her daughter met with officials at the school and they were very supportive of her decision.
“She hated labels. She just wanted to be who she was,” Hoffman said.
During the second half of her senior year, Hoffman sensed a change in her daughter. She got her first boyfriend and seemed to be coming to ease with whom she was.
After her senior year, Burdo attended college, but dropped out after only three days. Several months later, she began attending Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vt.
“She started to move forward,” Hoffman said.
But the issues that haunted Burdo for years, persisted.
“She told me that she just wanted to be an adult, but once she got there she struggled,” Hoffman said.
Becoming an advocate
On April 24, 2013, Hoffman received a call just before midnight from her daughter’s roommate.
“You know nothing good is happening at that time,” Hoffman recalled, fighting through tears.
When she arrived, her worst fears had been realized: Burdo had taken her life.
The news was crushing and telling Ayden’s siblings was even more painful.
“She couldn’t see in herself what we saw in her,” Hoffman said.
Eventually, Hoffman worked her way through the grief, although it wasn’t easy. She also decided to do whatever she could to make sure others didn’t feel the same way.
“I decided I could choose to go after this, to be active, or I could do nothing,” she said.
Hoffman chose the former and leapt into action. She and her family and friends participated in last year’s Walk for R.I.T.A., named after Dr. Rita Leighton, a doctor at Glens Falls Hospital who killed herself in 2004. She participated in Cody’s Climb, organized an art auction (Ayden was passionate about art) and held a spaghetti dinner. The proceeds from all the events benefitted organizations dedicated to suicide prevention.
She also began advocating for a more open dialogue about suicide.
“I didn’t pay attention to suicide before this. It’s something we need to talk about. It has to be part of the discussion. We can’t be afraid to talk about it,” Hoffman said.
According to S.A.V.E. (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education), suicide takes the lives of nearly 30,000 Americans each year. For young people 15-24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death. In the past 13 months, two young men from Granville have taken their lives.
“Suicide is like cancer. It doesn’t matter how rich you are and where you’re from. It comes after anyone,” Hoffman said.
Hoffman admits she doesn’t have the answers to what she could have done differently and says there aren’t a lot of resources out there for people who may know someone who is suicidal.
“There’s a stigma with any discussion of suicide,” Hoffman said.
She plans on participating in this year’s Walk for R.I.T.A. and hopes to raise $15,000 this year. A basket party to raise funds toward that goal will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Aug. 23 at Proudfit Hall in Salem. Admission, including 30 tickets, cost $20; an additional sheet of 30 tickets is $10.
She said her ultimate goal is to start a non-profit organization to give support to families who are going through similar experiences.
“I don’t know what it looks like; I just know it’s what I want to. This is part of my life now,” Hoffman said.