Wednesday, March 22, 2023
March 22, 2023

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Tri-Cities student who died will get empty chair at graduation. ‘Empty gesture,’ says dad


RICHLAND — When the Class of 2022 at Hanford and Richland high graduates in a couple weeks, one chair will be left empty among the hundreds of robed seniors.

The seat will symbolize all the students from the graduating class who died before reaching the milestone.

But for one Tri-Cities father, it just won’t be enough — a chair with no names, undecorated, bare, or with no mention of his son.

Jim Chastain lost his 17-year-old son Caelan Chastain to suicide in 2021. He was a junior at Hanford High School and would have graduated this year.

“Nobody’s going to know what the chair is for,” Chastain, 51, told the Tri-City Herald. “It’s not going to mean anything. It’s kind of an empty gesture when there’s nothing said about it.”

The father of six says the school district needs to do more to recognize Caelan and others in his class who didn’t make it to the ceremony — even if its as small a gesture like reading their names aloud.

Some school districts have long-held, often unwritten policies on not acknowledging during graduation ceremonies students who die by suicide.

Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for children ages 10-14, and the third-leading cause for people 15-24, according to recent CDC data. Rates among youth in Washington state remain higher than the national average.

And Chastain said Richland in particular has lost several students to suicide during the last two years.

But schools have to walk a fine line with discussions about suicide and the state of youth mental health.

“Graduation is a day of celebration for our graduates, and we want to make sure the focus is on them but we also want to be sensitive to those who have lost a lot over the past couple years,” said Ty Beaver, Richland School District’s director of communications.

A single empty seat is something of a compromise for families, oftentimes still in the midst of grieving, and the high school administrators that plan the event.

But there have been exceptions.

At Hanford’s 2018 ceremony, a photograph, ball cap, grad cap and gown were festooned to a seat in remembrance of Dmetri Kennedy-Woody, who died by drowning two weeks before he was set to accept his diploma.

Beaver said that instance was different and was still painfully fresh in the minds of the student body.

Chastain said despite more than a week of discussions with Hanford administrators, the school district is solidly opposed to even mentioning his son’s name at the commencement.

Unless he’s acknowledged in some way, Chastain said he and his family won’t be attending on June 10.

“It will be very hard even if they say something — but it would be worth that pain to have our son be remembered,” Chastain said. “These last couple of years have been really hard and my son is not the only kid who has been lost.”

Support from students

Last month Chastain discovered his family is not alone in their belief that Caelan and others like him deserve recognition.

“I was listening to my son’s voice on YouTube, and I did a Google search to see if I could find any more video clips of him and I found that petition instead,” he said. “There’s so many different emotions that just hit me.”

It was an online petition started by some of Caelan’s classmates just a couple weeks earlier.

“At graduation, schools set aside ‘empty seats’ in honor of students who have passed, but because Caelan’s death was a suicide, they have decided not to give him a seat,” it reads, asking that his family be allowed to put his photo on the seat.

Already, nearly 1,600 students, teachers and others have signed it, some who said they knew him and others who didn’t.

Some were parents who also lost children to suicide.

“My son Tyler also died by suicide. Stop the stigma behind mental illness,” said one mother.

“Obviously the school does not understand suicide,” wrote another woman. “It is a medical condition that caused this. Would you deny a seat in memory of a student that died from cancer or an automobile accident. Denying a seat to this student’s memory does not make suicide disappear, and it is being hurtful and prejudicial towards his family and friends. …”

Their comments and thoughtfulness overwhelmed Jim Chastain and his family.

“It’s one of those things that has become more important than I ever knew it could be,” he said.

“His classmates are the ones who started the petition and that really affected us a lot. They cared. It feels like, to his classmates. He mattered. And I just want it to be an acknowledgment that he was there and he was important,” Chastain continued.

After the discovery, Jim Chastain reached out to the school district to see if they could work something out.

Chastain said Principal Tory Christensen and other district administration met with advisors from Forefront Suicide Prevention program, an initiative at the University of Washington that specializes in “empowering individuals and communities to take sustainable action, championing systemic change and restoring hope.”

On Thursday, Christensen notified him that they’d be moving ahead with their regular precedent of just having one chair at graduation but that they wouldn’t be mentioning Caelan.

Chastain said it’s unsettling that they’re not even willing to even acknowledge his son’s existence. They don’t have to mention how he died, but should at least acknowledge his existence, he said.

De-stigmatizing discussion

Discussing suicide carries a heavy stigma, says James Mazza, a professor at the University of Washington’s School of Psychology, in a 2016 keynote. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to bring awareness to the issue.

And it may be important for some schools to memorialize students who’ve died the same way regardless of how they died, he says. The point of discussing suicide should be neither to stigmatize nor glamorize.

Parents more often than not don’t know when their child attempts to take their own life, but there are often signs.

At the behest of some states, public schools have required their students, staff, teachers and sometimes parents to undergo training to recognize distress in students.

More than a year later, the Chastains continue to remember and mourn their son.

Everyone in their family has animal-themed nicknames — duck, monkey, cat, turtle and panda.

Caelan, who was born in December, was named “penguin.” Jim and his wife, Miriam, got penguin tattoos after his death. Penguin paraphernalia also surrounds his urn at home.

The family continues to make sure their “penguin” lives on, but it’s been tough.

“In some ways, you relive the pain of losing your child every day in the absence of them,” he said. “Every time you think, ‘Caelan would really like this,’ or ‘I wonder what he would think about this,’ or sometimes (it’s) just the silence in the house.

“But, if just for a moment, that absence was given meaning, I cannot tell you very well how much that would to my wife and I both.”

Getting help

Here are some places to turn for help and advice:

  • Lourdes Health Crisis Services at 509-783-0500.
  • Comprehensive Healthcare crisis line 800-572-8122.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK or 800-273-8255 for English and 888-628-9454 for Spanish.
  • Crisis Text Line: text “START” to 741-741
  • Trevor Project for LGBTQ youth: 866-488-7386, or text “START” to 678-678.