Fellowship Story Showcase
Teenage girl fatally shoots herself days before '08 school year begins
Billings Gazette health reporter Cindy Uken is a 2012 National Health Journalism Fellow. This article is part of a series examining the suicide epidemic in Montana. Other stories in this series include:
It was just days before classes in Miles City schools were to begin, catapulting the 2008 school year into a frenzy of anticipation.
To celebrate the waning days of summer, Garret and Tammie McFarland and their two children, Nicole and William, had Sunday dinner on the deck. Their mealtime conversation was sprinkled with talk of sports and academics. Nicole was an “A” student and a point guard for her basketball team. But much of the conversation centered on the upcoming hunting season.
Garret and his tomboy daughter were avid hunters and constant companions hunting ducks, geese, pheasants and deer. The 14-year-old had one goal: to get a bigger deer than the two previous ones she had bagged.
It would be the last conversation the father and daughter would have.
About 9 o’clock that night, Nicole notified a friend by email that she was going to kill herself. The friend said, “You can’t.”
At noon on Monday, two days before the start of the school year, Nicole emailed the friend again, this time to say, “Goodbye.”
The friend would not receive the message.
Sometime between 3 and 4:30 p.m. that day, Nicole fatally shot herself in her bedroom with a .22-caliber pistol. The determined eighth-grader had scoured the house to find the hidden key to the gun safe.
There was no note.
“We kind of realized she wanted to do it before school started,” said Tammie McFarland, 46. “I think it was part of her plan.”
It is the last known youth suicide in the Miles City school district, according to school officials.
After talking with Nicole's friends and reading the emails they got from her, it was easy for Tammie to see all the signs that she had missed. Nicole had reached out, but the warning signs went unheeded, the McFarlands said.
“When someone makes a suicidal comment, that’s the part of them that wants to live, not the part of them that wants to die,” said Karl Rosston, Montana’s suicide prevention coordinator. “We know that at least 70 to 80 percent who die by suicide gave warning signs.”
The weekend before her death, Nicole was studying a gun cabinet in the house of one of her friends. She stood looking at it for about 20 minutes as though "mesmerized," Nicole's parents later learned.
During the Custer County Fair, she was giving away her money. Nicole had told a few friends she was thinking about killing herself, but no one believed her because she was outgoing, had a sense of humor and was well-liked. When they called her on her threats, she would say, “just kidding.”
Nicole’s threats never went beyond her circle of friends. They chose not to tell any grownups.
“We’ve chosen not to get angry,” Tammie said. “It’s just too much. It doesn’t get you anywhere. We can’t go blaming other people because it’s not good for anyone. And they’re living with that guilt of not coming forward.”
“You can’t be mad at them because they’re hurting just as bad as we are, and those kids have to live with it," Garret added.
Never, her parents said, did Nicole talk to them about her desire to kill herself. They say they saw no clues. She was private, always keeping her emotions in check.
“She never liked to talk about her feelings,” Garret said. “She really didn’t. She was adamant about that.”
So unyielding about not wearing her heart on her sleeve, if her younger brother got hurt while the two were roughhousing, she would admonish him to “quit your crying.”
She was described as meticulous and a perfectionist. She was a devout Christian who helped teach Sunday School classes at Grace Bible Church and was active in her youth group. She played football with the boys, who became like a band of brothers. They would stick up for her if necessary.
The 5-foot, 1-inch and 110-pound tomboy seemed to struggle with puberty. While her friends were into hairstyles and makeup, she was not. On one of the waning days of summer vacation, a group of Nicole’s friends decided to go swimming. The agreed upon attire was shorts and T-shirts. Her friends showed up in bikinis.
"That frustrated her,” Tammie said. “I think there was a different level of development there that she couldn’t quite accept at the point in her life.”
Today, the McFarlands are left to speculate about what drove Nicole to end her life. They chose to tell their story to highlight the importance of recognizing the warning signs. If someone threatens suicide, take that threat seriously, Garret said.
He believes things happen for a reason. Maybe, Garret theorized, Nicole took her life so they can help others recognize the signs and symptoms.
“I don’t know how else to look at it,” he said, choking back tears. “As you can see, I’m not very good at dealing with this. I’ve never been good at dealing with death.”
This story originally appeared in the Independent Record on December 10, 2012
Photo Credit: James Woodcock Billings Gazette
Cindy Uken's reporting on Montana's suicide epidemic was undertaken with the help of a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship from the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.