NANTICOKE — Speaking before hundreds of Greater Nanticoke Area students in eighth through 12th grades, John Halligan emotionally told the story of his son, Ryan, who committed suicide in 2003 at the age of 13.
He detailed the story of physical and cyber-bullying his son went through that ultimately led to him taking his own life.
“I can’t fix everything with a speech,” said Halligan, a nationally touring speaker. “But my hope is I can help at least one of you.”
Despite a few problems with the sound system, Halligan’s message seemingly came through loud and clear to the students. Many asked questions after the presentation and several remained to have one-on-one teary conversations with him.
Halligan and his wife, Kelly, have a website — ryansstory.org — and they personally respond to emails to try to help wherever they can.
“This community, this school, has lost a few kids in recent years,” Halligan said after his presentation. “A lot of the students are having a difficult time finding their way through the experience of losing a friend. They asked me for advice on how to move on after the loss of somebody.”
Halligan will be in Luzerne County for three weeks speaking to students in all its school districts and to parents groups. The former IBM worker from New York has dedicated his life to trying to eradicate bullying and to prevent suicide, especially among young people.
Personal story shared
Standing alone on stage, Halligan relates Ryan’s story as pictures of his son and family flash on a screen behind him. Halligan then tells the story of his son’s tragic journey that began in the fifth grade and ended at the start of eighth grade.
Halligan talks about the his son’s innocence — his autism, his awkwardness, his failure in athletics and his struggle to fit in with “the cool kids.” The hour-long presentation takes viewers through the family’s attempts to resolve the conflicts in Ryan’s life, the guilt that followed his death and the forgiveness of those who directly impacted Ryan and influenced his decision to end his life.
Beginning with the frantic phone call Halligan received from his wife informing him that Ryan committed suicide to struggling to answer the question, “Why?” Halligan painted a clear picture of his son. There was the difficulty in accepting what had happened and the self-blame for not being able to do whatever it would have taken to prevent it.
Among their considerations: self-defense lessons, possible home-schooling, counseling, confrontation and computer safeguards.
Halligan said one his son’s supposed friends proved to be untrue — she led Ryan to believe she cared about him as a friend, when in reality she was talking behind his back. When she called Ryan “a loser” in front of her friends, Ryan was distraught, Halligan said.
That and an untrue rumor Ryan was gay that spread like wildfire in school, and on the Internet, eventually pushed Ryan to his unfortunate end.
“There is no greater pain than that of a parent who has lost a child,” Halligan said. “All of you are loved beyond belief. Don’t ever believe for a second that you don’t matter.”
Halligan said there are no perfect families; that there are people in everybody’s life who truly care.
“Ryan’s death was the result of a disease called depression,” Halligan said.
After Ryan’s death, the boy who was the main bully was still spreading untruths about his son, Halligan said. He went to the boy’s home and sat with him and his parents. “I looked at him and told him he had no idea the amount of pain he had brought into my son’s life,” Halligan said. “I told him there is no do-over here; my son is gone forever.”
Halligan said he hasn’t spoken to the bully since that day and he just wants to tell Ryan’s story to as many people as he can with the hope that some will listen and change their ways or their intentions.
“Don’t be a bystander,” he said. “Be an up-stander. This is not about throwing punches; it’s about throwing words. Be a friend.”
Halligan said he and his wife still struggle with Ryan’s death, as do their two other children: Megan, now 27, and Conor, who is in the 11th grade.
Halligan, who has spoken at hundreds of high schools across the U.S., said telling Ryan’s story takes its toll on him. “By the end of the school year, I’m physically and emotionally exhausted,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder how much longer I can do this.”
For now, his mission to prevent further family and community tragedies continues. “These are all good kids,” he said. “They just need to have the courage to talk to somebody.”