By Susan Marquez
Teen Suicide Prevention and Firefly Outreach
For some, the sight of an empty chair is gut-wrenchingly painful. It’s a constant reminder of a loved one lost. For Patti Herrington, the pain of losing her son to suicide in August 2011 will never go away. Yet she has used that pain to push forward in helping others who feel helpless and hopeless.
On August 3, 2011, Patti’s youngest son, Conner, chose to escape depression by taking his own life in the Herrington’s family home in Madison. He was 17. Patti came home from work that day to find Conner had hanged himself. “It was so traumatic, and something no parent should have to experience,” she states. “It was a day that changed my life forever.” She had to find a knife in the kitchen to cut him down, call 911, performed CPR on him, all to no avail. Conner was gone. And Patti’s life as a mother of three sons was forever redefined.
“I don’t know how I made it through the funeral. I really have no recollection of any of it. I do know that afterwards, my oldest son said he was taking me back to Nashville with him.” Patti ended up renting a cabin in “the middle of nowhere” in West Tennessee for six months where she struggled with despair and brokenness and tried to make sense of a senseless situation.
“I cried and prayed and paced and cried and prayed and shouted out to God, all in an attempt to come to terms with what happened. The feelings of guilt and despair were overwhelming. I almost became suicidal myself.” The thing that nagged at Patti the most was that she had heard if a person commits suicide they’ll go to hell. “I couldn’t live with that. I cried out to God, saying I’ve got to know that my son is with you.”
Patti had always had a close relationship to Jesus. It’s a comfort she has come to rely on and cherish in her life. “I took my boys to church and I always talked to them about Jesus. I did my best to be the best mother I could be. I led all my boys to Jesus.” In her time of despair, Patti had to fight the very human feelings of anger she had, questioning why God would allow such a thing to happen. “I went through such a wide array of emotions. It was such a heartbreak for me that I couldn’t imagine ever having joy in my life again.”
Throughout that six months in the cabin Patti cried out for a sign that Conner was with the Lord, and one night she had a dream. “It was a dream like none I had ever had before or since. God spoke to me in this dream and said, ‘Patti, I’m going to let you see Conner one more time.’ I knew I was dreaming, and I knew God was allowing my son to appear to me in the dream. I was conversing back and forth with God and all of a sudden, appearing in the doorway, was my son. It was so vivid and real; it was as though he was standing in front of me in the flesh. I can’t even describe the beauty and light surrounding him. He didn’t say anything but his eyes spoke to me and said, ‘Mom, I’m with the Lord.’ He had such a peace resonating from him. He was truly angelic with a white light emanating from all around him. I kept thanking the Lord over and over for allowing me to see him in my dream. I said, ‘Lord, please let me get a good look at him.’ I was doing everything in my power to absorb the image of him. My eyes were darting up and down rapidly trying to imprint and hold the picture of him in my mind because I knew I would never be able to see him again. God spoke and said, ‘be at peace. Do not worry or fret any longer, Conner is with me.’
Patti awoke from the dream with tears of joy running down her face and in such awe of what she had just experienced. “About an hour later I was organizing things in my new place. I had some things still in boxes I had not unpacked. While unpacking one of the boxes, my hand touched something in the box. It was a digital recorder I had used in my business before the tragedy. I looked at the recorder and on the screen, it said I had three messages. I started to delete the messages when I heard the Lord speak to me and say, ‘DO NOT DELETE THOSE MESSAGES, listen to them.’ When I pushed the play button, my breath was taken away. It was my son on the recorder speaking to me saying, ‘Mom, I love you! I love you, Mom!’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as I never knew Conner had recorded anything on that recorder. He must have recorded it at some point when he was in my car because I always kept that recorder in my car for business.”
After a much needed time of healing, Patti made the decision that she could lie down and die with Conner, or she could try to help save other people’s lives. “Coming through this experience has given me a new found passion for reaching all people who have struggled with hopelessness, despair, and depression.” The Lord spoke to my heart to start Firefly an organization based on three foundational stones: purity, humility and honor, and within those is Firefly. God. The light in the darkness.”
And with that, Patti formed Firefly Outreach, a 501c3 not-for-profit organization that addresses bullying and suicide prevention. “I have a passion of sharing the story of the empty chair. I want teenagers especially to know the far-reaching effects suicide has on family, friends and the community. The reality is that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
Patti began going into schools and sharing her story with teenagers. “What I learned by doing that was heartbreaking. Kids would come up to me and spill their guts, sharing their situations that often included unimaginable situations at home involving abuse, and kids were suffering from depression and many were injuring themselves. They often tell me that they had contemplated suicide themselves, but after hearing me speak, they no longer want to do it.”
In researching suicide statistics, Patti discovered that suicide has doubled in middle school students since 2007. It is now the second leading cause of death in the United States for students ages ten to 24. Over three million youth report being bullied every year, and bullying often leads to suicide. “It’s increased with the proliferation of social media,” states Patti. “People will say cruel and hateful things on social media they may not say in person, and the adverse effects are taking a toll on kids.”
In 2016, Patti was introduced to First Lady Deborah Bryant, who immediately got on board with Patti’s message. Last year, Bryant, Representative Randy Boyd and Patti, along with others, helped get House Bill 263 passed, implementing stricter anti-bullying laws in Mississippi. Governor Phil Bryant signed House Bill 2209 earlier this year that allows for a license plate for Firefly Outreach. “Once we have 300 license plates orders then the plates will be printed and available throughout the state at local state offices where you purchase your license plate,” says Patti. The STOP BULLYING license plate is available for pre-order on FireflyOutreach.com.
Patti has worked tirelessly to spread her message of hope to as many people as possible. “I’ve driven all over the state, from the Gulf Coast to North Mississippi, spreading the word in churches and schools that there is hope, even when you feel hopeless.” She explains that Conner failed the second grade by just one point and was held back. “I think that’s where it all began. He always felt inadequate, like he didn’t quite measure up. It started a cycle of defeat for him that he just couldn’t break. But I’ll always remember Conner as the life of the party. He had a great sense of humor. I always called him my ‘Papoose.’ When he was two years old, he stuck a pearl up his nose, so I had to take him to the emergency clinic to get it out. They had to put him on a papoose board to remove the pearl. After that day, I always called him my Papoose. I cherish the memories of him laying his head in my lap saying ‘Mom, scratch my head.’ And while I was rubbing and scratching his head he and I would have such great conversations. I miss Conner so much now, and my life will never be the same, but I know heaven has answered my prayer and given me the hope I needed to be able to share with others.”
Today Patti says she feels more fulfilled than ever before. “I’m doing what God called me to do. I’m at peace knowing that this is what I’m supposed to do in life. There have always been dark days of the soul that we all go through. We all have peaks and valleys in our lives. I’ve learned that those dark days won’t last forever, and we can make it through. In my dark days, I lean on the promise in Psalms 34:18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” I’m living proof of that.
Patti is now focused on the Mississippi Young Lives Matter campaign. “It’s a campaign for kindness. Our society has gotten away from kindness, and we want to encourage young folks to commit random acts of kindness.” And of course, she will continue to spread her message that suicide is never the answer. “I want to be a life-giver. I can see that sharing Conner’s story is helping to save lives. This has been a walk of faith for me like never before, stepping out into the unknown. I’ve never been so passionate about anything in my life.”
Susan Marquez, a professional writer, book editor and “empty nester,” enjoys life in Madison with her husband, Larry. Susan writes articles for numerous publications on the people, places and culture in the deep South. She has a degree in Radio-TV-Film from the University of Southern Mississippi and serves as the president of the Mississippi Writers Guild. She and Larry are parents to Joe and Nicole. Susan is currently writing a memoir about Nicole, who has survived the unimaginable and is now a sought-after motivational speaker. (To learn more, visit www.nicole-marquez.com.)