CECIL COUNTY — Daniel Carducci and Thomas Ocasio III walked similar paths in their short lives — and unexpected deaths — although the two boys never met.
Daniel, 17, and Thomas, 16, loved what typical teenagers liked to do. Both went on adventures with friends — sometimes on secret bridge-jumping excursions or to the Christiana Mall — played video games and played Little League baseball. Both were honor roll students, and weren’t afraid of hard work and dreamed of joining the U.S. Army once they graduated high school.
Knowing this, it may make it harder for people to understand why both teenagers died by suicide. Daniel ended his life on Jan. 31, 2018, and Thomas died on July 28 of this year.
There will never be a satisfying answer to why people die by suicide. But it’s what drives the boys’ mothers, Stephanie Carducci and Amy Ocasio, to fight for increased awareness for mental health practices and suicide prevention in Cecil County.
In the coming days, both women are hosting two events to hopefully raise awareness: a Sip and Share and the LIVEFORTHOMAS Toy Drive that runs until Dec. 9. The Sip and Share, held on Dec. 8, at Bodhi Counseling, invites grieving parents to come and talk over a cup of cocoa. The toy drive will help the Bridge, the county’s Domestic Violence/Rape Crisis Center, provide its clients a Christmas gift.
“You think about what the stigma is, and I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘I never thought it would be him,’” Ocasio said. “Let’s take that and start talking about it. Until my own death, Thomas’s name will not stop coming out of my mouth and talking about suicide prevention.”
Thomas and Daniel
Despite their similar stories, the boys were unique.
Thomas, who went on to play as a wide receiver for the North East High School football team, was popular and laid-back, and put his classmates at ease. He never told anyone, but he often watched Hallmark Channel movies with his mom, sometimes gamely predicting the plot-points of the love stories.
Daniel, who was first baseman for Perryville High School’s baseball team, was outgoing and the class clown. His parents were pretty familiar with being called in by his teachers until Daniel reached seventh grade. He also loved driving, although he got in a few fenderbenders in his beloved Jeep.
But Daniel was also in tune with people’s emotions. Once, he even helped comfort a classmate who was thinking of suicide.
Both boys struggled with depression at some points in their lives, as countless others do. Daniel and his long-term girlfriend broke up the weekend before he died, and he had mentioned to his father he had some suicidal thoughts. His father, Dan, spent the weekend playing video games with him, fixing cars and riding in Daniel’s prized Jeep. Stephanie and Dan thought their son was bouncing back.
Thomas’s friends knew he struggled, but that week he was laughing with friends and making plans with his family. The night before he died, Thomas came home from work slightly irritable and spent some time with his mom before going to bed.
“There are warning signs, and depression in young boys can manifest as mood swings and irritability, but it’s also teenage behavior,” Carducci said.
“I know we regret not taking Daniel somewhere and getting him help. But it was a normal day. I remember the night before watching some movies and laughing hysterically, and I went to bed thinking ‘he’s getting better.’”
Changing the face of suicide prevention
Every 12 minutes, someone in the United States dies by suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. White men accounted for approximately 70% of suicide deaths in 2017.
Most telling, 60% of people who take their own lives suffer from a disorder such as depression.
Suicide is not often talked about, in large part due to stigma. But both women opened up about their sons because they wanted to continue to share their story to help others.
Ocasio wants to change the face of suicide prevention. Last summer, she rented out a billboard on U.S. Route 40 and put a photo of Thomas on it with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the National Alliance on Mental Illness crisis text line.
“It’s not just the people who appear that they’re struggling. Thomas appeared fine to almost everyone, that he was doing well when the majority of people did not know he struggled with depression,” Ocasio said.
Comfort in action
Some days, the women say, it’s hard. But both women take comfort in action. Carducci also takes solace in seeing “signs” of her son in hawks. Her family considers the hawk as a representation of Daniel’s spirit, because his older sister Lauren saw one following her for days after his death.
Carducci also sees a counselor, and learned that to best continue that love for Daniel is through raising awareness in his name. She organized the Sip and Share as a way for other parents to commune and have an honest conversation about loss — hopefully paving the way for healing.
“Being a grieving parent, people want you to stop talking about your child because they’re uncomfortable. They don’t want to bring their names up and have you break down,” she said. “Having a place for us to share the holidays on what it meant to them helps people feel less alone.”
Ocasio said that Christmas may be hard for the family, but she said she’s going to turn it into another tribute for her son. It was Thomas’s favorite holiday, and he often had his own miniature Christmas tree in his bedroom. With his older sister Michaela, he also helped wrap gifts for the Bridge, where Amy works, to ensure that each child that had been affected by domestic violence had something to unwrap for the holiday.
Upcoming event and toy drive
This year, Ocasio wants to continue that holiday spirit with the LIVEFORTHOMAS toy drive. New, unwrapped toys for kids and adults can be dropped off at various spots in Elkton and North East, where later people will wrap them as presents for clients at the Bridge.
When people tell her she’s strong, Ocasio says that it’s not her strength they see; it’s her son’s. People have told her that sharing Thomas’s story has helped save their child.
“It’s bittersweet to hear that, I would rather have my son back. I may not understand God’s plan, but I’m going to trust his plan,” she said.
“It’s O.K. to need help. It’s important that our views on men change, and that it’s O.K. for men to say ‘I need help.’ That’s what I want people to take from this.”
Both women, brought together by grief, plan to keep forging ahead with raising awareness and to keep their children alive in memory.
“Daniel always took a lot of my energy,” Carducci said with a little laugh. “He was a good person, and I don’t want his memory to be lost in the fact that he died by suicide. I’m going to keep pouring my heart into this.”
Toys for the LIVEFORTHOMAS campaign can be dropped off at any time at these locations until Dec. 9: Cuzino’s Family Kitchen in North East; North East High School; Studio 13 in North East; North East Grocer in North East; Armed Forces Recruiting Station (US ARMY) in Elkton; Blue Iris Day Spa & Salon in Elkton; Dr. Wyman Orthodontics in Elkton; in the Union Hospital cafeteria; and Walk-In Chiropractic in Elkton.
The Sip and Share will be held on Dec. 8 at 2 p.m. at Bodhi Counseling, located at 2057 Pulaski Highway in North East. Snacks and hot beverages will be provided. Attendees can also bring toys there for the toy drive.
To contact Stephanie Carducci, email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her efforts on Facebook at “Bee My Vo;ce”. To reach Amy Ocasio, email email@example.com and follow the LIVEFORTHOMAS campaign on Facebook at “LiveForThomas.”
People in crisis can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or use the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.