Jennifer Martin clutched a flickering white candle in her hand Thursday evening on the grassy lawn next to Jerad Meriweather’s home and hoped her friend could see it shining from heaven.
“He never called me by my name,” said Jennifer, 13. “He always called me ‘sweetheart.’ He was the sweetest boy. I love him, and I know a lot of people who did.”
A week after Grovetown Middle School pupil Jerad Meriweather died by suicide, friends and family held a candlelight vigil to remember the vibrant eighth-grader who was described as a friend to all and a prolific writer with a brilliant mind. Several speakers said bullying is what led Jerad to kill himself in his bedroom Jan. 18, but family and officials said it is impossible to isolate one cause.
Gerald Meriweather said his son was a passionate teenager wise beyond his years. Jerad would rather watch CNN or the Discovery Channel than cartoons, and they often took trips to Barnes & Noble to read books and drink hot chocolate.
He devoured books and wrote essays that were, to his father, better than work by adult authors. One essay about depression won Jerad an award at school in October, Meriweather said.
Jerad had a circle of close friends whom he cared about deeply and was known to take on their pain and troubles as if they were his own.
“It hurt him if something was happening to you,” said Meriweather, the pastor at The Church of God Holiness Tabernacle in Grovetown. “He learned people. He really did.”
While his family tries to grasp Jerad’s death and find answers, school officials said they have not confirmed bullying as a single culprit.
Columbia County Deputy Superintendent Sandra Carraway said none of Jerad’s teachers or guidance counselors had any complaints or reports from him this year about trouble at school. Grovetown Middle Principal Tom Smallwood said the same but added that the boy might have had a few issues last school year.
“Unfortunately, all too often there are things going on in kids’ lives that they don’t tell anyone about,” Carraway said. “If it’s not brought to our attention, all we can do is educate our students about how to respond.”
Richard Lieberman, a school psychologist who has coordinated suicide prevention efforts in Los Angeles County Schools, said there is usually not one single event to blame when dealing with adolescent suicide.
There are, however, precipitating events and risk factors such as depression, loss, substance abuse and past suicidal behavior. Though bullying and suicide can be related, ignoring the other life issues would be simplifying the problem, Lieberman said.
“You can have a case like, ‘Oh, she was a lesbian, she was bullied so she died by suicide,’ ” Lieberman said. “But really there were so many steps along the way. Sadly, all of the answers we need dies with the child that makes that choice. And that’s the struggle of survivors.”
According to the American Association of Suicidology, suicide is the third-leading cause of death for white children between the ages of 10 and 14 and fourth for black children in that age group.
Lieberman said the Internet age, in which children have more tools to torment others anonymously, has complicated the issue of bullying. A loss of dignity and self-worth is a trigger for hopelessness in a child, and has given professionals another factor when analyzing what can lead a child to suicide.
“You have to picture your busiest street and imagine seven traffic lights,” Lieberman said. “For a kid to go from thinking about suicide to attempting suicide, those lights have to turn green in a perfect storm.”
While questions linger, several of Jerad’s friends knew one thing they could do was set up a foundation in his honor to help others who might be dealing with similar issues.
E’mon Reeves, 14, and friends started the Jerad Meriweather Foundation and hope to raise money to hold memory walks and other events.
“In the world today, there’s a lot of unnecessary things such as bullying and kids losing their lives,” E’Mon said. “Jerad was one of those people who was there for anybody ... we want to be there for him.”
As candles burned outside Jerad’s house Thursday, speakers urged any child or adult who is feeling down or depressed to talk and find help. Every single person is loved, said Pastor Timothy Williams, of God’s Will and Grace Outreach. Sometimes they need to be reminded.
“We need to remember what our young people are going through is the real deal,” Williams said. “There’s nothing wrong with being different. ... It’s not what they call you. It’s what you answer to that matters.”