Hamilton family mourning the loss of Saltfleet teenager

The Jerome family is mourning the loss of 16-year-old Emily, who battled mental health issues.

Emily Jerome struggled with bullying and mental health issues

Emily Jerome struggled with bullying and mental health issues before she died by suicide earlier this year. (Jerome family)

It was 4 a.m. on a Saturday morning when Cathy Jerome was roused awake by her 16-year-old daughter, Katie. She couldn't find her twin sister, Emily, and she was worried.

Cathy got out of bed, and in the darkness, the two began to search their Stoney Creek home.

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They looked under the bed. Emily had slept under the bed during a recent stay in the mental health unit because she hated the cameras on her. They checked the closets, where the pretty, sensitive teen could possibly hide.

Hearts thumping, they went down to the main level, checking the kitchen. The living room. The front door.

That's when Cathy knew.

"I thought, 'She's done something.'"

When they went down to the basement, Cathy knew where to look. The furnace room was the only place where the joists were exposed. She found her daughter — her smart, athletic daughter with blazing red hair — hanging from the ceiling in a case of suicide.

Reality shifted. Time blurred. Cathy, a nurse, attempted CPR, but it was too late. Emily was dead.

"I kind of went on autopilot," Cathy said. And for a while, she stayed there. "It's the only way I was able to get through the funeral."

It's a story permanently embedded in the history of the Jerome family now. The story of a girl with a mechanical knack who assembled the family treadmill. The story of a diplomatic girl who was appointed captain of the Stoney Creek Sabres midget girls BB division for her ability to make peace. She was a compassionate girl who loved animals so much that she dreamed of one day living on a farm. "She wanted pigs," Cathy said.

Emily never got a formal diagnosis, Cathy said, but her mental health struggles likely date back to elementary school. She was bullied then. As a tall, thin, freckled girl with red hair, "she was an easy target," Cathy said. "She was sensitive and kept everything in."

Common warning signs of suicide:

  • sudden change in behaviour (for better or worse)
  • withdrawal from friends and activities, lack of interest
  • increased use of alcohol and other drugs
  • recent loss of a friend, family member or parent, especially if they died by suicide
  • conflicting feelings or a sense of shame about sexuality
  • mood swings, emotional outbursts, high level of irritability or aggression
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • preoccupation with death, giving away valued possessions
  • talk of suicide: eg. "no one cares if I live or die"
  • making a plan or increased risk taking
  • writing or drawing about suicide (in a diary, for example)
  • "hero worship" of people who have died by suicide

Source: COAST

She didn't tell her parents about the bullying. She suffered quietly as she graduated elementary school and entered ninth grade at Saltfleet District Secondary School, where she hoped for a clean slate. But the bullying continued.

She dreaded "Kick a Ginger Day" every November because classmates would shove her or punch her arm, Cathy said. These were details revealed after her death, as Cathy went through emails where the teen spoke of the torment.

In high school, the world around Emily changed. She made new friends. Her grades slipped, forcing her to take time off from hockey until she showed her parents that they'd improved. But Cathy's first clue that Emily's troubles exceeded the usual rocky, sullen ride of teenhood was late last year when Katie showed her Emily's Tumblr account.

The Tumblr posts were dark. They depicted images of self-injury and death. The Jeromes took their daughter to the family doctor, then to therapy. In January, Emily approached Cathy around 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night and said she wanted to hurt herself.

The Jeromes drove their daughter to McMaster Children's Hospital, where they were referred to St. Joseph's. They waited six long, somber hours for an ambulance to transport her back to McMaster, where she was admitted for two weeks.

At McMaster, Emily saw three other Saltfleet students, and they became each other's informal support network. They left messages for each other on Facebook. "Are you staying safe tonight?" they'd write.

When Emily was released from the hospital after two weeks, she swallowed a bag full of stockpiled pills before coming down for dinner.

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Cathy noticed, and soon, they were in the car headed back to the hospital. She stayed there four days and didn't want to be released. She still thought she'd hurt herself, Cathy said.

When Emily was discharged, Cathy called Contact Hamilton to arrange meetings with a social worker. The appointment, scheduled for a month later, came too late.

Eight months after Emily's death, the Jerome family is still trying to pick up the pieces. Rebecca Jerome, the oldest of the five Jerome children, is studying concurrent education at Brock University in hopes of becoming a high school teacher. She's trying to find appropriate grief counseling for herself, she said.

"I value my family more now," Rebecca said. "We can't imagine going through this pain again, so we're trying to prevent that. We're trying to be more protective of each other. I try to protect Katie and Sarah, and when I can, I try to hang out with Alex. We try to appreciate what we have."

Emily's death was part of a grief-stricken time for the Saltfleet high school. Earlier that semester, a student died from a longer-term illness. Four months later, on June 16, fellow Saltfleet students Irn Mace and Alex McCormick fell from the Jolley Cut in what police eventually determined to be a joint suicide.

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Emily did not know the boys who died at Jolley Cut, Cathy said.

Her impact is felt in other ways too. Her hockey team dedicated a game to Emily. Numerous Stoney Creek teams wear green heart stickers on their helmets with Emily's number, 77.

Earlier this month, the Jeromes attended a quiet ceremony at the high school's Healing Garden, a space commemorating the passing of students.

The garden includes some red-orange flowers, for Emily's hair. It was one of Emily's claims to fame, but she wanted to escape it so much that sometimes she dyed it black.

"She hated her hair," Cathy said. "Oh my God, she hated it. But it was beautiful."

Cathy mulls over what happened all the time, but she knows there's nothing more she could have done. She worked hard to get her daughter the help she needed, but in the end, her mental health difficulties were too much.

"She talked about it, but I thought 'she could never do it because she loves me too much,'" Cathy said. "Now I see she was tormented more than I realized. She hid it well because she didn't want to bother anybody. That was Emily."