MARSHALL, MINN. - While a southwestern Minnesota town reeling from the joint suicide of two 14-year-old girls searched for answers, the heartbroken families of the girls gathered Thursday in search of comfort and the strength to speak out.
"If there's anybody that we can help. ... It's kind of new meaning for us. A new purpose for life," said Joel Deruyck, stepfather to Paige Moravetz.
The Marshall-area eighth-grader and her best friend, Haylee Fentress, killed themselves Saturday during a sleepover. On Thursday, family and friends were pelted by snow and rain as they streamed into the funeral services for Fentress. The day before, they had gathered to say goodbye to Moravetz.
"I really don't understand," Deruyck said as he struggled to explain the suicides. "Obviously she was troubled."
But Deruyck said that realization came only with hindsight. "We missed the signals," he said.
But in the moment, Deruyck said, it's hard to see such things. The girls were part of a group of friends who gathered to make pizza, play music and laugh. "Nothing at the time seemed askew,'' he said. "Paige had plans. She was going to get new hockey equipment and paint her bedroom. She loved life."
But they also had to navigate the struggles that confront most teens.
There are the cliques, and there is Facebook, Deruyck said. "Many nights she posted something on Facebook, and then she would be distressed about some of the posts that came after."
Moravetz and Fentress became fast friends after Fentress moved to town about a year ago. Moravetz was fun-loving and outgoing. She lived for hockey, Deruyck said.
"It was the biggest thing in her life," he said. She and her teammates were close friends. Fentress rode along with Deruyck as they traveled to the team's away games to cheer everyone on.
She and Moravetz were like sisters, Deruyck said.
They also were among a group of girls recently punished for fighting at school. Fentress was expelled; Moravetz and some other girls were suspended, Deruyck said. "It was one of those things when one girl pushed another. The schools have zero tolerance for this. It all happened so fast. And the girls were just sick about it. It really affected the girls badly. The girls were just sick about it."
Deruyck and Paige's mom, Tricia Behnke, said they don't believe any one thing drove the girls to commit suicide. Instead, they said, they believe it was a combination of things.
"Let's face it, there's drama everywhere in middle school ... and it's stuff that wouldn't make a difference a week from now," Behnke said. "The way they talk to each other is unbelievable."
"I'm not blaming anyone," Deruyck said. "I never would blame this on bullying. Every kid goes through a little torment in school."
In Minnesota, about 40 children a year have taken their lives since 1990. That includes 39 suicides in 2009, the most recent year for which numbers are available.
Experts also caution that focusing on one factor can be problematic.
No one single factor leads to suicide, but rather a complex combination of forces, according to mental health experts. That could include bullying, but also issues such as divorce, substance abuse, social isolation or other circumstances.
In a suicide note found in Moravetz's bedroom in Lynd, Minn., the teen said she never meant to hurt anybody and asked her family to pray she would go to heaven, her mother said.
She wrote that she was sorry about what was about to happen, but offered no explanations for her death. She also asked that her family members be told on each anniversary of her death that she loved them.
Her mother said her daughter must not have realized that all of them will remember her every single day for the rest of their lives.
Seeing past tomorrow
Moravetz's uncle Brett Behnke said the family wants to get a message out to parents, teachers, coaches and others in the community. They want them to talk to kids about firing off messages and texts without thinking.
"Look at your kids' Facebook. Watch their texts," he said.
"It was kids being mean to each other," said Haylee Fentress' mother, Tracy Fentress. "The things that they say back and forth to each other are instant, and it's horrible what they say to each other," she said. "I wish there was no such thing as Facebook, and I wish I would have never let my children on it."
And to teenage girls, small things can mean the world, Behnke said.
"At that age, you can't see past tomorrow," and showing weakness would only make things worse, she said. "Sensitive girls with big hearts can only take so much."
HOW TO FIND HELP
• Crisis Connection Minnesota: 612-379-6363 or 1-866-379-6363; online at www.crisis.org
• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Warning signs of suicide
• Talking about or researching suicide
• Increasing substance abuse
• Withdrawing from friends and social activities
• Losing interest in hobbies, work, school
• Giving away prized possessions