On an unseasonably warm morning in November, a small group gathered around a spindly tree on the east shore of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.
Among them was a grandmother wearing a T-shirt from the national African American history museum and a nose-pierced teenager in a Sturgis jacket. Poster boards leaned against the tree, displaying photos of a smiling girl and handwritten messages.
The group was united by their love for Aria Joy Burch-Senser, aka "Buggy," who was 13 when she died two years ago, as the tag on her memorial tree indicates. Her paternal grandmother prayed aloud, asking that God keep Aria's memory alive.
Where to find help
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). Or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.
Aria "died unexpectedly," as obituaries so often put it. But her mother, Brittani Senser, is forthcoming about the fact that Aria completed suicide. Brittani has since devoted herself to changing the way we approach suicide prevention. She hopes that sharing the story of Aria's beautiful life and tragic death will sound the alarm on an insidious epidemic so often shrouded in shame.
In the United States, there are more deaths due to suicide than motor-vehicles, and twice as many suicides as homicides. Skyrocketing rates of youth suicide are especially alarming: They're up 50% in the past decade. The most dramatic increase is among Black girls, such as Aria, whose rate of annual suicide deaths has more than doubled since 2000.
Aria's death offers yet one more example of how suicide can take the lives of those who appear well-liked, successful and happy.
"I had so many parents who came up to me and say, 'Of all kids, I never would have imagined it would have been Aria,' " Brittani said.
It also shows how distinguishing depression from typical teen moodiness can be especially difficult, even for those trained to recognize its signs.
"I'm a clinical therapist, and I thought that if my daughter was going to complete, I would have known," Brittani said.
Out of the limelight
Brittani has glossy black hair, full lips, and even wearing a casual concert T-shirt, the 36-year-old exudes the flash of her former life in the entertainment biz. (Her singing career made national headlines in 2010 when Levi Johnston, Bristol Palin's ex, appeared in one of her music videos.)
Her last name is familiar to many Minnesotans. She's the daughter of the former Viking and sports bar owner Joe Senser, and stepdaughter of Amy Senser, who spent time in prison for her involvement in a fatal hit-and-run car accident.
All three maintain a low profile these days.
Amy has been caring for Joe as he recovers from two serious strokes. Brittani gave up performing for a career in mental health and says she's now living in service of her daughter. She refers to herself as "Buggy's mural" because her body is covered in Aria-related tattoos: Aria's name on Brittani's hand; her smiling face covering Brittani's shoulder; a poem she wrote on Brittani's forearm.
Brittani was 20 when Aria was born, an active baby with a sunny disposition who earned the nickname "Bug" or "Buggy" for the way her eyes popped with surprise as she observed the world. Brittani wasn't in a committed relationship with Aria's father, Rico Burch, when she learned she was pregnant. Though the couple tried to make things work, they split by the time Aria was 2.
Though single parenthood was difficult, Brittani loved being Aria's mother. And this first grandbaby bonded Brittani's newly blended family (her mother had recently remarried), and brought them together with the Burches. Everyone cherished Aria's sense of humor, infectious laugh and concern for others.
"She had such a kind heart," Brittani said.
For Halloween, Aria's favorite holiday, she always chose at least two pumpkins from the local patch: one she wanted, the other an ugly runt she assumed no one else would bring home.
"Because she was such an empath and such a feeler, that could have been why life felt so heavy for her," Brittani said.
Aria was also a charismatic performer, who loved to sing, act and record herself. When she was 5, a friend of Brittani's asked if her daughter would like to be in one of Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere's videos, and she was quickly cast as its star. When filming wrapped, Aria asked Brittani, "When's my next gig, Mama?"
Aria sang in the prestigious Minneapolis Youth Chorus, and she found an even brighter spotlight at a Beyoncé concert that she attended with her mom: The superstar picked Aria out of the crowd and handed her the mic so they could sing together.
"She got to experience some really, really cool things not a lot of adults get to experience in their lifetime, let alone 13-year-old kids," Brittani said.
Though her father's involvement in her life was inconsistent, Aria shared close relationships with her grandparents. She stayed with her father's parents regularly, as well as Brittani's mother and stepfather (with whom she and Brittani lived at times).
Aria attended school in Linden Hills, even as she and Brittani moved around the Twin Cities. To her classmates, Aria was known for her warmth and inclusiveness. "She was the type to always be there for you no matter what, and make people smile or cheer them up," said Alasia Thammavongsa, a friend since first grade.
While her friends saw Aria as someone they could confide in, family members sensed that Aria suppressed her sadness. Several relatives saw signs in withdrawal or emotional outbursts that she was struggling.
Just before Aria started eighth grade, she and Brittani moved into an apartment in Linden Hills. Brittani had to be at work early for a new job as a social worker, so Aria had a few hours to herself each morning. It was an exhausting time for Brittani. She was waitressing part time at her stepdad's restaurant, in addition to her day job, which was emotionally taxing. She felt sapped of energy and less attuned to how Aria was doing. "I was stretched to my limit. ... I was checked out," she admitted.
Though her work took her away from Aria, Brittani hoped that her new career would provide more financial security. But she was concerned enough about Aria's lack of effort in her math class that she arranged for Aria to see a therapist.
The last day
On the morning of Feb. 5, 2019, a Tuesday, Brittani called Aria from work to check in before school. Brittani said that Aria's beloved math teacher had recommended that she move to an easier class. Aria resisted, but Brittani told her the decision was final. Since Brittani was waitressing that evening and Aria was staying with her grandparents, they would have to discuss it later.
Aria called Brittani around 8:30 p.m., begging Brittani to reconsider the switch. Brittani told her, "I don't care, it's what needs to be done," which sent Aria into a screaming fit. Brittani hung up and let Aria cool off before resuming the conversation.
After apologizing, Brittani explained to Aria that when she said, "I don't care" she meant the opposite — she cared so much about Aria that she'd help her do whatever was necessary to get back on track. Aria feared her peers' reaction ("I'll look stupid" she said), but Brittani reassured her that if she got a passing grade in math, she could switch back.
To Brittani, the situation had been resolved. After their call, Aria texted her, "Goodnight mom, I love you." Then Aria made her customary bowl of popcorn for a bedtime snack. When her grandmother checked on her after midnight, Aria was asleep in bed.
At 11:45 p.m., Brittani had texted Aria back: "I love you so much."
The message went unread.
Early the next morning, Brittani woke to a call from her stepdad, who told her to come over immediately: Aria had completed suicide.
Brittani collapsed to the floor.
Arriving at her mom and stepdad's place, she saw a large gray vehicle from the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office parked out front. Aria's body, covered by a sheet, lay on a stretcher. Brittani didn't think she could handle seeing Aria's face, so she pulled out one of her daughter's small, cold hands and held it for several minutes.
Afterward, Brittani walked into the bedroom where Aria had died. She looked around, scanning for signs. On the closet door, Aria had scrawled a message: "Do you care now?"
As Brittani replayed the events that preceded Aria's death, she was inundated with messages from parents who wanted to know what led to her daughter's suicide — essentially asking, 'How do I keep my own kid alive?'
Looking back, Brittani believes Aria may have been influenced by any number of factors. Aria had concerns about her appearance, and as one of the few biracial students in an overwhelmingly white school, she looked and felt different from her peers. She was coming to terms with her sexuality and had recently been rejected by a romantic interest. Two friends had attempted to overdose.
Aria had experimented with alcohol and medication, but Brittani perceived it as trying to get high, not a suicide attempt. After Aria died, Brittani learned that Aria had been vaping marijuana and trying to harm herself. She also found some cruel messages from Aria's friends on her phone.
"I don't think it was just one thing," Brittani said. "It's just a testament to how fragile kids can be. They see things so black and white, so impulsively."
Brittani's stepbrother, Jason Rackner, expressed the regret felt by many family members. "Nobody really failed her, but we all kind of let her down," he said.
Aria's maternal grandmother, Gini Rackner, said she hopes Aria's loss emphasizes how important it is for adults not to negate or ignore kids' pain, but meet them in it.
"Take the time to say, 'Wow I see you're feeling sad and mad. Share what you need, and how I can help you. Your feelings aren't your fault. They'll be better tomorrow," she said.
Brittani thinks about how nothing she experienced in eighth grade — the year Princess Diana died; "Titanic" was released, Ellen DeGeneres came out — defined who she is today. She rarely sees her old classmates and can't remember her teachers' names. It devastates her to know how time can diminish the hurts of our youth, and how Aria's life was cut short before she had the chance to really live.
Brittani readily admits she made mistakes as a parent. ("Was I perfect? Hell no!") And she's gutted by how, in a vulnerable moment, Aria misunderstood her words and felt invalidated. She carries guilt for whatever role she played in contributing to the emotional spin from which Aria could only see one exit.
But one feeling she won't allow is disgrace. "I will never, ever, ever be ashamed of Aria," she said.
A few things helped Brittani work through her grief. She started blogging about Aria. She connected with the local nonprofit Shout Out Loud and created an anti-suicide curriculum based on what she calls "pre-prevention."
Teens, tech, and how to help
How social media can undermine teens’ vulnerable sense of self
- Some experts suggest that ubiquitous technology use is contributing to the rise in teen suicide. Mature content of all types — including instructions on how to kill yourself — can be accessed immediately and privately.
- Social media feeds teens' desire for peer approval and, like gambling, teens can become addicted to seeking a flattering response. Negative content can spread widely, instantaneously and doesn't go away.
- It can be impossible for parents to track every digital platform their child is using. Since much can be hidden, it's important to pay attention to words and actions that often precede suicide.
- Warning signs can include everything from changes in routine or personality, to mood swings and social withdrawal, or engaging in risky, self-destructive behavior, according to the Mayo Clinic.
- If you are concerned that your teen is considering suicide, Stanford Children's Hospital recommends talking about concerning behaviors and listening without judgment: Talking about suicide doesn't cause suicide.
- Tell the teen that together you can develop a strategy to make things better. Remove guns from your home; lock up pills; and be aware that kitchen utensils, as well as ropes, can be used to attempt suicide. Seek professional help, immediately if the child has a suicide plan.
Most suicide resources — the crisis numbers and hospital admissions — focus on those contemplating an attempt.
"It's like there's a fire that's already started and you're throwing a blanket over it," Brittani explained. Her goal, she said, is to equip kids such that "when a match is lit, they can learn how to blow it out themselves with tools that work for them."
That means curriculum that instills children with a sense of self-worth and empathy, and teaches them to express their feelings, resolve conflict and settle their emotions.
It's also helping kids identify signs of depression, anxiety and ideation in themselves and their friends. Asking older children to create their own safety plans, Brittani said, can help them weather overwhelming feelings of despair.
Brittani debuted her curriculum online this month at a training for youth workers. She hopes to bring it to parents and schools, to make social and emotional skills as important as academics.
A "pre-prevention" approach to suicide is important because teens' increasing stress and technology use, coupled with a global pandemic and ongoing social inequities, essentially puts the whole generation "at risk," said Lisa Lovelace, a clinical psychologist who co-founded Shout Out Loud.
"Emotion regulation should be as well known as the ABCs for every child at every age and developmental ability," she said.
Brittani says she feels Aria's presence in her life daily, even if she's not here physically. "I'm not moving on, I'm moving forward — with her."
And she hopes people will understand that Aria's story includes both the darkness her daughter wrestled with and the brightness of her spirit.
"I want people to know that just because Aria chose to take her own life, that doesn't negate her beauty, her joy and her light."