On October 7th, 2003, Ryan Patrick Halligan, just 13 years old, hung himself in his family's bathroom.
It's a question that still haunts his family to this day. Rather than spend the rest of his life angry at the world, Ryan's dad, John, left his job at IBM to help educate kids and parents on some of the reasons they believe led to his son's ultimate decision.
"Bullying is a big problem in today's schools," said Mr. Halligan, who spoke before a audience of parents at a middle school located on Long Island, New York last night. "Too many schools have just treated this as a kids being kids thing."
It was far from kids being kids as Halligan points out. Some kids in the Vermont middle school spread a rumor that Ryan was gay, leading to a viral bullying frenzy against the shy teenager. Many of these kids would instant message Ryan, teasing him, trying to lure him into gay talk.
Mr. Halligan presented the parents with evidence. He dug deep inside Ryan's computer to try and find answers on what went wrong. What he found was disturbing, sad, and heart-breaking.
"We later found out he was talking to this girl, he really liked her," he said. "They chatted a lot online. We found out from some of his friends that when he went to meet the girl, the girl laughed at him, said it was a joke, called him names, and other girls with her laughed. He was devastated."
It wasn't long after that a friend started calling his son every night for two weeks before Ryan hung himself. "I just handed my son the phone, he would take it, and go to his room," Mr. Halligan said. "I later found out this friend was trying to help him and he promised my son not to say anything. I saw him after my son's death. The kid was crying. I told him it wasn't his fault. He felt so bad."
Then he got the dreaded call. "I never expected to get it," he said, choking back tears. "To tell me that Ryan had killed himself."
Mr. Halligan said he sought therapy after his son's death. "When you lose a son this way, you need it, believe me."
He pointed out that bystanders need to be educated. "If there was one boy who told the boy who was spreading the rumors to stop it, that it wasn't funny ... if there was one girl who told that girl who was chatting with him that it was going to hurt him, break his heart...if..."
Perhaps this is one way for Mr. Halligan to heal, to help educate parents about where the bullying is taking place, the impact it has on our children's emotional health. "We missed so many signs. Kids today won't tell you if they are being bullied for fear that they will be called crybabies or it'll get worse. We have to do a better job communicating with our kids, knowing how technology today is dangerous unless monitored. One of the biggest mistakes we made was letting him have a computer in the bedroom."
Mr. Halligan pointed out that the maturity level for kids is different. "Obviously Ryan wasn't to the level our daughter was at his age."
Mr. Halligan's story has been depicted on the Oprah Winfrey show. The parents were shown the clip, many in the audience dabbing tears from their eyes.
"I would rather not be here, telling you about my story," Mr. Halligan said. "I left my job at IBM a year ago to go around to schools and do this. I would give anything to have Ryan back and my old life back."
For Mr. Halligan, there is no old life waiting for him.
But perhaps because of him, many others can keep their old lives.
For more information, visit http://www.ryanpatrickhalligan.org/ about bullying and teen suicide prevention.