Trumbull High to recognize Abby Anderson, lost member of Class of 2016, during graduation ceremony
Doing the right thing sometimes is as simple as putting flowers on an empty chair.
That's what administrators from Trumbull High School will do before Wednesday night's graduation ceremony when they honor the late Abby Anderson, who took her own life June 13, 2014.
Abby's parents, Gillian and Charles Anderson, are overwhelmed by the school's memorial gesture and the Class of 2016's dedication to keep their daughter's memory alive.
"On the happiest day of their lives, they're taking time out to remember her, acknowledge what she meant to them, and keep her in their hearts," Gillian told The Times Wednesday, hours before this year's senior class walked out to Pomp & Circumstance.
"It's something I'll never forget and something I'll always be grateful for," she added.
Gillian and Charles were at the high school Tuesday afternoon to hand out four, $1,000 scholarships from the Abby Anderson Memorial Fund. to THS students Libby Masi, Joseph Ryan, Kathleen Kaufmann, and Nicole Mitri.
Gillian said that hugging some of Abby's friends and watching the 542 graduates go through their rehearsal in the auditorium gave her a swirl of mixed feelings.
"It was really bittersweet handing out the scholarships because it shows there's so much generosity in this community and we're so blessed to have this much support," she told The Times. "But it was a very emotional moment for me as I stood there and started to think, 'Wow, this would have been Abby. She could be in this room laughing and moving onto her next journey.' It was very tough to see that she wasn't there."
However, she said she felt her daughter's spirit in the room with her — ready to cheer on her fellow classmates.
"She was a cheerleader and I'm sure she's very excited to see them all graduate," Gillian said.
'One of the most thoughtful things'
Last week, Gillian and Charles found out from Trumbull High School Principal Marc Guarino that the school intended to leave an empty chair for Abby.
"It's one of the most thoughtful things imaginable," said Gillian, who is volunteering with the Jordan Porco Foundation to prevent suicide, promote mental health, and create a message of hope for young adults.
"We just thought it was wonderful that the school would give the students the opportunity to celebrate with her on graduation day," she added. "Because kids don't forget — this was probably the most traumatic event in their young lives and they'll always remember her."
Generation of change
Losing a peer in high school — specifically losing a peer to suicide — will help the Class of 2016 raise awareness for future generations, Gillian believes.
She stressed that this generation will be the generation that brings mental illness to the forefront and de-stigmatize it.
"It took a while for them to understand why but they've come around to understanding it and talking about clinical depression, bi-polarity, and anxiety," the Trumbull mother said.
"It's very stigmatized; it's a shocking subject," she added. "But it's an epidemic that needs to be talked about openly because kids are struggling eternally."
She said that teens, like her daughter, feel ashamed to speak out about their depression and would rather put on an appearance of a "bubbly, blonde, outgoing cheerleader" than show peers they have a disease.
"They need to know that it's OK to talk about — that it's like talking about any type of physical disease," Gillian explained. "The only difference is you can't always see it physically.
"[Abby] learned to hide it," she added. "We need to train peers to look for signs and know what to say to someone they think is battling clinical depression because it's the peers who a teen's number one confidant."
Pride for the Class of 2016
Gillian said she has nothing but happiness for those who are graduating Wednesday night.
She said the Class of 2016 will always have a special place in her heart.
"For her friends to be texting me 'thinking of you' or 'thinking of Abby' on the day of their graduation just shows how much she meant to them," she added. "The fact that they're aware enough to think of us and think of her on a day like today means everything to my family."
As for the school, Gillian said she was happy that they decided to leave an empty chair for her daughter — without having to submit a special request or create a petition
"Everyone knows Abby took her life and that she was struggling with clinical depression," her mother said. "To have the school acknowledging that it happened and the students speaking out about the disease, it's wonderful."
For more information, visit afsp.org, call 516-869-4215 or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (TALK).