PRINCETON: Community mourning the loss of a PHS freshman

Malena Attar Press

By all accounts, Owen Bardzilowski was a popular, well-liked teenager.

The Princeton High School freshman loved to play golf and solve Rubik’s cubes puzzles. He liked to skateboard, and he participated in assorted youth sports programs.

Owen attended the Princeton Police Department’s summer youth academy for several years, and served as a counselor this past summer. The 14-year-old boy aspired to join the Princeton Police Department when he grew up.

That’s why his family and friends were stunned when they discovered that Owen took his own life at home last week, less than one month into his first year at the high school.

Owen’s father, Joe Bardzilowski, acknowledged the difficulty in coming to terms with his son’s death — for the surviving members of the family, as well as their friends and the community at large. But the outpouring of love has been comforting to the family, he wrote in a Facebook post Sept. 17, five days after Owen’s death.

“We know a lot of people are hurting and probably shy about approaching us,” Mr. Bardzilowski wrote. “This is completely understandable. I just want everyone to know that we are here for you, as much as you have been here for us.”

“Just like you, I have no words. But if you need to express your grief quietly or publicly or if you just want to hug one of Owen’s family members, we are not being shy or hiding from this tragedy. We as a community need to get our heads around this and do whatever we can to raise awareness. Love to all,” he wrote.

The Princeton public school district arranged for counselors to speak to students to help them work through it. Superintendent of Schools Steve Cochrane said staff shared the news of Owen’s death as soon as they learned of it, adding that “the entire district mourns this loss.”

Meanwhile, friends and strangers alike also shared their thoughts on social media. Many wrote in the “comment” section on www.change.org’s online petition, urging that a memorial ceremony be held for Owen at Princeton High School. More than 900 people have signed the petition.

“Owen sat with me when my ride was late for three hours so I could not be alone,” one girl wrote on Change.org, while another girl wrote that Owen was a “vibrant and loving kid” who did not deserve “to go so early.”

One teenager recalled that Owen was the first person to speak to her on the first day in kindergarten, and another noted that Owen was the first person to speak to him on his first day at John Witherspoon Middle School, thanking him now “for always being my best friend.”

“Owen was a really good friend to me. I just wish I could know why.”

That is not an easy question to an answer.

“We don’t know if we know the answer (to why people commit suicide) yet,” said Tricia Baker. She co-founded Attitudes in Reverse following the death by suicide of her son in 2009. The non-profit group, which is based in Plainsboro Township, seeks to prevent suicide and to educate people about mental health issues.

Don’t be afraid to ask a friend if they need help, Ms. Baker said. A person who is experiencing bad thoughts or feelings or behaviors that are frequent and intense should speak to an adult — and do not stop at the first one, if they do not respond, she said.

“We use the five-finger rule. Don’t stop at the first adult or friend. (Keep going) until you find someone to listen to you,” she said.

Sometimes, there are signs or clues or hints that someone is considering ending their own life, she said. The person may talk about dying or going away. The person may give away prized possessions, and may call family and friends to say goodbye.

Or, the person acts in a reckless manner, as if he or she had a death wish, Ms. Baker said. If the person is depressed, he or she may suddenly seem happy — because the decision has been made to end one’s life. It is a relief to them, she said.

“One of the recurring themes is, the person thinks the world will be better off without him because he puts a burden on family and friends. That is so far (away) from the truth. Sometimes, you have to ask directly — ‘Are you thinking about killing yourself,’ ‘Do you have a plan,’” Ms. Baker said.

If the answer is yes, the person should be taken to a hospital emergency room immediately, she said. There are many therapies available to help the person, from talk therapy to art therapy and music therapy. It is critical to find the right therapy to combat mental health issues.

But what happens if someone does die by suicide? How do you help the survivors?

The survivors need to talk — about how and why it happened, said Joseph Primo, chief executive officer of Good Grief. The non-profit group, which is based in Plainsboro Township, provides support to the survivors through peer support programs, education and advocacy.

“It is the power of human contact,” Mr. Primo said. It is a new life experience for them. There is a need to connect, to help and learn from others and how to better articulate grief. They need to move through the grieving process, which has no timetable, he said.

It is important to provide a safe environment for a family to tell its story and to know that others care about them, Mr. Primo said. It’s a matter of consistency — to show up over the long haul to provide support. Show up, affirm the survivors’ life story, let them know that you care and that they are important, he said.

“What is so hard is that we are doers. We try to fix it. We have to know that it is not broken and we cannot fix it,” he said. Try to be empathetic. Let them know that “I am here with you in your pain, not to fix the pain,” he added.

There are many responses to grief, Mr. Primo said. Do not take it personally if the survivors are not receptive immediately. The survivors may not be ready. Let them know that you understand. It is better to ask if you can check in with them in a couple of weeks, he said.

“Give them space. Grief work is hard,” Mr. Primo said.

For more information, contact Attitudes in Reverse at www.attitudesinreverse.org and Good Grief at www.good-grief.org. 

Published by The Princeton Packet: http://tinyurl.com/gvftjyc