I. “I love you.”
It’s only been a few months, but Sarah Nida Inman remembers March 19 like it was yesterday. Then again, it also feels like a lifetime has passed since then; time operates differently after a loss, especially in the case of losing a child.
It was on this day that Inman received a call from her 16-year-old daughter, Kennedy, who was alone in the family’s Hot Springs home.
“Hey, where are you?” Kennedy asked her mom.
This would be the last time the two would ever speak on the phone.
Kennedy was home from school; mom was in Little Rock getting the final arrangements in order for an Inman family vacation. They were to leave for the beach the following day, a trip for which Kennedy — “a real planner” — had already shopped, packed and determined attire, including matching outfits for her and her twin brother, Luke.
“We had a regular phone conversation,” Inman remembers. “She seemed fine on the phone. There were no major indications that anything was going on. I told her that I would be home in just a little while, and we would talk.”
When Inman pulled into the driveway, she saw Kennedy’s body on the ground in the backyard. The rest is as vivid as it is a blur — as dichotomic as the time that has passed. She was already on the phone with her husband, who she patched into an emergency 911 call; he stayed on the phone so that Inman could be “mom” one last time. She scrambled for towels, performed CPR, rubbed Kennedy’s chest, and looked into the light still flickering in her eyes, desperately crying, “I love you.” She did everything she could to keep her baby girl alive.
One of Kennedy’s final acts was gently squeezing her mother’s wrist as she lie on the ground, the life fading from her body.
Kennedy died a few hours later.
Suicide might be the cause forever etched onto her death record, but it’s much more complicated than that. Society could be another. And stigmas. And systems. Then, the hardest possibility to reckon of all: mistake. At the thought of the latter, her mother’s words fall like liquid lead.
“In that moment, watching her fight for her life … I do not believe — in any fiber of my being — she understood this was forever,” Inman says, her voice cracking but confident. “I know she fought very hard to live. She was responsive, and that is the hardest moment of my life to ever relive. But I’m so thankful that I had that time with her because I got to help her, and I got to tell her I love her. And I … I got to see her fight to live.”
In the wake of this tragedy, the Inmans have had many post-death conversations, trying to identify anything that might give them a different perspective of Kennedy’s decision in hindsight. A breadcrumb. A clue. Anything. To date, they’ve found few. She had mental health afflictions that she was working through, but displayed no signs that would have alerted her family that she was in distress to this degree.
“We were confident because we were doing ‘all the things.’ We have a therapist; she has good friends; we tell her we love her,” Inman says, going on to talk about a movie night she had with her dad shortly before she passed, and how she was excited for all of the perks of being 16, like driving her friends around town. “I mean, she was making all the future plans, doing all of those things.”
II. “Kids make decisions, and, [as a parent], you’re always there to fix it. And I couldn’t fix this.”
Inman’s words of Kennedy’s final moments land with an unimaginable weight, one she’s been carrying every day since March. For just as much as she needed to grieve and address her own mental state following the loss, she also had to be the foundation for her family. A sister. A wife. Yet still a mother — to Luke, who had just lost his twin, and her youngest, Landon, 11.
“I learned really early on, within days after losing her, that I was like the barometer for our whole family,” Inman says. “So, if I wasn’t having a good day, no one was having a good day. That does make it hard in the grieving process as a mother because, of course, your whole world is shattered, but everyone was looking to me in our family.”
But from the outside looking in, it would have been hard to notice anything about Kennedy that needed “fixing” at all.
Anyone who knew her is quick to rave about the light that she radiated into the world. She was an active dancer, a thoughtful teenager and an intellectual student, with an educational interest in sports medicine. She was considerate and selfless, devoting more of her time to others than to herself. She was, by all accounts, a “good kid.”
And Kennedy was very successful in all that she put her mind to. Pageantry was no exception.
She began competing in the Miss Arkansas Outstanding Teen Competition in eighth grade. In classic Kennedy fashion, it wasn’t about the attention nor the accolades, but rather the passion and philanthropy, and the scholarship opportunities that the scene provides. Then there was, naturally, fitting her feet into her mother’s footsteps. Inman competed in pageants when she was in college at Wichita State.
“It was just kind of a natural transition for her,” Inman says. “She could just marry a few of the things that she already loved into something that would help with her future.
“And she was pretty shy. So it also gave her the ability to get to speak and connect with people that she otherwise would never talk to. She was a watcher. She wasn’t the one that would go and spark up a conversation when she was younger. But through that experience, she did — she became the person that likes to talk to others and would grab the microphone at school to speak to people. It was really neat to see her come out of her shell. She gained confidence.”
In 2019, Kennedy proudly represented at the statewide competition as Miss South Central’s Outstanding Teen, and in 2020 as Miss Ouachita River’s Outstanding Teen. Her platform was built around the phrase, “Work for a Cause, Not Applause,” which was as apropos of her as a person than anything. In her 16 years of life, she did more for others than most do in a lifetime. She volunteered for Arkansas Children’s, was a two-time recipient of the ACH Miracle Maker Award, and was a member of both the 2019-20 ACHievers and the 2020-21 class of American Heart Association Sweethearts of Hot Springs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she made more than 7,000 masks, which she would distribute for free to anyone who needed them. Some provided donations for the homemade face wear, every penny of which she gave to Arkansas Children’s.
“Kennedy was a really well-rounded girl,” her mom says.
III. “I don’t think teenagers understand how final this decision is.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide is the second-leading cause of death among teens in the United States. The 2019 Youth Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System identified that nearly 19 percent of high school students in America “seriously considered” suicide that year, with 8.9 percent actually attempting.
In Arkansas, it’s of even greater concern. Nationally, the suicide rate for 2017-19 among the 15-19 age group was 11.2 per 100,000 teens; Arkansas was 15.3 per 100,000. Data compiled by The Jason Foundation suggests that a person between the ages of 10 and 24 dies by suicide every five days in the state.
Amid the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, this “silent epidemic” has continued to fester, even becoming exacerbated by the former.
Such was the case with Kennedy. In her last couple of years, she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple personality disorder, her mom says. Both conditions, to their knowledge, stemmed from adolescent trauma.
“We had a really active relationship with her counselor, and we had been communicating and all of those things on a regular basis; she saw them twice a week,” Inman says. “It didn’t matter how pretty she was, didn’t matter how successful she was — she felt like nothing that she did mattered. She just felt really invalidated.
“She didn’t have the same picture of herself that others did. … But she masked very well to the public.”
When asked if the novel coronavirus pandemic had an effect on Kennedy’s already-present mental health struggles, her mother’s answer comes without hesitation: “absolutely, 110 percent.”
“I don’t blame COVID, but I know that the repeat canceling of everything that was important, all the things that you had to look forward to [had an influence],” she continues. “When you’re struggling, those little things keep you going. But when everything you ever look forward to is canceled, you start to lose hope in normalcy. Especially when the kids were in virtual school. That was a huge struggle for Kennedy. She needed people; she needed connection. She needed all of that.
“We had a lot of fun in quarantine, but I do think it gave some people just a little bit too much time to think about all the things that were wrong, instead of the things that we have to look forward to.”
If what happened was influenced by the pandemic, the Inmans are not alone. Earlier this year, the CDC released the results of a study that tracked this dispiriting phenomenon. From May 2020 to March 2021, emergency visits for suspected suicide attempts reached levels 50 percent higher among girls aged 12-17 than in 2019. Interestingly, among boys in the same age group, the data remained fairly steady with previous years, with an increase of less than 4 percent.
The study’s findings outlined “more severe distress among young females than has been identified in previous reports during the pandemic, reinforcing the need for increased attention to, and prevention for, this population.”
Despite a wide range of risk factors that include depression, loss of a loved one, trauma, abuse, bullying and social isolation, the overall consensus — be it from the CDC, United Health Foundation or ADH — is that teen suicide is largely preventable.
However, this prevention goes beyond simply “knowing the signs.” Reinforcements and systemic change are the commonly suggested remedies — at home, at school and everywhere in between.
“I do think that people are really good at reading and learning about the warning signs of mental illness or suicidal ideation or any of those things,” Inman says. “But a lot of times, especially when we’re dealing with teenagers or other young adults, there are no warning signs. I know that’s really hard to hear, but that’s why it’s so important to have those open avenues of conversation in your homes and with your friends — to notice the small things that might not normally be one of those ‘warning signs.’”
IV. “I’ll listen all day long — if that means that I can save someone else’s life.”
Inman has spent practically her entire adult life helping children. For the past eight years, she’s worked in school improvement for the nonprofit Southern Regional Education Board. In that role, she works with schools in the lower 14 states that are struggling in areas such as proficiency standards or equitable access to education. Before assuming this role, she worked for the Arkansas Department of Education, and prior to that, she was a teacher.
Shaping young minds and making positive contributions to the education system itself has been her way of life. Now, it’s become emboldened as her heart is filled with the passion of suicide prevention, so that other parents don’t have to go through what she has.
“We have to normalize the conversation,” Inman says. “I know that a lot of times, young children especially, or even young adults, don’t know how to communicate what they’re feeling. And when they do communicate it to someone, they’re sloughed off, like, ‘Oh, you’ll grow out of it.’ ‘Oh, you’ll get over it.’ ‘Oh, you’re just a kid.’ ‘This is not the end of the world.’ People say that.”
Inman remembers times when adults who Kennedy had confided in told her things like, “Oh, you think it’s important now, but it won’t matter in 10 years.”
“Well, to a young person, they don’t know that because they’re not an adult, and they haven’t experienced enough life to know this isn’t the end of the world,” Inman says, a pleading chord beneath every tone.
In her mind, one of the most important things adults can do as it relates to this conversation is to get better at listening; instead of telling people how they should feel, listen to how they do feel.
“Even if there’s nothing you can do for them at that moment, you can listen,” Inman says. “And I will tell you — I have become people’s safe space. I never imagined, after losing my child, that I would want to be an advocate for mental health, or that I could even possibly carry these conversations every day. But I think people feel safe to talk to me, and teenagers, especially. I get so many messages, every single week, from people because they don’t feel like anyone else will listen to them.
“And so I’ll listen. I’ll listen all day long — if that means that I can save someone else’s life.”
At Brookhill Ranch — a summer camp that Kennedy took part in for nearly her entire life — the fieldwork this past summer centered around mental health. David Pate, the ranch’s CEO, told Inman that she would be shocked by how many of its thousands of campers felt comfortable coming to them with their struggles ever since Kennedy’s story became involved in the curriculum.
Inman also maintains an active relationship with another of Kennedy’s old stomping grounds: Natural State Dance Company. There, she’s kept a sense of normality for herself, so used to playing chauffeur while driving Ms. Kennedy to and from practices and performances, as well as for all the girls, who still feel like Kennedy is a part of everything since her mom still hangs around and helps. But this also means that Inman is regularly available for all of them — no matter if it’s to talk, or just to listen.
“We have to keep this going,” Inman says. “We can’t stop.”
V. “Love like Kennedy.”
“It sounds so crazy to say, but she’s the happiest girl I’ve ever known,” Inman says of Kennedy. “Her smile would light up any room.”
As Inman remembers her daughter and recounts the many memories, her tears are becoming a sea. But then, a soft chuckle cuts through the sorrow. Another memory. A comforting one, this time.
She says she used to feel guilty about crying all the time after Kennedy’s death. Even when she was reliving happy memories, it was like tears were the only things her body knew how to produce. Then, she was presented with perspective. Inman’s sister sent her a card, inscribed in it an abating mantra, which she paraphrases as, “Our tears are just the symbol of our love that our eyes can’t hold anymore.”
That four-letter word — love — is how she’s made it through these shadows, the darkest her life has ever known. Because love is what Kennedy did. Love is what Kennedy was.
After her death, all of Kennedy’s friends started a hashtag, #LoveLikeKennedy, because of how she always made everyone around her feel. It serves as not only a monument to who she was but a lodestar for all to follow. To be kind. To spread love.
“She would wear this shirt all the time that was tie-dyed and said, ‘Be Kind,’ on it. She made it herself,” Inman says. “People would be like, ‘Why are you wearing that?’ She’d say, ‘Because you should try it sometimes.’ She was a really empathetic person. So when other people had issues, she wanted to fix everyone’s problems for them.
“She was a true sign of love and kindness, and you just don’t see a lot of that. … She was just kindness.”
If Kennedy was love, and all who knew her or of her fill their hearts with it like she did, then she continues to live on through those who are influenced by her legacy.
“I know she didn’t leave this earth to hurt anyone,” her mom says. “She did it to free herself.”
In her honor, her mother continues. She’s persistent. She’s unyielding. She’s dedicated. A lot like Kennedy.
“I’m really proud of the state for stepping up this year, and I just hope that it doesn’t fizzle out,” Inman says. “This is the leading cause of death for ages 10 to 24, and we can’t quit talking about it.”
READ MORE: The Sentinel