… from the bungalow

Tragedy in Maryland


I read an article today that just about wrecked me. I considered for a moment sharing it on the wall of my Facebook page, but decided it deserved more attention than that. This touches on two topics that are very important to me: special needs and suicide.

This is obviously not a reporting blog, so I’m not going to report on this article so much as share it, along with some of my thoughts, and hope to open a dialogue. The headline of The Huffington Post’s August 8, 2011, article read, “Margaret Jensvold, Maryland Mom Who Killed Son Ben Barnhard, Agonized Over School Costs.” You can read the article here.

Ben Barnhard

An undated photo provided by the Barnhard family shows Ben Barnhard. (AP Photo/Barnhard Family)

This is devastating. The divorced mom, a psychiatrist, was completely overwhelmed emotionally and financially while caring for her son with special needs. The school she placed him in cost around $50,000 per year. Apparently mired in despair, she wrote a note about being unable to handle the education system, and that she wanted to spare her son the lifelong trauma of losing a parent to suicide. She then shot her son in the head, then killed herself.

That last sentence makes me feel ill. Typing it felt wrong. This is not a reflection of judgment. This is my reaction as a parent of a child with special needs. Without judgment, then, and in the interest of self-awareness, here are my thoughts:

Firstly, logic (in my mind) does not allow for this outcome. The thought of taking my own life, if I were to entertain such a thought, is immediately thwarted by the thought of my children’s lives. If I were to then think of taking their lives (my fingers are resisting even typing this right now) in order to “spare” them from the trauma of losing their dad, I’m pretty sure I’d immediately throw up. And since I wouldn’t put them through the trauma of losing their dad, nothing would happen. It’s as simple as an “if, then, else” statement. Value=false.

However, I’m also not going to sit here and condemn her, not that I’m justifying in any way what she did. But I cannot even fathom the extent of her despair to not only consider that the death of her son and herself was the only option, but to actually act on it. It’s unimaginable, and it’s beyond tragic.

As difficult as things get with my own special little guy, there is nothing–nothing–that would bring me to that place. OK, that part sounds a bit like a judgment, but it’s my personal stance, and I’ll stand by it.

What are your thoughts about/reactions to this?

~ Chris

P.S. If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and thoughts of suicide, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK.


Author: Chris

Introspection to a fault. College administrator, parent, soapmaker.

22 thoughts on “Tragedy in Maryland

  1. Oh my goodness, this is so sad. Another good resource is http://www.nami.org.

  2. Just unimagineable, Chris. I agree with you… couldn’t imagine, but can’t judge. And nauseating in so many ways.

  3. My heart ached reading your blog and the accompanying article, Chris. As a parent of three exceptional children, one in the dyslexia spectrum who also has fine motor issues, one with ADHD/ODD and one with Down syndrome (grade 5, 4 and preschool), I know that constantly advocating and trying to find the best schooling can be a huge challenge. I have decided to homeschool my kids, starting with my fifth grader this year, because neither the public or private systems seemed to be able to provide what I consider appropriate education for my kids. I am NOT a single parent, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for her to deal with things on her own. It sounds as though she did have some level of support from her family though. This is not an action that I would have taken at any time, my reaction is much like yours and I grieve that she felt this was the only plausible solution. I will be praying for their family. I can’t imagine their pain.

    • You helped validate one of my feelings, Jan: grieving. I hadn’t heard of this family before this afternoon. Yet, somehow I feel like I’m grieving this loss. How did it get so bad for her? Why wasn’t someone there to help her? How have we become so unaware of people’s personal struggles? This woman held a job and had family and friends, and no one knew how desperate she was.

  4. I hesitate to admit that this spring I was so low and lost that I would lie in bed at night just wishing to be “done.” But I have those amazing kiddos. And as much as I longed for an end of many issues for me – I did not wish one for them. Would ANYONE have ever guessed I was at that point? No. Not one person picked up on where I was – or at least they all know me well enough to know that it just isn’t in my consitution to take my own life or hurt my children, friends or family in that way. But maybe that’s just it – even when we do see these kinds of depths of the desperation we don’t figure anyone would really find this answer acceptable so it suprises us when someone else does.

    • That’s a hard thing to admit. Thank you for sharing that part of your life. I’ve been there.

      I think my statement about how no one noticed is a commentary on how private we’ve all become. We’re meant to be immersed in a community, yet most of us are somewhat isolated in our single-family homes and closed doors.

      But I think you’re also right: even if we get a glimpse of desperation, we assume nothing bad will really happen, but they do. Bad things do happen.

  5. I relate so deeply to the whole range of emotions you’ve described. I feel so heartbroken for the loss of both lives. I feel angry with her for having made that decision for her son, but by the same token understand that’s not the kind of choice a person who feels supported, sane and rational makes. No matter what it looked like from the outside, she was coming up against barriers she couldn’t face by herself, or with what support she did have.

    I think I feel more angry at a society that permits parents to become so overwhelmed just trying to get by that this would seem like the best possible outlet. I just can’t believe this was the choice of a sane, considered person acting out of anything other than desperation.

    Everything about this is so heartbreaking to me. Every young life lost stolen is one that makes me feel like bawling, vomiting and screaming, simultaneously and/or in turn; I wish I could reach out and touch that life, or be with them in the last moments and know that those last moments, at least, were spent in love and peace. I wish every child everywhere could know that love, their whole lives, and that parents were supported in their endeavors to provide it, for children indeed the future–not just for their parents, but for their country, and the world.

    Arrrrrgh. I wish I could more easily believe in black and white. I wouldn’t feel good, not but a long shot, but . . . I don’t think I would feel quite so horrible as I do right now. At least I am here to struggle.

    • I totally agree, Deb. How did we get to a place as a society where a single parent of a child with special needs feels so completely overwhelmed? That’s what brought me to tears yesterday more than anything: Where was her support?

      And you’re right. Being numb means no lows or highs. Hopefully, the struggles make the victories that much sweeter.

  6. Thank you for the visit. This post is near and dear to my heart. I was going to recommend the closet monster blog but i see she is already here.

  7. Having watched parents try to get the services they think their kids need and having watched both schools that try to work with parents and those that fight against them, I can understand just being totally and completely at a loss. I can’t really understand getting to the point of suicide, but I’ve seen it happen to others. I don’t think it is ever something you can understand until you’re sucked in by the very undertow that it is. I have this suspicion that due to her profession she probably felt she had to keep a strong face and wasn’t likely to ask for help. I could be totally wrong, but it was my first thought. She needed help & it is hard to find good respite. But you have to be willing to ask for it too, and entrust your child to another caregiver, which can be hard. Just like with postpartum depression, the depths of discomfort and misery can run so deep and they’re very rarely talked about. There aren’t obvious & readily available services like AA for an alcoholic, but the pain can reach just as deep. While I know there are associations & groups dedicated to the advocacy for certain disorders & parents can network through those, I don’t think there are enough resources for all of the ramifications that come with being the care giver for someone with special needs and/or a mental disorder. Until we, as a society, admit “we all have something a little ‘wrong’ with us” and that is is okay to talk about these things, and stop judging each other, stuff like this will sadly continue to happen.

    • Zebe, I think you’re on to something with your suspicion. And you’re absolutely right about resources to parents being insufficient. They’re out there, but my experience is that parents are either unaware that they exist, or that they’re too specific to a disability to truly be helpful. My son is atypical, and I feel like I don’t “belong” in an autism support group, for example. There should be more support out there for parents of children with special needs. Regardless of the diagnosis, the parents’ needs are usually very similar.

  8. Reading this makes me feel so many things all at once. I am utterly disturbed with the violence and tragedy, I am disheartened by what must have been the longtime struggles of this mom to provide what her son needed and I am sad that she didn’t feel there was anyone to turn to in her time of need.

    • Hi, Elizabeth. It is tragic and disturbing on so many levels.

      I feel like I’ve brought you all down. While this is incredibly disheartening, I hope it will serve as a message to connect with your friends, your co-workers, your family, your neighbors… Be present, be aware and be a friend.

  9. Words can’t describe what I feel reading about this tragedy. I worked as a special ed tech for an elementary school. before that, I was an at-home ABA therapist for a young autistic child for years and helped transition him into mainstream classes. Needless to say, I was a big part of his family and got to really know, and care for his entire family. I saw first hand the incredible struggles they faced on a daily basis. The constant battle for services. The feelings of isolation, the sense of despair. But his mother wouldn’t give up. She formed support groups. She connected with other mothers of autistic children. She became a therapist herself and her son’s number one advocate. She was tireless in her efforts. At the age of 17, her son is thriving now. This is what we need: a sense of community so that this tragedy doesn’t happen ever again. I hope we can reach out to others more and there won’t be any need for anyone parent to feel that terrible sense of helplessness.

    • That’s a gift, Darla. Not everyone gets that kind of perspective. I’m thankful that this 17-year-old is now thriving. I fully believe we need more connection, more community. I don’t have all the answers, but I know this much is true.

  10. Their is more here than meets the eye. I am Margarets’s ex husband I left the marrage because of abuse issues. I contacted CPS about my sons welfare. I was throw under the bus and in a fight with both hands tied behind my back. CPS dismissed my complaints and closed the cases as unfounded I was told by CPS that she had sole custody that I was meddeling and had an axe to grind.
    Jamie Barnhard / barnhardmarine@aol.com

    • Jamie,

      I left one reply to your other comment, but let me just say again how sorry I am for your loss. It sounds like you tried to step in and your concerns fell on deaf ears.

      As you can see, there’s no judgment here. Please let me know if I can lend an ear.

      We’re all in this together, brother.

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