Hidden in plain sight

First Posted: 5/1/2014

CLARKTON — When Rhonda Elkins received the call at about 1 p.m. on April 12, 2013, she was convinced that the Winston-Salem police officer on the other end of the line had made a mistake.

Not because she was blinded by the initial wave of denial that coincides with a traumatic event, but because the facts just didn’t add up.

Why would her daughter, Kaitlyn Elkins, a driven student at the Wake Forest School of Medicine poised to achieve her lifetime goal of becoming a doctor, kill herself?

Kaitlyn, the upbeat 23-year-old with an active social life, a proud, supportive family and a dedicated boyfriend. Kaitlyn, the quintessential overachiever who was voted “most likely to succeed” by her classmates at Whiteville High School, where she also served as valedictorian in 2008, before graduating summa cum laude from Campbell University in 2011 with a degree in Biology. Kaitlyn, who seemed jovial and optimistic about the future during her visit home for Easter just a few days prior.

People like Kaitlyn do not commit suicide; her mother was certain of this.

But all of Rhonda’s doubts were assuaged after she read the two-page suicide note addressed to her and her husband, Allyn.

In the letter, Kaitlyn assured the couple that they have been “the most wonderful parents on the face of the earth.” She apologized for keeping her debilitating depression under wraps for so long. She begged them not to dwell on what they could have done differently.

She asked them to please take care of her cat, Gatito.

After Kaitlyn’s death, Rhonda, who lives in Clarkton, quit her job as a registered nurse — a position she held for about 20 years, three of which she spent working at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton, from 2006 until 2009.

In an effort to exercise some of the guilt and despair she was feeling, Rhonda started a blog. Her posts were met with an outpouring of condolences and anecdotes not only from people who knew Kaitlyn, but from complete strangers who had also lost loved ones to suicide.

The blog served as a catalyst for her new memoir, “My Bright Shining Star: A Mother’s True Story of Brilliance, Love and Suicide.”

Rhonda hopes the book will help encourage people harboring thoughts of suicide to reach out.

“This book is not just for someone who has lost someone to suicide, [it’s also for] young people, so many of whom hid their depression like my daughter did,” she said. “I want them to know how important it is to seek help. My daughter never told anyone and she never sought help. I also want parents to realize that there can be hidden depression in their children.”

In the book, Rhonda stresses the need for parents to recognize subtle indications of depression in their children — signs she openly admits to having missed with Kaitlyn.

She points to a poem her daughter wrote when she was 14 years old entitled “Costume” that reads like a red flag in retrospect. The piece, which won honorable mention in a poetry competition, includes tenebrous lines about Kaitlyn’s fear of conveying her emotions to other people.

Rhonda said she was mildly alarmed by the poem at first, but Kaitlyn assured her that there was no cause for concern.

“If parents see something that shows signs of depression like this, they should talk with their children in-depth,” she said. “It’s important to keep lines of communication open with your teenagers.”

Throughout the book, Rhonda shares several of her favorite memories of Kaitlyn. She writes about he daughter’s fondness for quoting “Finding Nemo” and her habit of naming every wild squirrel she encountered “Harry.” She describes Kaitlyn’s ornately decorated apartment in Cary, as well as her longstanding theory that McDonald’s french fries with slightly burnt ends are the best tasting.

“She was a very special person and I think that, when people know a person on a personal level, it makes them more real and they understand the importance of their story,” Rhonda said. “I felt a great need to communicate that.”

Rhonda said that readers have responded positively to her book, which reached the top of the Psychology and Counseling chart on Amazon.com’s Kindle ebook store within days of its release.

“Everybody has something good to say about it,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of people who said they were inspired to seek help after reading it.”

But Rhonda knows that positive reviews and strong sales — as nice as they might be — do little to fill the void left by Kaitlyn’s death, and though she will never get the chance to read it, Rhonda ends her memoir with a response to her daughter’s suicide note.

“I wish with all my heart that you are in a place where sadness does not exist, for if anyone deserves all happiness and goodness it is you, my dear, wonderful daughter,” she writes. “And always remember that you are my bright shining star… I love you bigger than the universe.”

“My Bright Shining Star: A Mother’s True Story of Brilliance, Love and Suicide” can be purchased in paperback or as an ebook on Amazon.com. The book can also be purchased at City Center Gallery and Books in downtown Fayetteville.