It was early decision season for colleges and Amanda Hartley’s friends were calling with news of acceptance letters.
Amanda, 17, was confident she would get into her schools of choice. A senior at East Islip High School, she was a soccer goalie, a cello player, a good student. She had a smile that lit up a room, said her mother, Patricia Hartley-Ferrandino.
Amanda’s first letter came. It was a rejection from her first choice, SUNY New Paltz.
“To her it was like, ‘My life is over. I’m a loser now. I can’t get into the school I want to get into,’” her mother told Newsday. “It just devastated her for some reason.”
Later that week more than 10 years ago, she went into her bedroom and searched for suicide tips on the internet, according to her mother.
Hartley-Ferrandino found her daughter dead in bed the next afternoon when she returned home from work.
For about a year, Hartley-Ferrandino could barely function because of her grief. Eventually she went back to her job as a social worker. For months, she said, she spent most of the time mindlessly shuffling papers.
Amanda died on Dec. 29, 2011. Hartley-Ferrandino, a social worker who specializes in mental illness and substance abuse, just recently has felt strong enough to discuss her daughter's death publicly, in an effort to help prevent more teenage suicides.
Amanda had been acting out of character, her mother recalled. She had a case of “senioritis” and was slacking off on her schoolwork. She was irritable. She had quit her travel soccer team.
But Hartley-Ferrandino never imagined anything was seriously wrong.
That night, after dinner, the two argued about her schoolwork. Amanda stormed off to her room.
After she did her research on her laptop, she sent out simple texts to her family and friends: “I love you.”
Amanda’s family and community were "devastated," Hartley-Ferrandino said.
“She was the smiley, happy kid," she said. "She walked into a room and she was sunshine. She had the best smile, and she was nice to everybody and she was a star soccer player.”
Hartley-Ferrandino was unaware that her daughter — who was never diagnosed with mental illness — was struggling so much. Amanda “just did a really good job of covering it up,” she said.
She is still not sure exactly why it happened. She suspects her daughter, like many teenagers, had trouble handling setbacks.
“I think what we’ve done to our children is we’re overprotective,” said Hartley-Ferrandino, who lives in Manorville and today works for the Suffolk County-based Family Service League, helping families cope with suicide.
“We don’t let them feel pain. We’re always fixing everything," she said. "We have to let our kids lose. We have to let them feel that pain of you can’t always get everything that you want and you have to lose sometimes. That’s part of life.”
“You don’t have to have a mental illness to want to die,” she added.
It can just happen with a confluence of factors, even on a single day.
“They don’t know how to manage these bad feelings or a bad day or a bad relationship, and they get stuck,” she said. “They want to give up easily. Suddenly suicide is like a viable choice. I’m just going to give up.”
Hartley-Ferrandino had discussed suicide with her children and attended annual suicide prevention marches with them after a nephew killed himself.
“It wasn’t a taboo subject in my house,” she said. “I’m a social worker and it still happened to me.”
What helped save her, she said, is that she also had a 3-1/2-year-old son. She had to get out of bed every morning to take care of him. She had a 19-year-old daughter as well, was married, and had a strong group of friends and co-workers.
She received letters from students at the high school, recalling fond memories of Amanda.
“I just want you to know that your daughter was the only one who would say hello to me in music class,” one wrote to Hartley-Ferrandino.
“And that helped me. Stories like that,” Hartley-Ferrandino said. “She was just a good person. But she wasn’t resilient. And that’s where I feel my failure was.”
“Of course, you can look back a million times,” she said. “And that’s what happens. What could I have done differently? I should have saved her. There are so many things that parents go through. But she made this decision and there is nothing I can do about it.”
If Amanda could have fought through the temporary disappointment of the college rejection, her mother believes she would have seen better days were coming.
A few days after she died, a letter arrived from SUNY Cortland.
She got in.