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A Father’s Painful Crusade Against Bullying 12 Years After His Son’s Suicide

“The [bullies] were just children making some bad decisions.”

According to his parents, Ryan Halligan started being picked on by classmates when he was in fifth grade.

When Ryan alerted his father, John, to the homophobic teasing, John encouraged his son to brush it off. "My initial response was, 'It's just words. You need to just ignore [the bullies]. Walk away,'" John told Oprah in 2009.

Ryan's mom, Kelly, said back then that she felt the boy's self-esteem plummet, and she decided it was time for Ryan to get professional help. John truly believed this would be the resolution his son needed.

"The combination of a therapist and the advice that we were giving him, you know, I thought we were going to be OK," he says.

However, they weren't.

Ryan Halligan, 13, suffered the torment of bullies, who targeted him both in school and online.
Ryan Halligan, 13, suffered the torment of bullies, who targeted him both in school and online.

On Oct. 7, 2003, Ryan committed suicide, hanging himself in the bathroom of his home. He was 13 years old.

"I was never prepared for that phone call. My wife, Kelly, crying hysterically, 'John, you need to come home, you need to come home. Our son is dead,'" John said.

It's been 12 years since Ryan killed himself, and "Oprah: Where Are They Now -- Extra" recently caught up with John to see how the family has been healing in the aftermath.

John has since left his job as an engineer and now speaks full-time at schools about bullying. "I've been sharing Ryan's story with students, middle-school level and high-school level," he says. "I've been to about 1,300 schools at this point, throughout the United States, Canada [and] Mexico."

We forgave [the bullies] a long time ago. The part I'm struggling with most is forgiving myself. John Halligan

A big part his work, John says, is helping kids understand the impact of suicide on a family. For the Halligans, the healing process has been a difficult one.

"I'll be honest. It's not easy," John admits.

As John and Kelly continue to grapple with their own emotions, they also have the added responsibility of caring for their two adult children.

John's 29-year-old daughter, Megan, is the one who found Ryan that day and has had trouble recovering from the trauma. "She's still home with us. She was severely wounded by this, psychologically," John says. "We've been dealing with issues with her ever since the event."

John's other son, Conner, is now 18. "He's autistic, so he has some special needs as well," John says.

Conner, John, Kelly and Megan Halligan smile while on vacation. John says they have all been trying hard to heal af
Conner, John, Kelly and Megan Halligan smile while on vacation. John says they have all been trying hard to heal after losing Ryan more than a decade ago.

As for the bullies in Ryan's story -- primarily one boy and one girl -- John says they have his forgiveness.

"They were just children making some bad decisions," he states. "We forgave them a long time ago. The part I'm struggling with most is forgiving myself."

John continues, "I do feel like there were mistakes that I made along the way that could have prevented this." 

Along those lines, he is currently working on book with the proposed title, "If I Could Have A Do-Over: A Father's Hard-Earned Lessons About Cyber-Bullying, Depression and Suicide." John's hope is that his experience can help other parents whose children may be going through what Ryan did.

"[I'm] trying to share with parents the mistakes that I felt I had made as his dad and for them to learn from that," John says.

Find more follow-ups with "Oprah Show" guests on WhereAreTheyNow.buzz.

 

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BEFORE YOU GO

PHOTO GALLERY
How To Talk About Bullying
CONVERSATIONS