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Suicide awareness | Heartbreaking conversation with one very brave 11-year-old Texas girl

"I just want to spread awareness about it so that maybe it will stop a couple kids from having to go through what I had to go through," said Sophie Hayes.

HASLET, Texas — The conversation is difficult. The conversation is painful. 

The conversation is sometimes considered taboo. 

But an 11-year-old girl in Tarrant County is brave enough to step forward and speak up about suicide awareness and treatment, in memory of the dad she wishes was still here.

Breckenridge, in Stephens County, is a solid two-and-a-half-hour drive from Dallas. And, 15 miles south of town on FM 576, Shady Grove Cemetery holds graves dating back to the turn of the century. 

But in a back corner under a scraggly juniper tree you can find a grave yet without its permanent marker. It's because the loss of Derek Hayes is still so very painful and new.

And at her home in Haslet back in Tarrant County, Sophie Hayes asked for a chance to talk about him -- and the pictures on her bedroom wall.

"It's just special. It was from my elementary school dance," she said of her picture with Derek Hayes: her dad.

"Well I like it because it reminds me of him. Feels like he's looking down on me, watching over me," she said.

And the death of Derek Hayes seven months ago was all the more difficult for a young daughter to understand because it was suicide.

"I was pretty close to kind of lying, just flat out lying to her because it seemed like an easier talk to have," Sophie's mom Tori Wolfenbarger Hayes said.

A talk about depression, addictions and mental illness. Derek Hayes was just 35-years-old.

Credit: Hayes Family

"My main concern is how Sophie feels one day to the next and sometimes it's one minute to the next," Sophie's mom said.

"I am happy some days, sad some days. Some days I'm like not OK you know," Sophie said seated next to her mom at their Haslet home.

So why then, did I agree to talk about something this painful -- this difficult -- with an 11-year-old girl? I'll let Sophie explain that part.

"Why are you so brave to talk about this," I asked her.

"I just want to spread awareness about it so that maybe it will stop a couple kids from having to go through what I had to go through," she said.

Because while counseling has helped and a "grief bear," a teddy bear made from one of her dad's shirts, is nice -- she said she needed something more.

"It's still really tough. Especially around his birthday," she said.

So on what would have been her dad's birthday, Sophie started a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

"We wanted to get to $360 because he was turning 36," she said. 

That $360 goal now approaching $3,000 raised, with a few more days to go.

"I kind of want to send a message like, it's gonna be OK you know," she said. "There are ways to get better. There are ways to feel better. You just have to feel open to opening up about it and getting help."

"It's an illness just like any other kind of illness," Sophie's mom said. "Just to be able to talk openly, that there's not shame in it."

"I just want there to be awareness and for word to be spread," added Sophie.

"So proud of her. I've always been really proud of her," Sophie's mom said. "The way she's been handling something that most people never have to go through. I mean, yes, I'm proud of her every day. Absolutely."

"Do you feel as brave as I think you are right now," I asked her.

"No," she answered, "There's some days where I have no courage. I guess it's getting me through this, knowing that I can spread awareness. And even if that doesn't happen I'm happy to have talked with you today."

A brave girl who decided to talk openly and to take her heartbreak and turn it into healing for someone else.

"I'm OK. I know I'm gonna be OK. I just know that I have my family here and I know that I'm gonna be alright."

And, in her dad's memory, wants everyone else to be alright too.

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