Youngs focus on their son's legacy, not his death

Third in a three-part series
May. 19, 2014 @ 07:00 PM

“Call Greg,” a voice whispered in her head. “Call Greg.”
Such intuitions were nothing new to Judy Young — and her unexplained hunches frequently panned out — but this one seemed more insistent than usual.
“Call Greg.”
It was 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon — Feb. 23, 2013 — and Judy was working at Oak Hollow Thrift Shop, which she manages. She couldn’t get Greg off her mind, but this time she decided not to call her son, a 21-year-old junior at Houghton College. She knew she’d be speaking to him the next day — they talked by phone every Sunday when he was away at college — and besides, he was probably at the library, as he was most Saturdays.
“I felt something was wrong and I needed to call,” Judy says, “but I was keeping my word to Greg that we would talk on Sundays.”
Nonetheless, Judy inexplicably filled out a work schedule for the next two weeks and posted it for her employees. It was as if she knew she would be out of work for an extended period of time, though she had no plans to be gone.
Because Greg had bipolar disorder and had struggled with suicidal thoughts, Judy constantly worried about him. She took comfort, though, in an email Greg had sent only three days earlier, in which he spoke excitedly about how good he was feeling and about his plans for the future: Spring break. A summer internship. Graduate school.
“Although busy, I am doing well in all of my courses,” Greg wrote. “My professors have been saying some very encouraging things lately. I also have been much happier and more at peace.”
Fifteen months later, that email stands out as an odd relic from Greg’s 3½-year bipolar odyssey: It was upbeat. It was positive. It was forward-looking. It was comforting.
It was also the last email Greg ever sent his mother.

* * * *

The same day Greg sent that email, he began a new antidepressant — yet another drug that carried a warning about suicidal thoughts as a possible side effect.
Although they can’t prove it, Richard and Judy Young believe that drug may have been what triggered their son’s downward spiral over the next few days, leading to his fateful decision to go to Niagara Falls.
Greg had celebrated his birthday with friends earlier in the week and appeared to be in a great mood. He certainly seemed upbeat in his email to Judy, which he sent Wednesday. By Thursday, though — the day after he began his new medication — things had begun to change. Greg skipped several classes — something he never did — notifying his teachers that he didn’t feel well. He reported feeling tired, lethargic and depressed. He just wasn’t himself, and he thought the new medication might be the culprit. A chance meeting with an ex-girlfriend who had begun dating someone new brought him down even more, though he was also dating someone else.
“(The ex-girlfriend) had been a trigger for him, bringing up a lot of self-deprecating emotions and feelings,” recalls Alice Browning, Greg’s girlfriend at the time. “I comforted him, but he was low after that. We went to dinner (Friday) night, and again he was feeling very low. After dinner, he just wanted to go home and go to sleep.”
On Saturday morning, Greg texted Alice that he still wasn’t feeling well, but that he thought he would be OK. A little later, she asked if he wanted to go to the library with her, but he declined.
By late afternoon, Greg had begun the approximately 90-minute drive north to Niagara Falls. He had visited the magnificent falls several times — including once with his parents — but this time he was not going as a tourist. A review of Greg’s computer searches from that day after his death showed he had researched the topic of Niagara Falls and suicide.
“I think he chose Niagara,” Richard says softly, “because he knew that would be absolutely final.”

* * * *

The exact details of Greg’s final moments at the edge of the falls are not clear, nor do they need to be. God only knows what he may have been thinking right then, if anything at all.
He sent his farewell text around 6 p.m., and within 15 minutes he had jumped into the thundering falls of Niagara, never to be seen again. Police eventually found his car and his personal belongings, but not his body.
To the rest of the world, Gregory Scott Young was just another Niagara Falls suicide, one of the thousands that have transpired there through the years. At Houghton College, though — and even more so in his native High Point — Greg’s death resonated loudly, not only because of how he died, but also because of how he had lived, and who he had been, before he died.
“Very often, bipolar people are very bright — high achievers — and we’re shocked when they do something like commit suicide,” says Dr. Wayne Eastlack, a High Point psychotherapist who treats the disorder. “We’re shocked, because they seemed to have everything going for them. That’s Greg’s story, and we don’t understand what happened. It doesn’t make sense.”
What’s abundantly clear to Greg’s family and friends is that he was a young man tormented by pain, a pain they would never fully understand.
“I know he was being tortured by the depression,” says longtime friend Sarah Burns, of Kernersville. “He talked to me enough about it that I knew it was just too strong for him. In that sense, I understand why he did what he did.”
Richard shakes his head slowly.
“You can’t imagine the mindset — so dark, so black — that he decided he’s better off to destroy himself,” he says.
Now, though, it’s the survivors who wrestle with the pain. They anguish over the tragic loss of an amazing young man who would’ve graduated from Houghton this month and would be preparing for grad school, most likely at Princeton or Harvard. They’re consumed with guilt, wondering why they didn’t see red flags. Wondering what they could have done — no, should have done — differently.
Judy still finds it difficult to walk into Greg’s bedroom. She beats herself up for not calling Greg that afternoon when her intuition told her to call, though she acknowledges he probably wouldn’t have answered the phone anyway. Richard wishes he had pushed his son more to talk about his bipolar disorder.
“You kick yourself,” he says, “but all the what-ifs don’t help any.”
What does help the Youngs is focusing on Greg’s legacy, including the many lives he touched through his friendship and his ministry.
They think about the 700-plus people who came to a memorial service at Wesleyan two weeks after Greg’s death. They think about the countless visitors to the “RIP Greg Young” Facebook page. They think about the people whose lives were changed by hearing Greg speak or hearing his band play. Most poignantly, they think about the young woman who had planned to take her own life until she heard Greg’s testimony, and they wonder if there are more stories like that out there. They believe there are.
Lastly, they focus on bipolar disorder, which ultimately led to Greg’s death. If they ever hid behind the stigma of mental illness, they don’t anymore.
“Through public awareness, that stigma needs to be eliminated,” Judy says. “People have images in their mind about who’s affected by mental illness, and it’s not somebody like Greg. But it can happen to anybody.”
Ultimately, the Youngs hope and pray their son’s story will change — perhaps even save — the life of someone else battling mental illness. After all, it’s not a story about what Greg did at the edge of the falls — it’s a story about how he got there in the first place.
jtomlin@hpe.com | 888-3579

In Greg’s memory

•On Feb. 7, Houghton College dedicated the Greg Young Collection of Philosophy and Religion, a collection of more than 300 books in the Houghton College Library. Many of the books are from Greg’s personal collection, donated to the library by his parents, Richard and Judy Young of High Point.
•The Greg Young Memorial Fund has been established at Wesleyan Christian Academy to honor the life of Young, a WCA alumnus. Each school year, the Young family will designate a portion of the fund’s monies to be used for school projects that will directly benefit Wesleyan students. Among these projects will be some in areas about which Greg was passionate — library, music and ministry service, to name a few.
To make a contribution to the fund, make checks payable to Wesleyan Christian Academy and designate the Greg Young Memorial Fund on the memo line. Donations should be mailed to Wesleyan Christian Academy, 1917 N. Centennial St., High Point, NC 27265.
For more information, contact Chris Glover at 884-3333, Ext. 221.