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Former student-athlete dies by suicide; his family uses tragedy to help others

Health & Fitness

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Former Bonneville High School student-athlete Braydon Pugmire. | Courtesy Brad Barlow

Editor’s note: This is part two of a four-part series where eastern Idahoans share their knowledge and experiences with mental illnesses, in hopes that other people in similar circumstances can get the help they need. Read the first part of the series here.

UCON — From the outside, 17-year-old Braydon Pugmire seemed like a typical successful teen.

He played on the Bonneville High School football and basketball teams, and he served on the student council. He was active in his Latter-day Saint congregation, he got his Eagle Scout rank, and he loved working and playing outdoors.

But on the inside, Braydon was struggling emotionally. It’s not clear when he started thinking about ending his life, but we do know that he didn’t talk to his loved ones about his thoughts and feelings, and ultimately, Braydon took his own life in 2017.

Braydon’s suicide wasn’t the first or the last, and unfortunately, suicide remains a very real outcome for eastern Idahoans who suffer from debilitating mental health.

When it does happen, the loss has a tremendously negative impact on the families and friends of the victim as they struggle to move forward. But for the Pugmires, losing their son and brother was also an awakening call to action that’s led them to help other people who might be in Braydon’s shoes.

This is the Pugmires’ story.

Never saw it coming

Growing up, Braydon was very active in his community and seemed to genuinely enjoy life. His parents, who have six children, describe him as somebody who was outgoing, loved making people smile and had a special way of connecting with younger kids.

“Everyone loved him,” Braydon’s mom, Marisa Pugmire, said.

That’s partly why no one saw or even suspected Braydon was considering suicide. In retrospect, Marisa remembers some things that may have been warning signs, such as frequent sleeping in and skipping meals, but at the time, she didn’t think much about it.

The family was blindsided on July 5, 2017.

That morning, one of the Pugmires’ friends called Marisa and asked if they were home. After telling her they were, the friend quickly responded, “Is Braydon home?” Marisa said he was at work. Within minutes of that call, the friend was at the Pugmire house showing her a text Braydon had sent the friend’s daughter the night of July 4.

“He had texted (her) and said, ‘Thank you for being such a good friend to me. Would you tell my mom and dad I love them and to check the flag in my room?’ Marisa recalls reading. “I didn’t even get the whole text read before we were running down the stairs.”

Under his flag that he had gotten from Cedar Badge, a program that teaches youth leadership, teamwork and decision-making skills, was a suicide note. In the letter, he said he was struggling with himself, and he felt that he couldn’t meet his parent’s expectations.

Not long after reading the note, the family learned that after Braydon hugged his mom goodnight on the Fourth of July, he sneaked out of their home and drove to the hills. He then shot and killed himself inside his vehicle.

It was the summer before his senior year.

“I think that first little bit was, how did I not know that my own son was struggling?” Marisa said. “And then my next concern was how many other kids are struggling that no one knows about?”

That question prompted Marisa to take action.

RELATED: Ririe teen who tried to take her own life wants others to know suicide isn’t the answer

Using tragedy to help others

Since 2014, Marisa has been a Jazzercise (dance fitness) instructor. Shortly after Braydon’s funeral, Jazzercise Idaho Falls — where she works — held an instructor’s meeting, and they asked Marisa how she was doing. Instead of focusing on the heartache of losing her child, she told them she needed to do more for people in similar situations.

Marisa wanted to use her talent of teaching Jazzercise to help high schoolers close to Braydon’s age get involved in something positive and have an outlet that helps improve their mental health.

Braydon Pugmire at a parade on July 4, 2017. | Courtesy Pugmire family

With the help of a Bonneville High School aerobics teacher, Marisa started going in once a week to host a free Jazzercise class. Marisa made sure the students knew that Braydon was her son, and he had taken his life. She made it clear if any of them needed somebody to talk to, she was there.

“The whole class, I try and make sure positive words are coming out of my mouth,” she said. “I always end my class with ‘Be the reason somebody smiles today.'”

Marisa has taught around 200 students over the past few years. There have been several times when past students will approach her and remind her of the positive impact she made in their life.

She says if people can help others learn to love and feel good about themselves, reinforce whatever needs to be said to them or get people talking more about their thoughts and feelings, they will help lessen the suicidal rates.

“People can talk to me, and I will listen,” Marisa said. “I don’t think I would have been able to do that before (Braydon took his life).”

The year following Braydon’s death, there were 418 Idahoans who died by suicide, including 48 Idaho Falls residents and 58 individuals in Pocatello, according to an Idaho Department of Health and Welfare suicide in Idaho fact sheet. That same year in 2018, the report states that Idaho had the 5th highest suicide rate in the United States.

Have conversations, build positive relationships

Before losing Braydon, the Pugmires didn’t talk about suicide or mental health as a family, and they had conversations that seemed to only scratch the surface. That has all changed now.

“I try and make sure I’m asking my kids questions more and visiting with them not just, ‘Hey, how was your day?’ I’m always looking for ways to spend more time with them and make them more of a priority than maybe other things,” Marisa said. “I don’t worry so much about do we have the nicest house (and) do we have it decorated the way everyone else does? Everything gets (put) into a bigger perspective.”

Braydon’s dad, Justin, said they do have high expectations for their children, but they try and make sure their kids know no matter what, they are there for them.

“(Braydon) knew we loved him, but he probably didn’t realize that we’d love him, even if we knew the mistakes he’d made,” Justin said.

The Pugmire family | Courtesy Casie Hammer

Building positive open relationships with your kids when they are young instead of waiting until they’re a teenager to figure out how to talk to them is crucial, Marisa said.

“If you can talk about it, it’s easier to cope with it and work with it. If you don’t know about it and don’t talk about it, then they’re fighting it on their own,” Justin said. “It gets to a point where you can’t win.”

Along with improving their conversations and strengthening their relationships as a family, Justin and Marisa said on more than one occasion they’d been asked to speak with other parents who have lost a child to suicide.

Although it’s never easy to do so, the Pugmires are grateful for the opportunity they have to help people that are in the same boat as them.

Every day, about 123 Americans die by suicide, according to the Suicide Awareness Voices of Education. And in a year, more than 44,965 Americans take their own lives.

Idaho’s rate of suicide is 1.5 times higher than the national average, the suicide in Idaho fact sheet explains.

“It’s definitely a problem,” Justin said of the statistics. “There’s a lot of suicides, and most people don’t know about it. They are daily. A lot of people keep it secret because it hurts. That was one thing we chose not to do.”

You never know what somebody is going through

The unexpected passing of Braydon opened the Pugmires’ eyes to the fact that people never know what somebody else is going through.

At Braydon’s visitation, Marisa remembers telling countless kids that came through the line things like “You matter,” and “You’re strong.” She did this because she didn’t know if somebody she encountered was feeling how Braydon had felt, and she didn’t want them to feel that pain.

“It was like somebody else was feeding the words into my mouth and into my head to say to them,” she recalls. “It was like Braydon was right there saying, ‘Mom, tell this person.'”

Justin said losing his son has taught him to be more patient with his other children and try harder to understand them. He said he tries to not jump to conclusions as quickly as he used to.

Those lessons learned are something he hopes other parents will take to heart.

“We don’t ever know exactly what they’re going through,” Justin said. “Even as parents, we don’t know exactly what they’re going through, so we need to learn to be patient with them and love them where they’re at and make sure that they know that we love them.”

On Thursday, EastIdahoNews.com will dive into the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children and address the role parents play in their child’s mental health journey.

Braydon Pugmire at a Bonneville High School football game. | Courtesy Brad Barlow
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