CODY – The front bedroom of the house that’s still under construction was supposed to be Connor’s.
It has light gray walls, a modern brass light fixture and space for a closet. The best part of the room is the large picture window that looks out onto the street, the neighbors’ houses and their leafy trees.
Connor and his younger brother, Wyatt, fought over who would get the room. Their mother, Cynthia Cloud, the Wyoming state auditor, and father Charles Cloud, owner of a vehicle repair business in this northwestern corner of the state, decided the room would go to Connor, 17, because he was older.
But Connor will never move into the family’s new home. He shot himself March 20.
In the painful months that have followed, the family has struggled for answers, to pick up and move forward.
“It’s hard to rebuild because nothing is the same,” Cynthia said.
Suicide has hit many families across Wyoming, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of the deaths. When the victim is the child of the state auditor, people whisper and talk – and not just in Cody, but in all corners of the state. Cloud is Wyoming’s third-highest-ranking public official. The auditor is in charge of payroll, cuts checks to pay the state’s bills and sits on a number of boards and commissions, making decisions that affect all Wyoming residents.
With so many eyes on the family, the Clouds have chosen to be candid about Connor’s life and death, even as they don’t entirely know why he killed himself, even as they often fumble about which steps to take. But they don’t want other families to experience what they’ve been through. They want to raise awareness about suicide, end the stigma.
Charles, Cynthia, Wyatt and Cynthia’s mother, Myra Yates, stand in what was once Connor’s room. The room is mostly empty, as flooring and other finishing work still need to be completed in the house.
Leaning against the wall are pictures of Connor as a child at the beach in California, as a little boy in his favorite pajamas, on a hike with his girlfriend.
“What do I do with his bed?” Cynthia said. “What do I do with his stuff?”
As for the room, Wyatt, 15, will move in.
“They fought over the room,” Charles said. “I asked Wyatt, ‘Are you going to let Connor win? He’s gone.’ He said, ‘You’re right. I’ll take that room.’”
March 20 was a Sunday, and Cynthia – who commutes between Cheyenne and Cody for her job and family — was tooling about the family’s Cody home, as Charles and Connor went target shooting on public land outside of town.
The doorbell rang. It was Connor’s girlfriend, who had just received a text message from Connor, saying he intended to end his life.
Cynthia called Charles at the shooting range. It rang to voicemail.
At the time, Charles was on the phone with emergency dispatchers, reporting that his son had shot himself.
Connor was just 3 feet from Charles, who watched as his son lifted his hand and pulled the trigger. It happened in an instant. Charles was unable to stop it.
Thirteen minutes passed until the ambulance arrived. Charles held his son the entire time, as his life was slipping from him. He died as the medics arrived.
“I think he was waiting, waiting for the emergency people, so I wouldn’t be alone,” Charles said.
Connor’s girlfriend wasn’t the first person to receive a text from Connor.
Connor had been sending texts to many friends in the days before, indicating he was suicidal. He had a falling-out with some friends from school, but the Clouds are unsure whether that was the sole reason he took his life.
“One of the things Connor said was, ‘In six months, no one will remember me, except my family,’” Charles said.
None of his friends reported the texts.
“He just told people he thought were safe,” Cynthia said.
By safe, she means people who wouldn’t tell the police, a teacher or Cynthia and Charles.
The Clouds don’t blame the teens for not reporting the tests — “they’re just children,” Cynthia says — but they want people to know that if someone is threatening suicide, no matter what, the words cannot be ignored.
“The message we want to get out is if someone is saying these things, tell someone,” Cynthia says. “Take them to the ER.”
After the Park County Sheriff’s office completed its investigation of Connor’s death, the sheriff personally returned to Charles the firearm that Connor used, an act of kindness that Charles appreciates.
Many mental health professionals blame Wyoming’s high suicide rate on easy access to firearms. The Clouds have considered how the gun played a role in their son’s death.
Because the family’s firearms are locked up, Connor had to wait until he and Charles went shooting. That’s when he had access, Charles said.
But Charles doesn’t believe his son’s suicide would have been prevented if he didn’t have the gun.
“He would have figured out something,” Charles said.
“It would have been a car crash; it would have been something,” said Connor’s grandmother Myra Yates. “When they make their minds up, there’s always a way.”
The Clouds instead are concerned about access to mental health and suicide prevention in Wyoming.
Gov. Matt Mead announced, and lawmakers reviewed and approved, state government spending reductions as energy revenues have decreased. Mental health services are being hit. A contract with an organization dedicated to suicide and substance abuse prevention has decreased by 16 percent. Money is down 12 percent to community mental health centers that charge patients on a sliding scale. Cuts have also been made in suicide prevention research and evaluation.
“With the budget cuts, that’s scary, considering we have one of the highest suicide rates,” Cloud said.
The Clouds themselves have benefited from grief counseling. Charles is in counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, from which he suffers since he witnessed his son’s death. Additionally, Cynthia and Charles are in couples counseling.
“We don’t want to lose each other,” Charles said.
The family also has adopted pets to help heal. In addition to Wyatt, the Clouds have two older children at the University of Wyoming, Luke and Morgan.
Wyatt has a dog. Morgan has a cat. Luke, who is married, already has a pet. Cynthia has chickens. Charles is getting a service dog to help with the effects of PTSD. The dog is undergoing training and will soon arrive in Cody.
Therapy and pets have given the Clouds tools to move forward, Cynthia said.
Cynthia has learned it’s OK to cry. She recalled even wiping tears as she walked into a recent state meeting. She shook people’s hands and said, “I’m sorry, I just lost my son in March. I’m just having a bad day,” she said.
Finishing the house has become even more important to Charles. He can’t stay in bed all day. He’s afraid he’ll never get up again.
“This house has saved me,” he said.
The Clouds laughed when they recalled Connor’s grown-up sensibilities. He wanted a four-door sedan, he informed his parents. He even had a patch of gray hair on the back of his head.
Connor had an offbeat sense of humor that the family said he gets from his mother.
One year, his parents asked what he wanted for Christmas. He said he wanted 50 rubber chickens. They asked again and again, but he never requested another gift. So Cynthia and Charles gave him the 50 chickens.
Connor was thrilled, Cynthia said.
A junior in high school, Connor had a lot of friends. He worked out every day. He liked to play Xbox with friends. He had a part-time job at Papa Murphy’s Pizza. He made the honor roll at school.
He loved movies. He went through a period in which he could name every filmmaker to every film, Charles said. He was drawn to independent and art films, his mother said.
He loved Batman when he was young. “He believed in Batman longer than Santa Claus,” Charles said.
As Cynthia and Charles review the days, weeks and months before their son’s death, they spot signs that they believe show Connor was planning his suicide. For instance, when Connor moved from Cheyenne – where he lived with his mother for two years – back to Cody to finish high school, he didn’t take many personal mementos.
“You miss those signs until you look back,” Cynthia said.
He was never diagnosed with a mental illness, but he did spend time in a Colorado facility for mental health treatment after he broke up with a previous girlfriend who had moved out of the state.
Charles studies Connor in family photos.
“There’s one picture that haunts me I had of the kids,” he said. “Once he left, it just hit me. They’re at the pool. His eyes were dark. There was a darkness.”
Then again, Connor had plans for the future. He wanted to be an orthodontist. In the days leading up to his death, he worked out and drank protein shakes, with an eye on his heath. Over the winter, he worked on the house, which required demolishing older structures on the property. He labored outside in the wind and cold, enthusiastic about the family’s new home.
Then there’s Charles’ and Cynthia’s intense self-examination, the blaming.
“One of the things I always told my kids, ‘Buck up, boy, put on some duct tape,” Charles said. “Maybe if I would have been softer…”
“That’s the cycle: What if, what if,” she said.
Father and son were close.
“He was my whole world,” Charles said.
After Connor’s suicide, neighbors, friends and even strangers brought the family soup, gave hugs and shared their own experiences with a family member’s suicide.
“We look at life completely differently now,” Cynthia said. “When someone was in grief, we want to stay away for their privacy. But people coming over made me think we are going to be all right. Never again am I going to stay away.”
The family recently held an awareness event at Cody High with other families that had lost loved ones to suicide. There were booths from mental health and suicide awareness organizations. The families shared their stories.
In September, when six months will have passed since Connor’s death, Charles wants to host a memorial event in honor of his son.
“If he’s looking down, I want him to see people do remember him,” he said.