The mother of a transgender teen from Florida who died by suicide this month is hoping to raise awareness by sharing her child’s story and encouraging parents to listen to their children.
With her high school graduation just around the corner in June, Eric Peter Verbeeck—who was born a male—was looking forward to beginning anew. She had already taken her first steps toward transitioning into a woman named Hope, first undergoing hormone treatments and by wearing female undergarments. One of the biggest steps for the teenager occurred almost a year ago when she came out to her mother, Patricia McKay Verbeeck, about her inner struggle of living in a body that didn’t reflect her identity as a female.
“He told me he needed to talk about his identity,” Verbeeck, who lives in Miami, tells PEOPLE of the heart-to-heart with her child. “He told me he was transgender, that he was a girl trapped in a boy’s body. He said, ‘This is the wrong body for me.’ “
With the full support of her mother on the journey forward, Eric began hormone treatments to grow breasts and started incorporating more pink into her life, such as making it the color of her watch and phone case. Yet, Eric didn’t want to wear women’s clothing in public just yet, opting to wait until she and Verbeeck moved to South Carolina after graduation for a fresh start.
Then, on the morning of Tuesday, March 6, Verbeeck awoke to discover Eric was nowhere to be found. On the pillow in Eric’s room, Verbeeck found two letters, one addressed to her and the second to Eric’s father, Peter.
“I’m so sorry to do this to you,” the letter to Verbeeck began, “but I have killed myself by jumping off the top floor…”
“As soon as I read that first line,” Verbeeck recalls. “I ran out to my balcony, which is three stories up, and looked down and saw a couple of police officers and yellow tape.”
For more than two hours, officers at the scene wouldn’t confirm to her that it was indeed Eric, Verbeeck says. It wasn’t until she phoned her ex-husband, Peter, who went down to the police station, that she learned the identity of the body.
“I was hoping the whole time that Eric backed out of it,” she says of her child, who was a passionate lover of performing arts and who had already been accepted into 11 colleges. “But a short time later I got a hysterical call from my ex-husband, and he said it was Eric outside of the building.”
In her letters, first published in an obituary in the Miami Herald, Eric wrote in intimate detail about the pain and hopelessness she felt, even while having the support of her family.
“I felt that I could no longer live my life as a lie, living as a boy instead of the girl I knew I could become,” read the letter to her mother. “I was losing hope in the world and could not see my way out of the wrong body so I decided it was time for my life to end as a whole. Please forgive me for lying to you and any and all sins that I have committed.”
Eric requested to be remembered by the name she had chosen for herself.
“I would like to be remembered as a transgender pansexual teenage girl named Hope,” she continued. “Being transgender is my gender identity. My sexual orientation, or sexual identity, is being pansexual, meaning that I do not care about what the person is; I care about who they are. Sexual orientation is who you go to bed with and gender identity is who you go to bed as.”
Verbeeck—who uses he/she and Eric/Hope interchangeably when describing her child—says she still finds it hard to believe Eric won’t be able to fulfill the great things she was destined to do.
“I still read the letter and just keep thinking I’m going to wake up tomorrow and find out this is all just a big bad dream,” she says. “I visualize him walking out of my apartment, down the hallway, to the elevators, punching the button that says ’12’, stepping out, and going to the exterior landing and somehow getting up, and falling over. It’s… it’s almost impossible for me to imagine.”
Verbeeck still plans to move into the South Carolina house that she and Eric designed together. Though she says it will be difficult, she says Eric’s presence will be felt all over—from the shingles and faucets to his pink-walled bedroom and bathroom—and this will help to bring her comfort.
For other parents who have a child that is expressing issues or distress about their gender identity, Verbeeck says the first thing to do is, simply, listen. Let the children do the talking, she says, and appreciate them for it.
“Love your son or daughter for who they are expressing, and who they are,” she says. “Open your heart wider than you thought you were going to have to. Open it wider and do not pass judgment. Let them lead the journey.”
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Line at 1-800-273-8255