It’s been a year since theater actors Nonie and Shamaine Buencamino lost their youngest child, Julia. At 15, she took her own life, and since then, life for the Buencaminos has never been the same.
Like most teenagers, Julia posted her artworks on Instagram and her thoughts on Tumblr, a microblogging site where she also published her final note, saying: “If you’re reading this then I haven’t deleted it from my queue which means I’ve succeeded in killing myself… My name is Julia Louise Buencamino and my gender neutral name was Lee. I was 15, assigned female at birth, and I identified as nonbinary (surprise mom and dad, I’ve known I was trans since I was 13).”
Shamaine admits it’s still too painful for her to read Julia’s blog “where she talked a lot about depression, apparently.” But she believes Julia committed suicide “not because of her gender choice; it’s not about that, because she said it already, so it was something else.”
So why did Julia Buencamino kill herself?
“It was such a tragic event for us,” Nonie explains. “We decided to find answers through a process called ‘psychological autopsy’ instead of just wondering and wondering what happened.”
After Julia’s wake, Shamaine researched on “drama therapy” and, upon the recommendation of her former psychology teacher at University of the Philippines, sought counseling from Dr. Violeta “Bolet” Bautista, a leading psychologist.
They brought Julia’s diary and journals to Dr. Bautista, and underwent counseling, initially as a couple, and later on as a family with their three other children.
“We found out that Julia had borderline personality disorder,” Nonie explains. “It’s like an umbrella term for other possible conditions such as bipolar disorder and depression.”
“She should have been chemically treated,” Shamaine adds. “The ugly thing about depression is that hiding one’s feelings and not asking for help are part of the symptoms.”
The family has since moved out of the house in Quezon City where Julia died, and are now staying “in a nice place in Bulacan.” The couple carried on with their acting gigs, but only recently opened up about being “suicide survivors,” with the intention to help other teenagers manage depression.
While grieving, Shamaine turned to theater as therapy. Just a few days after Julia’s wake, she went on stage in the play “33 Variations.” She played Katherine, an ailing musicologist who has a complicated relationship with her daughter.
“Theater has always been a form of therapy for me. I guess sabay sabay na ’yung iyak ko sa stage for the role and for Julia,” she says, laughing.
For Nonie, doing theater was also a breather, and now a tool for an advocacy: “We want to make something meaningful out of this experience, and we hope that, we being actors, people would listen.”
“I’ve always wanted to reach teenagers because I wasn’t able to reach mine,” Shamaine shares. “Grief tired me and I didn’t have the energy, but friends pushed me. It is time.”
It took one heartfelt Facebook post from Shamaine to round up friends for a campaign called the Julia Buencamino Project.
In Shamaine’s FB post on Oct. 23, 2015, she specifically appealed to teenagers: “Ask for help from your parents! We cannot read your minds. But know that as parents we will do everything in our capacity to help, and we won’t love you less.”
Four friends read the post and signed up as volunteers: producer Ambie Burac, choreographer-dancer Edna Vida, artist Girlie Aragon and musician Edru Abraham of the Kontra GaPi group. With the couple, they launched the Julia Buencamino Project at the Community of Learners Foundation (COLF), a special education school in San Juan which Julia attended.
After a Mass, a series of poetry readings and tributes, they introduced “Julia’s Bench,” a safe zone where teenagers can ask help from their peers.
Julia’s Bench is Burac’s idea, explains Shamaine. The first is a white wooden bench with decal stickers featuring Julia’s drawings, mostly colorful portraits of girls with bright eyes and big hair.
It’s a spin-off of a US project in which schools installed a bench where kids could sit if they needed a playmate. “They were able to limit the time kids roamed around on their own; in the Philippines, it is an indicator that kids need someone to talk to.”
With this suicide prevention advocacy, the Buencaminos are hoping to reach out to teenagers who are suffering in the dark like Julia did.
“Our psychologist said the younger generation now are more prone to suicide because of social media,” Shamaine explains. “They don’t address issues; they just sweep it under the rug and get through it by going online; that’s why we gave a no-gadgets rule while on Julia’s Bench.”
Nonie was shocked to find out that Julia had a secret life, and that she was hiding her pain from her family who was with her every day.
“She had cuts on her legs, and when I asked about it, she said, ‘Daddy, why would I do that?’ And I took it as truth,” Nonie says.
Shamaine considered her relationship with Julia a close one, but she had no idea her daughter was dealing with an “invisible war.”
“Julia was very quick to tell us that she had a stomach ache, a headache, every ache!” she shares. “I thought she told us everything, but teenagers don’t tell their parents everything, in the same way we didn’t tell our parents our kalokohan.”
Shamaine found out that Julia was able to talk four of her friends out of committing suicide (one was about to jump from the attic). The kids and their parents approached Shamaine during the wake, and thanked her for what Julia did.
Take children seriously
Learning from their experience, Shamaine asks parents to take their children seriously: “I would see Julia sad and moody and thought it was just teenage angst. Even her friends thought the same when Julia told them she didn’t think she’d live past 17.”
The Buencaminos grieved in private for a year, but are now healing by focusing on something positive.
“We’re not psychiatrists or psychologists, but we are parents. Maybe we can share our experience as parents and artists to encourage children to trust their parents—even if they fight a lot,” Nonie says, laughing.
They are also campaigning for psychiatric help to be more affordable and accessible in the Philippines, where therapy is expensive and specialists are few.
“It took us two months to secure a schedule with the doctor!” Shamaine says. “I know it’s expensive, but if you think your child needs it, bring him or her to a doctor even just once; it’s one of my regrets. Kids might be more open to a professional doctor.”
We went around the COLF gym where Julia’s drawings and writings were on display for the launch, and noted her promising creativity and impressive vocabulary.
“Sayang, ’no?” Nonie says. “Grief still comes in waves and cycles, but we hope that coming out with this project would lessen the stigma and the hush-hush.”