Two 11-year-old schoolgirls who took their own lives within months of each other were in love and struggling with their sexuality while being bullied, their parents suspect.
Madissen Paulsen shot herself with her dad’s gun in December 2017 and just two months later her best friend Sophia Leaf-Abrahamson was found hanged at her family home.
Their parents revealed that the pair called each other “girlfriend” in front of others and were both struggling with their sexuality and being bullied at school.
Madissen’s father Shane, 46, and Sophia’s mother Angela, 33, are speaking for the first time together about their daughters’ tragic deaths.
Both believe that sixth graders Madissen and Sophia, from the US city of Devils Lake, North Dakota, might have been in love with one another.
Angela, a retail consultant, said: “They met when they both started middle school in the fifth grade and became instant best friends.
“They were both artistic. They loved music and art and they were even going to make a comic book together.
“I think Sophia was struggling with her sexuality.
“She asked me: ‘Mum, what do you think about lesbians or men who are gay?’
“I said: ‘I don’t think any of them are any different from us’. I accept it, we’re all humans, it doesn’t matter who we love.
“If she and Madissen had those feelings, I would never have had any issues with it.
“It’s part of life and I love my daughter one way or the other, no matter what.”
Shane added: “Madissen, Sophia and I were in a Burger King once and Madissen said: ‘By the way, this is my girlfriend’, pointing at Sophia.
“I laughed. I said: ‘Well, you guys aren’t sleeping in the same room tonight’.
“They were 11, how do they even know what love is yet? They were best friends.
“My daughter questioned her identity, but it didn’t matter to me if she was in love with girls or in love with boys.”
Truck driver Shane, who raised his only daughter as a single dad after her mother, Ravanah Wolf, died when she was still a baby, found her body in the morning of December 2, 2017.
He said: “I woke up to the gunshot at seven o’clock in the morning. I rushed into the room. I knew she was dead right away.”
Madissen had used a gun that Shane had bought a week earlier.
He said: “I bought that gun one week prior because there had been some shootings at truck stops.
“I kept it in my truck and when I was home, I locked it in my cabinet. I hung my keys where I always hung my keys.
“Madissen snuck it out while I was asleep.”
Shane had no idea that his daughter was even unhappy, let alone considering suicide.
He said: “She was clean, fed, healthy and great at school.
“She was smart. She loved to draw. She was way ahead of the curve as far as art was concerned.
“She played the clarinet, she was mindful and polite, her teachers said she would help other students with their work.”
After Madissen’s death, Shane learned she had been bullied at Central Middle School in Devils Lake but doesn’t know exactly what happened.
He was horrified when Madissen’s friends told him she had attempted suicide before and that he had mistaken the marks for a lovebite.
He said: “She didn’t confide in me, she confided in other children.
“One day after her suicide, I had two six-year-old boys come to my door and ask me about her death.
“One of them said: ‘Well, two weeks ago she tried to hang herself’.
“It dawned on me that I had seen bruises on her neck but I suspected it was a hickey. I thought: ‘It better not be a hickey’.
“If some of her friends had spoken to me, her death may have been prevented.
“I would never have had the gun if I had known this might happen and I would have got her help right away.”
Shane destroyed the gun that his daughter used to end her life because he couldn’t bear to have the weapon in his home anymore.
After Madissen’s death, Sophia was devastated and she began seeing the school counsellor.
Angela, who has an eight-year-old son, Riley, said: “Madissen didn’t seem the sort of girl to take her own life.
“It was a shock. When she and Sophia were together, they were always laughing and joking.
“I know Sophia was scared to go back to school afterwards.
“She knew her best friend wasn’t going to be there anymore.
“She didn’t want to hear what people would say about Madissen.
“After Madissen’s passing, I got Sophia to speak to the school counsellor.
“She was diagnosed with disruptive mood dysregulation disorder.”
DMDD is a childhood condition of extreme irritability, anger, and intense temper outbursts. It is usually treated with medication and therapy.
Angela said: “They recommended that Sophia started counselling on a daily basis and they were looking at putting her on medication.
“In counselling sessions, she was opening up about things, she did briefly talk about being bullied.
“I had gone to Central Middle School too and I had been bullied there.
“But when I was a child, bullying stopped at school.
“With social media today, I think that bullying can go further than that.”
On February 19, 2018, Angela left Sophia with her mother, Rita, 62, who works in a casino, and her brother Steven, 39, an auto body shop worker.
At the time, Angela was a 911 dispatcher and was due in for the night shift.
She said: “When I left her she was laughing, watching YouTube and her television shows.
“I gave her a hug and said I’d see her at midnight.”
Later that night at work, Angela heard the harrowing 911 call Steve made after he went into the basement and found Sophia hanged.
She listened in horror as dispatchers arranged the emergency response for her daughter’s suicide.
She said: “The call didn’t come through to me but I heard everything paged over for her.
“I left work and arrived home as the ambulance got there.
“As soon as we got to the hospital, I saw one of the ambulance personnel crying in an ambulance bay.
“I knew to expect the worse.”
Sophia was flown from St Alexius hospital in Bismarck to Sanford Medical Centre in Fargo as medics desperately tried to save the youngster’s life.
But later that evening medics broke the news to Angela and Sophia’s father, Thomas Abrahamson, 34, that their daughter was not going to make it.
She said: “They explained that the blood vessels to her brain were damaged, she wasn’t getting any blood to her brain and it had swollen so much they couldn’t make out the different parts.”
The next day, on February 20 last year, the couple, who separated before Sophia was born, made the difficult decision to turn her life support machine off.
A year on from Madissen’s death, both Shane and Angela are trying to understand what led their daughters to take their own lives at such a young age.
Angela said: “I want parents to know that they need to cherish their children.
“You never know when they are going to be gone.
“I want people to understand Sophia’s perspective and I want them to see her for the person she was, not what she did.
“She had an outgoing personality, she was friendly and kind.
“She liked to skateboard, snowboard and ice skate. She loved drawing and painting.
“She was a unique girl, her spirit was bright.”
Shane added: “I know that they are in heaven together now.”
There are a number of helplines available for young people.
Please contact: Papyrus, Prevention for Young Suicide: 0800 068 41 41
Samaritans: 116 123
Childline: 0800 1111
Or text YM to YoungMinds Crisis Messenger 85258.