Many Miami Herald readers couldn’t help but notice a half-page obituary notice that ran Tuesday.
The sheer size of it and its large photo made it hard to miss.
Also grabbing attention, the age. Eric Peter Verbeeck was only 17 when she died on March 6. The smiling, bespectacled teen who grew up in Key Biscayne was a month shy of her 18th birthday, which would have been April 14.
The obituary begins, as so many do, by recounting the individual’s loves and accomplishments. Eric loved the theater. She had a nearly perfect “A” record and was excited about high school graduation in June. Eric, who was on the Student Council at the MCA Academy in Coconut Grove and a 2016 honoree by the National Society of High School Scholars, had been accepted by 11 colleges with several scholarship offers. She planned to study theater and arts management.
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Eric, the obituary noted, was “pure love and joy with a unique innocence about life.”
Those who kept reading would learn that Eric committed what some might say is the most private of acts. Her parents made it public in the obit:
While Eric lived life to the fullest, he had his own personal struggle. He was in the process of transitioning to his identity as a girl. It simply became too much for him and he sought relief from his suffering. He left a beautiful letter letting his parents know that he knew he had been loved unconditionally, but he needed to move on.
In her letter, Eric left explicit instructions on how she wanted to be remembered:
I would like to be remembered as a transgender pansexual teenage girl named Hope. 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.
On Tuesday, Eric’s mother, Patricia McKay Verbeeck, agreed to speak with a Herald reporter. “Eric would have wanted to do this when he was a little older,” said Verbeeck, who continues to refer to Eric with male pronouns. “He could have called up a reporter to say, ‘I think we have to get the message out there about sexual identity issues. I want to tell my story.”
So now she’s sharing Eric’s story and what she believes would be Eric’s message to people about sexual identity.
“I would want them to know to open their hearts, minds and souls to accepting this unique situation that their son or daughter may be expressing and experiencing — because it would be the biggest gift they could give,” Verbeeck said. “It’s not about money or the next gadget, but to accept, love and embrace who your son or daughter is telling you that they are. Expand the space in your heart to support and to provide every possible avenue to them to succeed in their identity.”
The sad irony is that Verbeeck says this is precisely the kind of relationship Eric had with her parents.
“We had the most incredible relationship. About 14 or 15 months ago Eric said, ‘Mommy, can you come over to the couch and sit down with me? I need to talk to you.’ I said, ‘Of course. That’s how we always operate. You have my heart, soul and mind and we can talk about anything and everything. I will never pass judgment on you for anything.”
She thought Eric was going to tell her she was gay.
Eric didn’t fit the “typical male” stereotype, after all. She was “unbelievably sensitive,” her mother said. She cared about butterflies, flowers, how everything was set on the table. She was passionate about the arts and loved to sing. She attended the Miami City Ballet with her mom. If someone was alone, or seemed a misfit, at one of her schools — St. Christopher’s Montessori School and later MCA Academy — Eric befriended that person, even if it was as simple as a “hello” or an offer to share a bite of her lunch.
Soon after she died, Eric’s principal told her mother that her son knew every name of every student at the small MCA Academy — all 66 kids, even the first graders. What senior gives the time of day to an underclassman?
“I’d say, ‘Eric, they see a senior coming over to say ‘hello’ and that’s you making their week,” Verbeeck said.
But on this day, 14 or 15 months ago, it was Eric who needed to be recognized.
“He said, ‘I need to talk to you about my sexual identity,’ Verbeeck said.
Eric told her mother she felt trapped in the body of a boy. She was a girl, she told her.
“ ‘I feel like I’m in a box, I am in the wrong place.’ I knew some information about transgender issues. I wasn’t totally uninformed. I said, ‘Eric, what is the next step you would like to take on transitioning from a boy to a girl?’ I said, ‘I don’t want to tell you what to do or think you should do. You tell me the journey you want to take.’ ”
And so she did. Eric decided she would first start by dressing a bit more like a girl, but only undergarments at first. “He didn’t want to take the step yet on external clothing, I knew we’d head there this summer,” her mom said.
Mother and son met with “a marvelous team at the University of Miami” that specializes in transgender transitioning. Eric went for sessions with a psychologist. They met with an endocrinologist and surgeon. Eric began hormone replacement about 10 months ago. This summer they planned on laser hair removal. Eric joined support groups but didn’t have a lot of time for them because she was very much into pursuing the arts.
Verbeeck, who retired at 59 from a successful career in banking and finance to devote time to her son’s high school years, traveled with Eric up and down the East Coast to nearly all 11 liberal arts colleges that had accepted Eric. That acceptance was complete, her mother said.
“We were very open with our meetings at the colleges that he’s transitioning. These colleges were all accepting,” she said. “He was so excited about college, and graduation. He knew these were colleges he could fit in.”
Eric told her mother she had chosen a new name. After graduation in June, at age 18, Eric would become Hope.
Verbeeck started to practice the new name. She said she used “Eric Peter Verbeeck” for her obituary because that’s how people knew her.
But they were excited about the coming change.
Mother and son planned to move from Key Biscayne to South Carolina in a house they were having built. Eric, with her eye for detail, had already designed her new room — in carnation pink. She helped her mother pick everything, from the shingles to the shutters to the tubs. When some questioned why Eric would want a pink bedroom, her mother was ready with her answer: “Because he was becoming a girl.”
Mom had started to stop using male pronouns. The name Hope seemed perfect.
“I thought it was a beautiful name as it expresses emotions. You have hope in life. I told him, ‘You have a short name anyway so going from Eric to Hope is not so hard. It’s not hard to spell, easy to work with. It fits you; it fits the kind of person you are,’ ” Verbeeck said.
But as idyllic as it sounded — the acceptance at home, the welcoming colleges, the new home and the name Hope — something was not right with Eric.
“The last night of his life I lay in bed with him. We would always talk, and that last night he said again, ‘I feel trapped. This is not happening enough for me.’
“I said, ‘We’re pushing this as fast as we can. If I could pull a rabbit out of a hat and have you wake up as your ideal girl, I would do it.’ I said, ‘It will be long and hard and you’re only 17 but in the next 14 months we would do the surgery, we would do the checkups, we’re going to set the date,’” Verbeeck said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates for adolescent boys and girls have been steadily rising since 2007. In 1975, in the United States, there were 1,289 suicides among males and 305 suicides among females in the 15-19 age group. In 2015, there were 1,537 suicides among males and 524 among females aged 15-19.
No one saw Eric/Hope heading in this direction, including the psychologist she saw for weekly visits. “She never felt Eric was going to take his life,” Verbeeck said. “She had a moral obligation to let me know. She said there was never an inkling. She told me, ‘He loved you. He was excited about college.’
“As far as I know, he wasn’t bullied,” Verbeeck added. “Everybody we talked with, no one would have guessed.”
But then on that morning of March 6, Eric took her life.
“He left behind a letter, the most beautiful letter you could imagine, and it was on his pillow,” Eric’s mother said. “I got up and realized I didn’t see him in my apartment.”
The letter began: “Dear Mommy and Papa, I am so sorry to do this to you but I have killed myself by jumping off the top floor …”
Eric was always precise, Verbeeck said.
“I could no longer live my life as a lie,” her letter continued. “I’m so sorry I lied to you. 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. Please forgive me for any sins I committed.”
Verbeeck: “He didn’t have any sins. I never used the word sin with him.”
The child who loved to attend Broadway and London musical theater shows, who had a beloved dog named Rocky, who started performing at 6 and already had a favorite role — The Mad Hatter from “Alice in Wonderland” — and who “planned out trips to the tiniest detail,” was equally precise in her last wishes.
She didn’t want her parents, who were separated, to argue. She wanted her ashes split between her parents.
Patricia Verbeeck never thought she’d have to make funeral arrangements for Eric. Or Hope.
“This was an issue that he suffered with even though he was unlike many of the teens who get no support and who don’t have anybody helping them. He had everything. Both of his parents supported the transition. This was going to become an ongoing passion of him going to college, to join a group, and to get the message out,” Verbeeck said.
And that message is: “Do not slam the door on your son or your daughter if they come and express a sexual identity issue. Do not slam that door. Thank God I didn’t. He did it anyway. But what if I had slammed that door? I would not be able to live with myself. Now I have that house that is 85 percent complete. With a pink bedroom. He was on the way.”
Where to get help
Several organizations can help parents and transgender children. Among them:
The Yes Institute, 5275 Sunset Dr., Miami, Florida, 33134. Information: yesinstitute.org or 305-663-7195
The Human Rights Campaign, 1640 Rhode Island, NW, Washington, D.C., 20036. Information: http://www.hrc.org/
The Trans Youth Equality Foundation. Information: www.transyouthequality.org
PFLAG. Information: www.pflag.org