Several years ago, a friend’s daughter lost a close high school friend to suicide. My friend asked me if I had anything to send them as a source of comfort and understanding. She knew that I have lived experience with suicide: My father took his own life in 2008, and I suffered terrifying suicidal ideation during my journey through and ultimate recovery from a major depression in 2013. Having just learned this morning of another of these unbearable tragedies, I decided to publish here an edited version of what I wrote for my friend and her daughter:
Your beloved’s time on Earth was much shorter than everyone thought it would be. It is tragic that he was not meant to spend his whole life with us. While he was here, he blessed you with his grace, love, and mastery of his beautiful crafts.
His decision to keep his mental health condition to himself may have been born of his strength, resilience, and selfless resolve not to burden those he loved. The contemptible social prejudice and shame that surround mental health conditions may have contributed to his reluctance to reveal this fundamental part of who he was.
He was not alone. Major depression and related conditions take the lives of tens of thousands of teens and young adults in our country every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for our teenagers. Every day, there are over 3,700 suicide attempts by young people in grades nine through twelve. Many of them do not talk about or seek treatment for their mental health conditions. Yet, I have tremendous hope that the stigma, fear, and discrimination around these illnesses will crumble as we fight them with the hammer of patience and the chisel of faith.
Although shame and guilt will sometimes feel overwhelming, your loved one’s death was no one’s fault; certainly not his. He was courageously battling a health condition that can’t be seen, measured, or operated on. Taking his own life may have seemed to be the only way out. His death was not a manifestation of some parenting or friendship issue. You all loved and guided him, just as he did you.
You will pass by places and see people who will remind you of him. That will feel unbearable too. You will drive by the athletic fields across which he raced, bringing joy and pride to you, as he worked and played with the lightest heart and most focused mind he could muster. And it will feel like too much to bear.
As time goes on, these visceral, gut-wrenching memories will gradually become a little less raw and agonizing. Open wounds will knit together to some extent, although the scars they leave will remain. Let them be a deep reminder that we have a finite time here. Let’s make the most of each blessed day, as he wants us to do.
Right now, his family and closest friends need a safe, trusting place where they can eventually talk and cry about their overwhelming grief, guilt, and anger. They will need a SEAL team that provides Support, Energy, Accountability, and Love. You will be an integral member of that Team. You and others will carry them on your strong shoulders. You won’t leave any of them behind. And the others on the Team will carry you when you can’t find the strength and falter for a time.
Do your best not to yield to the well-intentioned urge to “encourage” his family and loved ones, or to give them reasons why they should feel better or see silver linings. There may not be any words that would help right now. There may come a time for that later. We can’t all know what it is like to plunge into the abyss of despair. May we never know that agony first-hand. We need to listen, to listen, and to listen some more. There aren’t enough tender hugs, but give all that you have.
We parents feel a deep-seated need to shield our kids from massive events like this. Sadly, they are a part of life. We are not helping our loved ones to build resilience if we try to minimize or hide tragedies from them. The most difficult, yet ultimately healthiest, path leads straight through the middle of the tragedy. It is our gift to our children not to shelter them too much. When they confront life’s inevitable sorrow, we will wrap them in accepting arms to which they can return for comfort.
You will also need to do your best to absorb with grace and patience the anger that people within the radius of this tragedy’s blast zone may direct at you. They aren’t mad at you. They are enraged at what this vale of tears has subjected them to. They may also be secretly angry and resentful at him for leaving them. Guilt can scald as well.
Remember, the selfless output of emotional energy you give those in the inner circle of tragedy will drain you at times too. Lean into your own SEAL team. Take care of yourself. Nurture your strength so that it is there when it is needed. Exercise every day.
We may also learn from this tragedy in unlooked-for ways: True strength, honesty, and resilience are not found in the exertion of control in the vain hope that one can avoid life’s inevitable pain. These important virtues grow when we address that hurt day by day as best we can. Let’s all keep doing what we can to work in the service of those people whom we hold dear. It is the highest calling we have.
Thanks Cam for this deeply felt and lovingly articulated piece.