“Mama, I’m so sad for her.” My sensitive daughter, as awkward socially as I was at her age, has a big heart. She has had friends battling big demons, problems that I hope my children and your children will never have to deal with, and comes to me with questions on how to help them. She wants to know why her friends who are so sad, can’t see that she wants to help them, to be a shoulder to cry on, and a listening ear, and can’t understand why that is not enough to fix their problems. These friends thankfully have loving parents who are getting them the help they need. My children have been lucky enough to grow up with plenty, a mother and father who love them and each other fiercely, a family bonded across miles by real affection and goofy humor with both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and innumerable cousins, friends who are steady and enough of a tribe to create a blanket of security. But even having all of the above doesn’t make you immune to trouble. Having to confront the turmoil of the teenage years so early definitely feels like summer is over.
It’s September, which for most people bring to mind crisp, cool evenings and pumpkin-flavored everything (to my husband’s chagrin). Fall is my favorite time of year and the smell of school supplies makes my nerd-heart want to dance. But September also stands for something very real and very critical.
September 1 kicks off National Suicide Prevention Month. I remember the first (and unfortunately, not the last) time suicide touched my life. I was 13, the same age as my daughter now, and a boy from my school whom I did not know had taken his life over the weekend. I saw girls crying in the hallways. Many of them talked about the last time they had seen him, their last words with him, or memories they had shared. The question overwhelmingly asked is the same question my daughter asks me now. Why?
For those who have never felt this way, it can seem incomprehensible. Many of my veterans struggle with this, as well as many first-responders, but we can’t forget that even kids can feel this way, and don’t have the maturity to think through the very real consequences to actions that can be heart-breaking.
I tried to explain to my daughter what I think it is like when you are so depressed and full of despair that you think life cannot get better. I told her that even though her friends know that she cares deeply for them, it is like being at the bottom of a hole so deep and so dark, that even though you know the way out is up there, it feels so far away that you cannot even see the light, or if you do, you’re not sure if it’s just your eyes playing tricks on you. And you feel so tired that trying to get to that light is hard, and curling up in yourself feels so much easier.
She said hopefully, “I could climb down in the hole and pull her out. I’m pretty strong, even though everyone calls me skinny.”
Man, I love this kid so much. So I hugged her, even though at 13, she’s not always into hugs no matter how much I tell her everyone needs a minimum number of hugs a day to stay healthy. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-hug-a-day-keeps-the-doctor-away/
And I told her that being a kid, it would be too hard to climb down in that hole, because it’s her friend’s pit, and even adults sometimes can’t climb down there, but that she could keep trying to extend a hand to her friend by being the best friend to her she can be and telling her that she cares about her so she knows which direction is out, but that no matter how far down she reaches into that deep, dark hole, her friend has to climb up far enough to grab on, because no one else can climb those walls but the person who is at the bottom of the hole. And hopefully with help, they can do that, but it takes work and time, and never giving up. And being with someone who is trying to do that can make you feel helpless.
We aren’t helpless though. What we can do is to recognize that those we love may be at the bottom of that pit of despair even if it doesn’t seem like it to everyone else. We can shine a light to show the way out, share words of encouragement and provide nourishment for the soul with kind words for the hard journey, but no one can travel that road for them, though we can walk with them. It is a hard thing to say to a child of 13, and a harder one for an adult who sees others suffering to know, but the hardest task is figuring out who is in need and trying to help them before it is too late.
I’m sharing this because you can never know what lies in the heart of another. Please be kind to one another. Be that light for someone. We never know what demons others are battling, with bright smiles and shining eyes, Facebook posts filled with kids starting school and Labor Day plans. It starts with awareness. And a good heart, whether you are a confused 13-year-old with skinny arms or a mom who wishes she were better at these kinds of talks.