Michael George Smith, Jr.‘s body was discovered hanging from a tree in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. It was not a public lynching as many people feared. It was a suicide.
He was young. He was gay. Michael believed the only way he could silence the emotional pain and inability to make peace with his identity was to end his life.
I was a youth minister at a church when I received a call about Becca. Karli, Becca’s best friend, blamed herself for Becca’s death.
“I knew she was sad, but I didn’t know she wanted to kill herself,” Karli cried.
Becca was 17 years old when she decided she no longer could bear the dark, consuming hole of depression. Her mother found her lifeless body in the attic. Becca swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, wrapped herself in a blanket, clung to a teddy bear, and never woke up.
“I begged Becca to talk to a counselor. I told her I would go with her if she wanted me to, but she refused,” cried Karli. “She trusted me. I thought it was my job to protect her privacy. She said she wanted to die, but I didn’t think she’d actually do it.”
The death of a child or teenager confuses and devastates everyone who loves them.
Barbara Hailey was a friend of mine in high school. Her son, Jake, was killed in an automobile accident in 2010.
The pain of his loss are as real and deep as they were when she first received news about his death. In a blog post called A Beautiful Difference, Barb wrote:
What a beautiful difference a single life can make. Those words were on a sympathy card I received almost five years ago when I lost my 18 year old son in a car accident. Jake had just graduated from high school and was getting ready to leave for college when he was killed one night on a dark country road. I thought his life was just beginning, but I was wrong. I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe that this is how his story ended. He had so much more to do.
Over the years, people have asked if I am or suggested I should be “over it” or that I should be “moving on.” The truth is, I will never be “over it” and don’t want to be: “It” is my only son. As for moving on, my life is going forward, but it will never be the same. I am as happy as I can be under the circumstances. I have a beautiful and talented daughter, a great man in my life (who has the same dry wit as Jake), and I am blessed with family and friends. However, no matter what happens in the future, there will always be a empty chair at my table and an empty place in my heart. Hallmark got it right this time: What a beautiful difference a single life can make.
What do you say to someone who is mourning the death of a child or teen? Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, lost his son, Aaron, when he was 14 years old.
Kushner explained, “At some of the darkest moments in my life, some people I thought of as friends deserted me — some because they cared about me and it hurt them to see me in pain; others because I reminded them of their own vulnerability and that was more than they could handle. But real friends overcame their discomfort and came to sit with me. If they had not words to make me feel better, they sat in silence (much better than saying, “You’ll get over it” or “It’s not so bad; others have it worse”) and I loved them for it.”
So, what don’t you say to someone grieving the loss of a child or teenager? Laurie Burrows Grad offers this list of the worst platitudes and insensitive clichés to those in mourning:
He’s in a better place. (A better place would be beside me now.) Everything happens for a reason. (There is no rhyme or reason for this kind of loss.) Time heals all wounds. (Time doesn’t heal all wounds, although healing takes time.) Try not to cry. He wouldn’t want you to cry. (He’d be bawling his eyes out.) It is time to put this behind you. (There is no timetable for grief.) If you think this is bad, let me tell you about the time … (No comparisons, please.) I know how you feel. (Do we ever really know how someone feels?) Let me tell you about my own loss, which is similar to yours. (Please just listen and acknowledge my loss.) You’ll get through it. Be strong. (This tells people to hold on to their grief and not let it out.)
Grad suggests these kind words to comfort someone in times of grief:
I am sorry for your loss. I love you. I wish I had the right words to comfort you. Just know that I care. I don’t know how you feel, but I am available to help in any way I can. How can I help or support you? My favorite memory of your loved one is … How are you doing? Listen. Be present.
How can parents, teachers, and adults help children and teens cope with death?
Jeff Yalden, youth motivational speaker, offers these suggestions to parents, youth leaders, teachers, and to anyone who mourns the loss of a child or teen.
Here are suggested responses: Be physically present, show warmth and compassion, be patient, allow the teen to talk about it, listen carefully, acknowledge feelings, show an understanding of what happened, give reasonable reassurance and follow through on promises and agreements made. Teens will try to make some sense of what happened and it is important for them to come to a resolution about the event. Carefully challenge any negative conclusions and reinforce the positive ones.
The following behaviors can be harmful: Focus on self instead of the teen, deny the seriousness of the event, shrug off the teen’s feelings, tell the teen not to think or talk about it, make assumptions, overreact with anxiety or anger, withdraw from the teen, or make major changes in the normal household activities and routines.
What do you do when a child or teen tells you they’re thinking about taking their own lives?
In conversations with children and teens, I ensure confidentiality except under the following circumstances:
* If a child or teen wants to hurt themselves
I don’t share their secrets with everyone. I share appropriate information to the appropriate people at the appropriate time. When children or teens reveal fearful thoughts or dangerous behaviors within a cushion of boundaries, they know they have a safe place to land. They understand they do not have to face challenges alone.
If a child or teen talks to you about taking their lives, it is a desperate cry for help. Use these tips to guide the conversation and steer them to appropriate channels that can provide support:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential support, prevention, and crisis resources for loved ones and professionals.
- Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to talk to a professional. Find the nearest Suicide Prevention Lifeline Crisis Center on National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website. Calls are routed to the Lifeline center closest to your area code that can provide local resources.
- Pay attention to suicide warnings and contact a professional immediately if you hear a child or teen say:
- “Nothing matters.”
- “I wonder if anyone would come to my funeral?”
- “Sometimes I wish I could just go to sleep and never wake up.”
- “Everyone would be better off without me.”
- “You won’t have to worry about me much longer.”
- Engage in conversations. Never discount their feelings. Reassure a child or teen that you respect their feelings.
- Seek professional treatment and counseling to support your child or teen as soon as possible. Nine in 10 teens who commit suicide were previously diagnosed with a mental health issue such as depression or anxiety disorders.
- Find a support group for the child or teen where he or she can talk about their feelings in a safe environment.
Many individuals such as teachers, pastors, mental health workers, etc., have a legal responsibility to report incidents when they believe a child or teen is unsafe and may potentially end their own lives. Contact your employer or program director for specific mandated reporting guidelines.
Suicide feels like an option when there are no options left. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline suggests these five steps:
#BeThe1To Ask. Ask the tough question. When somebody you know is in emotional pain, be direct. Ask, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”
#BeThe1To Keep Them Safe. Is a friend or loved one thinking about suicide? Ask, “Do you have a plan?” Find out if they’ve thought about how they would end their lives.
#BeThe1To Be There. It is never easy to hear someone you care about describe their pain or hopelessness. Listen with compassion without dismissing or judging their words.
#BeThe1To Help Them Connect. Help the child or teen connect to a support system. Work together to surround them with a network that includes family, friends, school administrators, teachers, counselors, doctors, clergy, coaches, or therapists so they have someone to reach out to for help.
When a child or teen dies – from suicide, accident, or illness – it emotionally shatters everyone close to them.
Acknowledge your own grief. Be sad. Remember their stories. Allow the best part of them to become the best part of you. Share their story with someone who desperately needs to know that the young person’s life mattered.
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