Isn’t it amazing how one thing in life prepares us for another? In one of my early books, Helping Women in Crisis, I wrote a chapter on suicide. I didn’t know much about the topic, except that a fellow I knew in college had shocked us all by killing himself over summer break. Then one day my across-the-street neighbor came to walk around the neighborhood with me. We talked about the weather and the newspaper that never came on time and the avocado trees heavy with fruit. Then she casually asked me if I would meet her little girls at the bus stop and keep them with me until their dad got home. I said, “Sure. What’s up?” She nonchalantly said, “Well, I’m going to kill myself and I don’t want my children to find me.”
I had no idea how to react. I called a counselor friend of mine and asked for help, then I called my neighbor’s husband at work. And then I did what any author worth her salt would do: I wrote an op ed piece about trying to understand suicide.
Based on that book chapter, I was invited to the annual student fair at the local Catholic High School. It featured carnival-type games, a food court, and a slate of one-hour presentations from which the students could choose: fun date ideas, unique science projects, how to make friends with your parents, a dunk-the-principal tank, and so forth. Then there was the topic requested of me: Teen Suicide. I couldn’t imagine any student choosing that!
I decided to divide whatever kids did come into a couple of groups of two or three, then have each group draw a challenging situation from the bowl. The groups would have 5 minutes to prepare, then they would act out the situation adding a suggested way to deal with it. My concern was having enough kids to make it work.
I needn’t have worried. So many kids crowded into the room that all the seats were quickly filled. Others sat on the floor, pressed up against the walls. When there was no more wall space, they stood. When there was no more standing room, kids gathered outside the windows and struggled to look in. I opened the windows so they could at least hear.
One by one. the groups did their skits, and we discussed ideas and ways to help. The last skit was about a bullied boy. The plump, awkward fellow who played the victim endured several minutes before he crumpled into a sobbing heap. “This isn’t pretend,” he said. “This is my life!” The kids rushed to his side and told him how much he added to the school. Some apologized for having laughed at him. One girl tearfully said she was sorry for being rude when he asked her to go to the dance with him. She said, “Ask me again. Please?”
What I learned that day was that there is a huge amount we don’t know and understand about each other. It’s hard to share the unattractiveness in our hearts. It’s hard to talk about things that hurt when we are certain others won’t understand. Nor even care.
One girl told the tear-streaked boy, “We didn’t care because we didn’t understand.” Her friend corrected, “We didn’t understand because we didn’t know.” A boy in the back of the room said, “Maybe we didn’t know because we didn’t want to.”
I hadn’t understood my neighbor’s pain. I would have said I didn’t understand because I didn’t know. Could it be that I didn’t know because I didn’t want to?
“People who die by suicide don’t want to die. They want to end their pain. But suicide doesn’t end the pain. It just gives it to another.”