Yesterday morning I was working at the office when the email came.
The brief message began with these words...
It is with a sad heart that [we inform you that] one of our own students took their life last night.
My jaw dropped. My heart broke. My mind immediately went to the parents, to the immediate family.
Who is this child? How old? Do we know them? Do they have siblings? What happened? Why?!?
All these questions raced through my mind as I began to pray.
In a wise and compassionate move, after calling the children together to inform them of the sad news, the school suspended all normal activities to support the hurting and grieving. The leadership that was shown by the administration on this dark day was superb and nothing short of Christ-like. More on this later.
Upon hearing the news, my wife Holly checked out our kids early from school as well as a couple of their friends.
The child who died was an older student, a few years older than my kids. They both knew who she was, and my daughter Ashlyn told us last night how the young lady had gone out of her way to warmly welcome her to the school on her first days there. But my kids weren't close to her.
She was active in school, in cheer and in track—friendly, outgoing and seemed happy.
When I got home, I talked with my kids and one of their friends about what happened.
I listened to each of them tell their experience at school that day—what was said, how they felt, what happened in their classes, how others responded, etc.
I talked with them about the tragedy of suicide, how we crave answers that we'll never get, how we often struggle to relate to those who reach such a dark place that they consider killing themselves as the best solution. I emphasized the need for love and compassion and being careful with their words in times like these.
Last night, the school held an assembly for all who wished to attend to remember the young lady we missed and to lean on one another and to worship GOD together. It was a powerful, sad time—but necessary, as we all begin the process of healing and moving forward.
Afterward, I learned that a fellow student had thought of, initiated and planned the entire event. It was powerful. I thanked him for following through with what he felt GOD put on his heart to do.
Advice from Someone Who's Been There
After praying together and singing praises to GOD, a local parent, Rebecca Ellis, spoke. Rebecca lost her son Cole to suicide in 2009.
Rebecca spoke directly and bluntly about her experience and heartbreak and the challenges that lie ahead for these kids, their families and especially the family of the young lady who died.
The pain never goes away [for the parents]. It's been six-and-a-half years since I lost my son. He's the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning. He's the last thought on my mind when I go to sleep at night.
I wish I had a recording of Rebecca's powerful message. There were so many good truths and wisdom from a heart that has obviously been so deeply scarred by the most bitter pain.
This is the worst pain that a parent can suffer. I wish I could take their pain away. I wouldn't wish what I have felt on anybody, not even my worst enemy.
Here are some key teachings I recall from Rebecca's message:
- Be there for each other. Serve as a support system for each other. Lean on each other for help and strength.
Know GOD's Word and claim it as truth.
- You must choose to get up. You must choose to move forward and not give up. When Cole killed himself, a top concern of Rebecca and her husband Mike was whether other kids would follow in Cole's footsteps with their own destructive choices. You must choose to heal by walking through the journey of grief, not hiding or running to destructive temporary fixes that merely numb the pain. She specifically discouraged turning to alcohol, drugs or reckless driving.
Get up each morning. Don't lay in the bed. Pull the covers off and put your feet on the floor. Stand up and put one foot in front of the other. That's what you must do. Just get up and move. You've got to move forward.
- There is no shame in seeking counseling. Do not belittle someone who asks for help. Asking for counseling is actually a sign of maturity and strength.
- Find a counselor who is helping you. If you try one and their style doesn't align with your needs, speak up. People grieve in different ways and different styles of therapy are helpful for people.
- When people suffer tragedy, including believers, be careful about quoting Scripture to them. Rebecca emphasized that she had a strong faith then, but it took a while before she could pray and before she was receptive to hearing GOD's Word again. Rebecca acknowledged people were only trying to help, but immediately after such a tragedy, she said people need your presence and your love and compassion most. At that time, they don't need to hear that GOD works all things together for good to those who love Him (Rom. 8:28). They are crushed, heart-broken. Give them time.
Early on, they may not be able to pray. We weren't, that's why we absolutely needed others praying for us. And they did. And this family needs you praying for them now.
- People, especially adults, often didn't / don't know how to respond to the grieving family. Should I smile? Give them a hug? Nod and tell them we're praying for them? Ignore the subject so as to avoid inflicting more pain? Mention the child or not? Parents need to hear the good memories and stories others shared with their loved one. It helps the healing process.
Rebecca told of one friend of Cole's who had an audio recording of him but was uncomfortable approaching her about it, not knowing if it would be helpful or painful. So the kid's mother approached Rebecca and kindly asked. Rebecca said she immediately replied enthusiastically, "Oh yes, I need to hear it NOW. Play it for me!" My heart felt a special ache at the tone in Rebecca's voice as she no doubt relived that moment in her mind while recounting it.
This piece of advice—to not shy away from sharing memories of the deceased loved one—was especially helpful for me. I have wondered this very thing and felt awkward and helpless in situations like this before, paralyzed by not knowing whether to speak up or be quiet.
- Remember the teachers. They have a hard time too.
Some of Cole's teachers had a really hard time with it. Some would break down every class and start crying. The empty desk where the child sat is painful and you need to be prepared for that.
Exemplary Leadership in Crises
As I alluded earlier, the school administration handled the situation admirably.
They communicated the sad news first to the faculty and staff, then gathered the students and informed them—high schoolers in one location and middle schoolers in another.
They suspended all normal school activities so that everyone could mourn and comfort one another, knowing it was both right and necessary.
They informed the parents promptly and allowed students to check out of school.
The teachers met with their classes and prayed with them, answered questions and allowed students to share their thoughts and feelings and pray together.
And then, they organized the memorial assembly for the same evening.
The sincere love, compassion, decisive action and care shown on this day by the school leadership was fantastic. I am very thankful for their response.
To Those Who've Lost Loved Ones to Suicide
In the wake of this tragedy, I've felt helpless.
I keep thinking:
"What can I do to help or somehow make a small difference?"
As I close this post, I want to offer the following thoughts that I would share with the family of the young girl from our school.
If you've lost a friend or loved one to the tragedy of suicide, perhaps you also may find some small blessing or comfort in these thoughts.
As far as I know, we've never met. I have not walked in your shoes nor do I know the pain you must feel. Perhaps you can't feel at all right now.
I didn't know your daughter / sister, though I recognized her face last night on the screen. I remember her face from the football games.
Though my kids are several years younger, I want you to know that your daughter made a positive impact on my daughter, showing kindness in helping her get acclimated to the new school on her first day. For that, I'm thankful.
What do I say in times like these? What words can I say that will in any way lighten your load or ease any amount of grief in your hearts? Though all the world strain with our full might, we can muster no strength to take your pain away.
So I won't try to.
I just want you to know that I care, that I'm so sad that this tragedy has come upon you, that I am praying for you—for healing for your hearts and that you will find peace, all while recognizing that you may never feel whole again on this side of eternity. May GOD surround you with shoulders to lean upon, hands to hold, hearts and ears to listen, and people willing to just be present. If I can be one of those people, I will gladly choose to.
After listening to Rebecca Ellis, I now better understand the difficulty of the journey you face ahead. I pray that GOD will give you the strength and courage to get up and put one foot in front of the other, to somehow press on. I pray that He will quickly bring about blessings from this tragedy. I pray that He will put the person(s) in your path and good memories to your mind that you need in exactly the moment you need them.
While we are powerless to ease your anguish, know that there are hundreds if not thousands of people who, just as Job's friends sat beside him in silence, are sitting with you in spirit. No doubt there are those sitting with you physically as well. We just want to "weep with those who weep."
We will not forget you. We love you. You are not alone.
In deepest sympathy,