Tackling the Tough Stuff

24 Mar

First – PLEASE take the time to read this article by Adam Strassberg, M.D. about teen suicide in his community AND good parenting.

This is my commentary about both Adam’s article and my experience, first as a high school counselor and coach and now as the parent of a teenager.

Way back in the mid-80’s, on my first day ever as a young high school counselor (as in not that much older than the students and much younger than the majority of the staff) at a local Catholic girls high school, I walked into a flurry of shock, tears and grief. Over the Labor Day weekend, a young girl who was a super star senior at my new school the year before and had just begun her studies at the University of Michigan, had committed suicide.

Although I had taken a couple of classes on death and dying and had experienced the heartache of losing my father when I was eight (though not by his own hand); and although I was fairly comfortable talking to people about losing loved ones, nothing could quite prepare me for the overwhelming grief of an entire school and community.

One by one, students – and the occasional teacher – walked into my office to share their angst and sadness. I realized quickly that almost everyone related this young girl’s death and troubles to their own. Some wondered if they could have prevented it, a few questioned if they could be heading down the same path. Many just wanted a shoulder to cry on. More than a few claimed they were her best friend and never saw this coming and a handful threw their anger and confusion onto the girl herself.

My takeaway from the hardest way ever to start a new job was to make sure I was asking the right questions, observing the answers carefully and if needed, intervene or refer appropriately. It also paved my way for other untimely deaths, suicides and attempts, as I continued my teaching and coaching career for the next 25 years.

For kids – and adults as well, it is imperative to understand that someone else’s suicide is never the fault of anyone left behind. So many of us, who have experienced a close friend or family member’s suicide believe ‘If I had only….’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. When a person is troubled, depressed, ill or desperate enough to end their life, it isn’t about the rest of us. What a difficult thing to wrap your head around, right?

And of course, there is another side of this coin when a kid is teased or bullied – in person or through the cyber network, but again we have to hope that parental intervention is in place to help a child through that situation. As always, I will defend the fact that I still monitor my son’s online activity by occasionally checking texts, Twitter and Snapchat and the like. (You can read more about that here.)   Not only do I get to see what he’s saying or repeating to others, but I also keep a pulse on what’s being said to him. It might seem like a double-edged sword to many parents, but it helps me have a deeper sense of what’s happening in his increasingly complex world.

As a parent, it is clear to me that talk of death, depression and suicide must come early – with calm and security and without trepidation. The number one thing I believe any parent can and must begin with is to reassure our kids that there is NOTHING that they cannot come to us with and NOTHING we won’t help them get through. NOTHING.

And those reassurances should be so quick and constant – and should start when our kids are little and be consistent as they grow.

I recently had the opportunity to reiterate this to Ben…

In Ben’s ninth grade English class, they are studying Romeo and Juliet. After all the grumbles about Shakespearean writing and complaints about its relevance to modern day life, Ben told me that he thought it was unrealistic and ridiculous that these two very young people could first, fall in love in such a short period of time and second, take their lives over one another.

As my good friend and blog editor Sarah reminded me – Romeo and Juliet THINK they are in love, but it’s really more about infatuation, lust and the desire to rebel against the authorities that tell them they cannot be together. (Sarah is not only very smart, but also a former 9th grade English teacher.) And perhaps if we, as parents, were required to re-read Romeo and Juliet, we might not use so many absolutes and ‘forbiddens’ when we are dealing with our children – in fact, we may even be more careful about sharing our biases and prejudices with them, as well.

I won’t lie – I breathed a sigh of relief at Ben’s simple assessment of Romeo and Juliet’s predicament, but I also made a brief point that maybe, just maybe, neither of them thought they could approach their parents as confidants, leaving them to feel very alone in the world and without options. (Sarah also reminded me that they each confided in adults – Juliet to her maid and Romeo to his priest), but as headstrong children, they proceeded according to their own plans.

And then I reminded him quickly but surely, that there was nothing he couldn’t come to us with.

Except to listen to him whine about his March Madness Bracket, then he’s on his own. (Oh, and presently MY bracket is at 97.2 % correct, his is 35. Just saying…).

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