Thursday, January 16, 2014

Wise words from an old friend

A friend of mine, now a pastor, posted the following on Facebook. A middle school student in my hometown committed suicide this week, and the community is understandably devastated. I feel for his family, his friends, and all those who mourn his loss.

This is an opportunity, though, to reach out to others. Many people struggle silently with depression and other mental illnesses. Be kind to one another. Ask for help if you need it. If you see someone whom you believe is having a difficult time, suggest professional help. And most importantly, choose your words carefully.

Following is Pastor Webster-Toleno's script. She is a beautiful soul and a kind leader, as I'm sure you'll agree.

Like a lot of people in our community, I’m sure, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about life and love and grief and death this week, as we’ve all been rocked by the news of yet another tragic death by suicide. I know that for many young ones who were close to Colby Donovan it was their very first experience of such loss, and I grieve for the bit of their innocence that they lost on Monday as they absorbed the sorrowful news.

I didn’t know Colby, and I don’t know his family. I know a few people who were close to him, but my ponderings have been more general than specific. I can imagine their grief to a certain degree, having lost a sweet friend in high school to a very similar tragic death, but I don’t pretend to know exactly what they’re going through. And I don’t want to hurt those really close to Colby more than they’ve already been wounded by his death, so I’m choosing my words carefully.

Here’s the thing: Because of Facebook and other social media, there’s a public nature to the outreach to Colby’s family that didn’t exist when I was in high school. Everyone wants to provide comfort even though we all know that no words can heal the hurt they’ve endured; no amount of love expressed can bring Colby back. That said, it’s ALWAYS worth expressing love.

But I worry ~ as a professional theological thinker and a mother of children just older and just younger than Colby, and as one who has suffered from loss, I worry about the words we use to express that grief. Teenagers have it the hardest, of course, as this may be their first significant experience of tragedy, but for all of us, it’s hard to come up with words. But the thing is, words DO matter, because they have deep meaning beyond just filling the silences that arise when our hearts are breaking.

This is why I’m writing this, while desperately hoping that I don’t make things worse for anyone. Words matter. I cringe every time I see that someone has written “He’s in a better place now.” I know that those who type those words are trying to soothe (themselves as well as others) in the best way they know how, but as a mother, I want to scream that NO!!! ~ dead is not better than in my arms or home in bed or sitting in an 8th grade science class. IT IS NOT. I am so terribly sorry that something in Colby’s spirit was so despairing that suicide seemed like even the remotest possible solution, and I would do anything I could to make it not so, but I can’t be silent when I hear teens telling other teens that some nebulous notion of heaven is “better” than Brattleboro, or, more significantly, better than all that would have been possible in Colby’s future. 

The other phrase that I’ve been reading and rebelling against is when people have talked about heavenly reunion, and all the dear souls on the other side of death who have rejoiced along with God to welcome Colby into the fold. I, too, believe in the eternity of souls and in some kind of heaven in which that which has been lost through life and death is restored to us ... and I believe that Colby was welcomed to that reunion as warmly as we could possibly hope, but I don’t believe that God and the angels, if you will, ever celebrate death. I believe that God mourns alongside us, and that Colby’s despair and suicide breaks God’s divine heart more profoundly than even it breaks ours. 

I’ve been grateful to see other adults speaking up on places like the memorial Facebook page for Colby, reminding teenagers of these same things. Events like this remind us all that teenagers need to have many people offering support and wisdom as they navigate life and love and loss. It is my fervent prayer that each person impacted by Colby’s tragic death will find a measure of peace over time, and that grief shared will bring people close enough that they will never feel so alone in the world that death seems like the best option.

And if I’ve hurt some with these words, I ask your forgiveness.

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