When Life Brings The Unbearable
John’s [anonymous] time on Earth was much shorter than everyone thought it would be. It is tragic that he was not meant to spend his whole life with us. Before he took his own life, John blessed us with his grace, love and mastery of his beautiful crafts.
John’s decision to keep his mental health condition to himself may have been born of the many wonderful aspects of his character: Strength, integrity, resilience, and a resolve not to burden those he loved. The contemptible social prejudice and shame that surround mental health conditions may have contributed to John’s reluctance to reveal this fundamental part of who he was.
John was not alone. Major depression and related conditions take the lives of tens of thousands of teens and young adults in our country every year. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for our teenagers. Every day there are over 5,000 suicide attempts by young people in grades seven through twelve. Many of them do not talk about or seek treatment for their mental health conditions. This reluctance to “come out” will erode as our fight against the fear and discrimination around these illnesses gains traction.
Although guilt and shame sometimes feel overwhelming, John’s death was no one's fault, certainly not his. He was courageously battling a condition that can’t be seen, measured, or operated on. Suicide may have seemed his only way out. John’s death was not a manifestation of some parenting or friendship issue. You all loved and guided and befriended him. It may not have been possible to avert this profoundly sad outcome. No one let John down. He didn’t let himself down.
It can be so baffling to divine why a person, particularly one whose life seemed so promising, took his or her own life. A partial answer is that John was fighting a bona fide illness. Mental health conditions are just that; health conditions, not character defects or moral failings. The tremendous burden that John carried with such grace and strength has been lifted. He is free now, surrounded by the peace and serenity that his depression often didn’t let him feel when he was with us. And John is still with you and will always be.
You will pass by places and see people who will remind you of him. That will feel unbearable too. You will drive by the athletic fields across which John raced, bringing joy and pride to you, as he worked with the lightest heart and most focused mind he could muster. And it will feel like too much to bear. As time goes on, these visceral, gut-wrenching reminders and memories will gradually become a little less raw and agonizing. Open wounds will knit together to some extent. Although the scars they leave will never go away, somewhere among the shards, we will realize that we have a finite time here. Let’s make the most of each blessed day, as John wants us to do.
John’s family and friends need a safe, trusting place where they can eventually talk about their overwhelming grief, guilt and anger. They will need a SEAL team: a Supportive, Energizing And Loving group. You will be an integral member of that team. No one who needs you will be left behind. You will carry them on your broad shoulders. And the others on the Team will carry you when you can’t find the strength, and falter for a time.
Try not to yield to the well-intentioned urge to “encourage” John’s family and loved ones, or to give them reasons why they should feel better or see silver linings. There may not be any love or logic that would help right now. There will be a time for that later. We can’t know what it is like to plunge into the abyss of despair. May we never know that agony first-hand. We need to listen, to listen, and to listen some more. There aren’t enough tender hugs, but give all that you have. Everyone needs the time and space to suffer, while slowly finding comfort and healing in your safety.
It is so tempting to obey the primordial mandate to protect our own kids from massive events like this. Sadly, those times are an inevitable part of life. We are not helping our children to build resilience if we try to slide them under or push them over suffering. The agonizing yet most healing path leads straight through tragedy’s heart. It is our gift to our children not to shelter them. When they confront life’s inevitable sorrow and hurt, your arms will always be a safe and accepting place to which they can return.
Try to absorb with grace and patience the anger that people within the radius of this tragedy’s blast zone may direct at you. They aren’t mad at you. They are enraged at what this vale of tears has subjected them to. They also may be secretly angry and resentful at John for leaving them. Guilt can scald as well.
The selfless output of emotional energy you give those in the inner circle of tragedy will drain you at times too. Lean into your own SEAL team. Take care of yourself. Nurture your strength so that it is there when it is needed. Exercise a bit every day. You may learn from this tragedy in unlooked-for ways. True strength and resilience are not found in the exertion of control in the vain hope that one can avoid life’s inevitable pain. These important virtues grow when we address that hurt day by day as best we can. Let’s all keep doing what we can to work in the service of these people whom we hold dear. It is the highest calling we have.
Copyright 2018, Cameron G. Stout