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Belated Letter To A Teen Who Mattered

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Over the weekend, my neighbor (my daughter's friend) committed suicide. She was 14. I am withholding her name in the interest of her family's privacy.

Dear Sister,

I ache for your family and for the many friends you left behind. I don't believe you needed to die. I'm sad, and I'm angry. I don't understand how we couldn't have saved you, and I don't understand why I did not even try.

I saw your Tumblr page, the one that's been taken down now, months ago. It haunted me. I was alarmed by the images of mutilation and self-hatred. I also knew that if I'd had the technology and your bravery when I was 14, I might have had a page like yours. I spilled my angst into handwritten journals, but it was much the same. I hated my body, hated myself, would never fit in, would never be loved, would never be perfect. It's a deep, entrenched story to climb out of, and I'd be a liar if I said I've got it completely beat.

You weighed 85 pounds when you died; I'm functional but not healthy at 95. I could have talked to you, maybe, about some of this stuff that you thought nobody understood, because I do. Your Tumblr page shook me to the core because I've felt a glimpse of the pain that you said again and again you had to escape.

It's presumptuous to believe I have ever felt anything like your pain and presumptuous to think that I could make a difference for you when mental health professionals could not. But I believe people can help each other beat back the demons, if we're willing to believe in each other and in miracles.

Was I too busy to walk across the field that separated us and tell you that I cared? I'm not sure whether I hate myself more for thinking that or for knowing that I was scared to reach out to you. I worried about interfering in someone else's business, and I worried that it would be weird to have this older woman, someone else's mom, step into your life.

Your Tumblr page haunted me every day, but I told myself I couldn't make a difference. I told myself you were getting the help you needed. The school had been notified.

I saw your page and knew your death was inevitable. I did nothing.

I meant to go over and welcome you and your mother to the neighborhood when you moved in. My intentions are dust. I'm left holding this supremely narcissistic idea that my presence in your life could have made some sort of difference, that somehow I could have helped you. Supremely narcissistic, I get it. But I had things I wanted to tell you.

I wish I'd told you about how I stopped making myself throw up after college and figured out how to stop giving credence to the voices that tell me I'm worthless, ugly and not yet skinny enough -- even though they're still there in my head.

I wish I'd told you that when I got older, I was able to compare the tortured life in my journals with the life in photo albums and scrapbooks and saw the extreme disconnect between the person I was in my head and the person I was in the world. That I saw myself in you when I watched you walk across the stage at your middle school continuation ceremony -- this beautiful, graceful girl who screams in cyberspace that she wants to die.

I wish I could have gotten you to see how beautiful you were.

I wish I'd told you how much space your Tumblr page took up in my head, that it was poetry, that you are a poet. "Society killed the teenager," said one of your posts.

I wish you could have found online the support and community that real neighbors once provided for each other. I'm afraid you found nothing but more beautiful girls putting their best faces and bodies forward on Facebook and more despair and darkness to repost.

I wish you could understand the hole that you have left among your classmates, who are arranging an impromptu memorial for you because the grown-ups left them without closure. We received an email from the middle school about your death, and it offered your grieving friends the same mental health resources that couldn't help you.

You showed us that our kids need love, real love, not institutions. I don't understand our community.

You posted that suicide is an escape from pain, not from life. Everyone you left behind, everyone whose life you touched even peripherally, wishes desperately that we'd somehow found the magic to erase that pain so you could live.

That magic might have been our letting you know that we cared, that you mattered, that your voice was strong.

I heard you, my sister and my daughter. l saw you, I loved you, and I never told you. For that, I am ashamed.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.