January 17, 2012 will forever be branded on my heart with joy and sorrow. My precious son celebrated his 7th birthday that day; it was a day that we didn't know if he'd be alive to celebrate. In the midst of our joyous celebration, I got the phone call that a beloved student took her own life; all I could do was scream in my shock and sorrow. Jenny was my student for three years. She was the last child of four siblings I had taught. I love Jenny and her family; she had become part of my own.
Yet, I never saw her pain. How could I have missed it? Every day I look at my students for signs of depression, and I never saw it in Jenny. She was the child who would scan the room before I did to see who needed a hug or a word of encouragement. Truthfully, Jenny got to them before I did. I never worried about Jenny. She even called herself Jubilant Jenny in our Journalism name game. Now, I see, I should have been worried. I should worry about all of my students.
Depression is a silent killer. People who suffer with depression don't like to share it with others. Could it be that we tend to confuse depression with sadness? But it goes so much deeper than sadness. Robin Williams' suicide showed us that.
The worst thing we can do is remain silent because we are uncomfortable with the topic.
That's why so many high schools don't want teachers talking to their students about it -- it's uncomfortable -- it's scary. But I couldn't sit back and watch my students suffer through their own pain and confusion over Jenny's death anymore. I wanted my students to know that I was suffering too.
How I dealt with that pain was through writing; I wrote a letter to Jenny filled with the words I would have said to her if Jenny would have blessed me by sharing her pain with me. I don't know if it would have helped, but I know it helped my students struggling with Jenny's death process their own pain. Here is my letter:
Dear Jubilant Jenny,
It's okay that you're having an off day today. We all have them. Sometimes everything just feels like it's going in the wrong direction. But it's only one day. Tomorrow will be better. You may have another bad day, but that's what life is. We have our ups and our downs, but you can choose to do something about those days.
You can choose to let people in. Choose people who will really listen to you; people you can trust, like your parents, your siblings, a teacher or a friend. Tell them how you are feeling so they can walk with you through the dark places and hold your hand when you're scared. You don't need to be alone.
You can choose to write about your feelings. You can acknowledge your pain, but don't stay there. Put more emphasis on the good things in your life. Count your blessings! It's cliché, I know, but I do it every day. Trust me, it helps. Write about your family, your friends and your accomplishments. Who has influenced you? Who makes you smile? Think about all the people who have touched your life in a positive way, and remind yourself how blessed you are to be alive.
Then write about all the people you influence. Your presence is felt everywhere you go. How would those people feel if you were no longer around? If for one second you think it won't affect them, think about how you would feel if any of those people were suddenly gone. That's how all of us will feel. Your absence will hurt. Your smile will be missed. Your friends will be lost without you. Your teachers will feel like failures. Your siblings will be missing part of themselves. Your parents' hearts will be broken. Convince yourself through your writing that you matter. You have to be your own best friend and remind yourself that your presence in this world is necessary to every life that you have come in contact with.
I know at times you feel like you don't really have friends; that they are just people you know. But that's not true. People can get wrapped up in their own problems sometimes; it's not because they don't care about you. You have to let people know you need someone to listen to you. That's how we build relationships: We share with and listen to each other. Suffering in silence isolates us. When you are depressed you need to feel the presence of other people. Let them hear your pain. You cannot pretend to be jubilant to protect others from your pain. If you keep it to yourself, we will be angry with you for not telling us, so we could help you, and we don't want to be angry with you, Jenny. We want to love you. We want to help you.
Or, you may feel that no one will understand you, so you intentionally keep your distance. High school can be hard. Everyone is trying to fit in, to find a place to belong. You are not alone with those feelings. We have all felt that way at some time in our lives. I felt that way when I was in high school. Sometimes I still feel that way. It does get easier when you get older. You'll find people who have similar interests, and, believe it or not, most people mature rather nicely.
It can also be hard dealing with the indifference in others, or the joy some people feel at others' pain. There will always be mean people in the world. But you have choices there as well. You can ignore them, be nice to them or stand up for yourself and others; then, you can hope they eventually get a clue. More likely than not, those mean people need a friend, just like you do. You turn your loneliness inward and think of hurting yourself; they turn their loneliness outward and try to hurt others. Everyone needs love and compassion. You can help by being an instrument of healing to others because you will understand their pain.
That's what I want to be, an instrument of healing. I understand your pain because I've been there. I've struggled with depression all my life. I know that whatever you are going through, you can get through it and things will get better because it did for me. Even difficult and painful things won't always be difficult and painful. You'll get through it and be stronger the next time. You also need to be your own best friend and take care of and treat yourself the way you wish or want other people to take care of and treat you. It took me a long time to learn that, but it has made all my relationships better, including the one with myself.
When you start questioning your self-worth, when it's easier to believe that you don't matter instead of believing that you are amazing, remember you are important because you are a living, breathing person on this earth. End of story. You don't have to do anything special beyond that. You matter because you are you.
How do I know this to be true? Because I doubted my self-worth constantly and still battle with it sometimes. I think it comes from being raised by an abusive, alcoholic father. It got in my head that if my own father couldn't love me, I must be unlovable. I know now that my dad had his own demons he had to deal with, and it had nothing to do with me being unlovable. But as a child, I couldn't understand that.
Now, I have so much to offer the people and children in my life because I experienced that pain. I turned it around and made it work for me, not against me. I can tell when my students need someone to talk to because I've been there. I can usually see and feel their pain.
Right now, I hope you think I'm strong. I want you to respect me for how I've overcome all of my obstacles to become the successful person I am. I want you to see how amazing I am, because that's my point. You can be, too! Trust me, please! I felt how you feel when I was in high school. It got better in college. And it continues to get better all the time. I love who I've become. I love what I've accomplished with my life. I love how I have helped people with their education and their spiritual and mental well being.
The fact that you always want to help me and others feel better tells me you have that strength and desire inside of you to help others, but first you have to stick it out. You will only cause a tremendous amount of pain if you don't.
The end of your life will be a tragedy. You have so much to live for!
Thank you, Jenny, for talking to me about your depression. I'm ALWAYS here for you! Never forget that! By letting me help you with your pain, you allow me to heal my own pain. It makes me feel that my past has helped your future. Thank you for trusting me. Thank you for reaching out to me. You are more than your depression, Jenny. You are a kind, intelligent person who has so much to offer the world, just because you are you.
So, please, Jenny, my dear student, child, friend, family member, stranger, do not end the beautiful life you have been blessed with. There is no one else in this world like you! You will rob the world of the necessity of you. No one can replace you!
Your loving teacher, friend, family member, stranger,
Unfortunately, it is too late for Jenny. I hope it's not too late for someone else who happens to read this letter. I don't want to lose another child, friend, family member or stranger to the pain of hopelessness.