Tag Archives: loss

Candle in the Wind

And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind
– Elton John and Bernie Taupin

It’s 2:05 in the morning and I really should be asleep. Indeed, I just blinked my eyes to refocus them, and stood up to go over and blow out a candle… and then just as suddenly sat back down, realizing I couldn’t blow it out. Not yet. Because, for the second time this year (and really, once was more than enough, thank you very much), I found myself lighting a candle in memory of a teenager who had touched my life, another soul lost to suicide.

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I will respect the privacy of the family and spare you all the details. But I think of the people in his life, forever separated from his physical presence and forever deprived of his emotional presence, no matter how firmly his memory is embedded in their hearts and minds. His parents. His girlfriend. His friends. Other family members.

And his coach. For, as I myself – who only knew this young man secondhand – have been struggling to deal with all the emotions swirling inside me, it has been an email from his coach that has helped the most. It’s a letter I will keep with me always. In it, the coach describes a memorial service the team held and shares the words he spoke, paraphrasing Baba Ram Dass. In turn, I share with you this excerpt:

“X finished his life on Earth and left the stage in a manner that leaves those of us left behind with a cry of agony in our hearts, as the fragile thread of our faith is dealt with so violently… For something in you dies when you bear the unbearable, and it is only in that dark night of the soul that you are prepared to see as God sees, and to love as God loves… Now X’s soul is free, and the love that you can share with him is invulnerable to the winds of changing time and space. In that deep love, include me.”

We all have our own inner demons, and we all struggle with them as best we can. For some, the struggle is harder than for others. For some, more than we feel we can bear.

But we need not bear that struggle alone. In reaching out to others, we find strength. And as I hear again and again and again the words of my advisees last December, raging out against the veil of silence so often placed over suicides so that the deaths become all but invisible, I find myself renewing my vow to do what I can to illuminate the facts of teen suicide, of suicide in general. Only by talking about tragedy can we hope to prevent more tragedies. We may raise awareness in potential victims of what they are going through, how to cope – and the hole they would leave behind – and incite them instead to reach out for help. We may raise awareness in friends and family of how to identify potential victims, recognizing they aren’t responsible for the decision but nonetheless helping them to know when to intervene before it is too late. We may think of the critical role teachers, coaches, and other significant adults in kids’ lives can play in raising that awareness, in reaching out to kids, in helping strengthen them – in doing something, anything, to prevent more nights like tonight.

It is now 2:41 in the morning and there remains the problem of the candle, flickering on a nearby table. Nothing, including the candle, lasts forever. But everything, including the candle, should live out its natural life. At least for now, then, I will let it continue to burn. And when its image is seared permanently into my brain as a symbol of my ongoing commitment to action, its flame, too, will have become invulnerable to the winds of changing time. Then and only then will I blow it out.

And hope I never ever light it again.

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Lost Forever

Like most of the country, I spent most of the weekend feeling devastated and overwhelmed. I was fortunate in that our annual girls basketball tournament took up most of my time on Friday and Saturday and insulated me somewhat from the pain and anguish of thinking about the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Except between games. And during half-time. And during time-outs. And sometimes in between time-outs. There’s a comfortable and safe feeling in a gym anyway, especially at our school, and as a long-time fan of girls and women’s basketball, watching a level of aggressiveness and intensity, a quality of competition, and an evenness of talent I did not remember from some of our earlier tournaments did my heart good. But a dull ache was there and, sooner or later, I was going to have to face up to what had happened in Connecticut, as a teacher and as a parent.

A young teacher named Erin had written the MiddleTalk listserve run by the Association of Middle Level Education asking for advice on how to talk about the tragedy with our children and how best to support her students. My friend Rebecca Lawson had written back with an impressive list of resources from Fred Rogers’s video, soothing in its sensibility and sensitivity, to an article in the Washington Post. That seemed a good place to start, and I worked my way through the resources, periodically staring out into space before shaking my head and refocusing on my computer screen.

I also knew I wanted to stop through my office before classes on Monday and read through our school’s Crisis Plan. I knew right where it was, but felt I could not live with myself until I had read through it again. And again. In my mind’s eye was the vision of my Humanities 7 students sprawled in their beanbag chairs, so comfortable and so safe in so many ways, brimming with the confidence and happiness that comes so much more easily with such a feeling of security. Nothing, I vowed, nothing would take that away from them. Not if I had anything to do with it.

And I can’t even bring myself to write about my son. Suffice it to say in an earlier draft of this blog, it took me five minutes to even bring myself to type the letter “s” as tears streamed down my cheeks. I picture him walking from his dorm to class, sweet and kind and smart and talented and with so much still before him…

On the way home from school Sunday night with the Crisis Plan on the seat beside me, I felt a deep surge of emotional anguish and needed to do something to calm myself down. I reached for my phone, and asked Siri to play me some Taylor Swift. “Long Live” celebrates Ms. Swift’s relationship with her band and the notion that what they built together will endure, and the song resonates deeply with me as I think of my own Rock Band students (as readers of “Moving Mountains” may remember). The song “The Best Day” (about which I’ve also written here before) celebrates her relationship with her family in general and her mother in particular. The sounds of the home video of her at age three talking with her mom about her pigtails got to me, and by the time she got to the line “I know you’re not scared of anything at all” (Swift) I was a wreck.

Because of course parents are scared, sometimes. Parents are human. Parents love their children so much it almost physically hurts at times.

And teachers feel much the same way about our students. My friend Jose Vilson wrote a beautiful blog on the need to put children first, truly listen to their voices, to let them shine. Taylor Swift echoed those thoughts in “The Best Day,” writing “And I love you for giving me your eyes / Staying back and watching me shine.” (Swift) But Jose also wrote about the unbearable loss of children’s voices at Sandy Hook: “Their hopes, dreams, and visions for the future in a world in dire need of real change, not just a shuffling around of things for compliance, all gone.” (Vilson)

What might we do to support real change? How can we find the will and the way to actually take action this time and reduce the likelihood any other children’s voices will ever again be silenced before their time? In a discussion I had with friends and relatives on my Facebook page, we touched on the need to acknowledge and address a variety of issues. Arguably, the availability of guns, the stigma attached to mental health issues, the unwillingness of insurance companies to provide the same level of coverage for mental health as they do for physical health, our consumption of graphic violence and the provision of same by the media, and the cult of masculinity are all contributing factors we need to address, urgently and by whatever means possible.

In “The Best Day,” Taylor Swift also writes about being bullied at school and her mom’s efforts to help her handle it. As she thanks her mom for having started her on the path to healing, Ms. Swift acknowledges “Don’t know how long it’s gonna take to feel okay,” and certainly tonight I can relate. But I can also guess where it is likely to start. Tonight, I will text with my son before bedtime, wish him well on exams, tell him I love him. And tomorrow, I will walk into my Humanities classroom, sit down on the floor, and ask for any student announcements. The chances are high are least one of them will refer to the Sandy Hook tragedy, and I will handle their questions as best I can, honestly and with compassion. If they express a need to do something, we can talk about that and I can share what I am planning to do. And when the time is right, we will turn back to our normal routines. My students will read the newest installments in their ongoing independent writing stories, applaud after each reading, and offer helpful comments. We will finish casting Act V of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the play which we are producing in collaboration with other classes around the country, and we will start reading through the script to ensure they understand what each individual line means. Gradually, a sense of normalcy will return.

Some of our collective innocence is lost forever. But our hope for the future need not be.

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Mission Critical

Bullied Teen Amanda Todd Uploads Chilling Video Before Being Found Dead buff.ly/TpuvZq Another sad case.
@JudyArzt, Twitter posting, October 13, 2012

The video to which Judy is referring is harrowing to watch. You can’t see Amanda’s face, you can’t hear her voice, you can only see – right up to just before the end of the video – her holding and showing us pieces of paper on which she has written her story. Some of the most painful are pushed up closer to the camera. Only once does her hand move away from this task, to briefly wipe her eyes as she holds up the paper reading “I thought he liked me.” She attempted to kill herself twice, and her death, still under investigation, is currently being presumed a suicide.

Here in Western Massachusetts, as I suppose is sadly true of many parts of the country, we are no strangers to bullied children being driven to suicide. In 2009, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker Hoover hung himself following repeated taunts of being gay, and in 2010, 15-year-old Phoebe Prince also hung herself following relentless in-person and cyber-bullying. In Ms. Prince’s case, even her suicide didn’t cause the bullies to cease and desist; they posted taunts on a memorial Facebook page, though those were eventually removed. At the time, Massachusetts had no anti-bullying law on the books, but the horrific details of Ms. Prince’s case along with the efforts of Sirdeaner Hoover, Carl’s mom, led finally to the passage of “An Act Relative to Bullying” on May 3, 2010.

In a recent posting, “Don’t Let Me Down [On Opening Up When Things Go Down]” José Vilson wrote on the difficult topic of what to do when you as a teacher suspect one of your students may be at risk of harming herself or himself. With the post coming so close to the recent tragic loss of 17-year-old Emily “Milly” Blosdale-Dionne, who attended Stoneleigh-Burnham for part of her seventh grade year, it moved me deeply. I wrote a comment telling my memories of Emily and how shaken I was to learn of her suicide.

Another cyber-friend of mine, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, followed up with a story of when she happened to overhear a student telling her friend that she was considering killing herself. Having overheard the comment rather than having someone come directly to her, Heather struggled with what to do, eventually settling on sending a note to the student through her school’s network messaging system. There was no response, but several days later, the girl approached her to thank her for caring and to say she had talked to her parents about how she was feeling and they were getting her some help.

A third person, using the pseudonym “No name for now,” added in another story of a suicide, the third in five years at her/his school. S/he continued to speak of teaching an advisory class, and rhetorically asking, “‘What’s the worst thing that can happen if you do tell a counselor? Your friend gets mad, right? What’s the worst that can happen if you don’t tell?’ Silence.” “No name for now” pointed out that, for all the attention given to bullying, not one of those suicides was associated with bullying. Neither was Milly’s, and Heather makes no mention of bullying in her own comment. “No name for now” has a teenager who wishes schools would speak more openly of depression, how to recognize the symptoms, and what to do if you see your friend falling into the abyss.

One of my advisees recently spoke to me about feeling that deaths were piling up in her life. She had connections with Milly, and then knew about the student in our community who had recently experienced a death in her family. We ended up having a discussion in advisory about grief, how it varies from person to person, and how best to react to and support friends and other people who are grieving. The girls were most worried that they not say the wrong thing and make the situation worse, and we talked about how simply expressing sorrow, acknowledging that words seem inadequate, and being there for the person however they might need you would be deeply meaningful.

Ellen Carter, our school counselor, recently announced the annual formation of the faculty group “SOS – Support Our Students,” designed to identify faculty members to whom students can turn in confidence if they have deep concerns for their own health or for that of their friends. Though often connected to substance abuse and eating disorders, the program can expand to handle any concern. Someone turning to SOS would not be subjected to school discipline, but would be connected to various support systems, one of which would necessarily be her parents. The goal is to facilitate calls for help that might otherwise go unvoiced, and get kids the help and support they need to lead the long, healthy, happy and successful lives we wish for them. Of course, all adults at SBS are ready and willing to support kids at a moment’s notice, whether or not they are in the SOS group.

On the day of Emily Blosdale-Dionne’s memorial service, I was talking to my colleague Karen Suchenski, who lives and has taught in the district in which Emily was attending school. We were both hurting, for her and her family specifically but also for kids in general, what they go through, how much you care for them, and how much you want to protect them. Of course, kids need our protection less and less as they grow older, and need to learn increasingly to protect themselves. Still, the only way Karen and I could begin to think to respond to this tragedy was to work ever harder to support and care for kids, strengthen their intrinsic sense of self-worth, and identify anyone who may need extra support before things reach a critical stage. Whatever else we do works best when it springs from a healthy self-image. This is a large part of the mission of our school, one which we always feel and always serve, but one which never feels more critical than at times like these.

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