Early into the school year, my daughter, a high school freshman, lost a classmate to suicide. The boy was well-liked, popular, kind, and active on the football team. The day after his suicide, they announced it at school. My daughter called. She wanted to come home. Three other students also wanted to leave campus but their parents could not leave work to pick them up. I got permission from the parents and the school to take the group to my house.
There they cried and tried to identify any signs that this popular young man was losing ground. They agreed there had been no signs, no apparent calls for help, like giving away personal possessions or talking about death.
It was a sobering day for these students, some of whom were facing death for the first time. They discussed death, afterlife and their feelings of helplessness. After a while their discussions revolved around the topic of meanness. They debated whether or not their casual routine of treating each other with rudeness and cruelty could have contributed to the young man’s despair and suicide. Had anyone hurt him with name calling, teasing, rudeness, cruel remarks? How could such a talented, popular person feel worthless? What had contributed to his despair? The crying students could not identify a cause.
A dear friend of mine lost a son to suicide and she once told me that after his death she was surrounded by silence. People seemed afraid to talk to her. Silence greeted her everywhere she went. A few of her son’s classmates had sent her letters that she treasured as a break in the social isolation. Remembering this, I suggested that my daughter and her friends write to the boy’s parents.
“Tell his parents how much he meant to you, what you liked about him. Right now his parents are struggling with the huge hole left in their lives. Let’s give them something positive to remember.”
They jumped all over the idea. These same students who dreaded and complained about writing assignments composed amazing, heartfelt prose. One student claiming awful handwriting wanted to type his letter, so off they went to the study to use the computer. Later, they consulted and compared notes. They tearfully read their letters aloud, signed them and sealed them in envelopes. A junior varsity football player among them said he would deliver the letters to the boy’s the parents. He lived near them.
I was grateful to be there to witness their growth. That day these students walked through the valley of the shadow of death together. Their letters became an affirmation of life. I believe that writing is therapeutic. It allows us to examine our thoughts, our feelings and our lives at arm’s length. Sometimes, writing breaks through sorrow and silence to remind us how important simple acts of kindness can be. Words have power.
The letters are a wonderful idea. They provide a release for everyone and give friends and family a way to express feelings that should not be held in. The letters are the beginning of a shared grieving process.