Advice for a Grieving Community
October 14, 2017
I saw the Lee’s Summit Tribune post on Facebook about the community forum concerning suicide and mental illness.
I have lived in Missouri all of my life, and a lot of that time was spent in Lee's Summit. We have been in Colorado for 12 years now. I heard about what happened recently in one of the high schools in your community. I am so very sorry. Suicide is a heartbreaking tragedy.
I lost my youngest son, Harry, just 15 years old, to suicide on his last day of finals, right before Christmas break, this past December.
It has been more than devastating. Our hearts broke the day that Harry died. The pain is indescribable and ongoing. It still feels like it happened yesterday.
The school let him down. They let us down. They continue to let students down by not addressing it. Just down the mountain, three students committed suicide, just a few weeks ago. Two of them were middle school students and one high school student. Colorado ranks number two in teenage suicide, but it is becoming an epidemic in every state.
If I were to give advice to a community, moving forward, I would say that the schools really need to talk about this with the students. Parents need to talk to their teenagers.
Suicide is not talked about until it happens. Many fear that saying the word, “suicide” to a young person will put this idea into their mind, and no one wants to do that. The truth is, most teens have considered suicide at one time or another. Some, more seriously than others.
I would encourage the administration to work with student body leadership, such as Student Council or Key Club to come up with a program to reach out to every student. It could be a mentoring program (pairing each student with another) or something as simple as making sure that no one sits alone at lunch. Our Harry sat alone frequently.
Many ask about warning signs after something like this happens. Sadly, there can be no warning signs. Some students give lots of warning signs. Some, like my son, show no warning signs at all. Harry, was a happy, well adjusted young man, liked by many, kind to all.
He was becoming more involved in school and church activities and had plans for his future that included driving, and he even knew where he wanted to go to college and what he wanted to study. His future was bright. He was a good student. An athlete.
He had a personal relationship with Jesus and loved his youth group and church. He was very involved in family activities and never withdrawn. He had big plans for Christmas break with family back in Missouri and a road trip with his older brother who was going to be on leave from the Army. So, you can imagine how this took us by complete surprise when it happened. It is the phone call no parent ever, ever wants to get.
We found out that Harry reached out to a friend that morning, while getting ready for school.
At 6:00 a.m., he called a friend of his and talked for 8 minutes. If you know teenagers, most of them prefer texting to talking, so this was a long conversation. He told his friend that he was going to kill himself and wouldn't be at school that day.
His friend, who had access to us by cell phone and Facebook, said nothing.
Her boyfriend also called us after the fact and claimed to know details.
I would encourage all teenagers that if a friend, or even acquaintance, says something about taking his or her life, err on the side of caution and say something to someone. Don't assume that this person doesn't fit the picture you have in your head of someone that commits suicide. That this individual doesn't seem like the type. There is no type when it comes to suicide. The worst that could happen is that you would be wrong and your friend would still be alive.
I don't want another family to have to get the phone call that we did and to experience the incredible pain and heartbreak that we have experienced. It is a horrible tragedy.
Parents should not bury their children.
Teenage suicide can be prevented with more conversations and with caring for each other at school. Parents need to have the tough conversations. You would talk to your child about drugs and alcohol and sex. You need to talk to them about suicide.
You should talk to them about speaking out if a friend of theirs talks about suicide. Watch the Netflix series, 13 Reasons. Your children are watching it, whether you know it or not. It does not glorify suicide. It is a realistic depiction of what teenagers are probably feeling and experiencing. Have the conversation after watching it together or after watching it on your own. School administration and staff should be required to watch this series as well and have the conversations.
The last thing I would encourage is for you to tell teenagers that suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem.
Most teenagers feel despondent and cannot see that tomorrow is a new day, and that these feelings and situations will sometimes pass.
Most teenagers that commit suicide do it impulsively. They don't take the time to think about how it will impact others or that there could be other solutions. Most of them will act like nothing is wrong because in their mind, they now have a solution to their problems and to everyone else's problems, or so they believe.
I applaud the Lee's Summit Tribune for opening the conversation in the community. It is a big step in the right direction of opening the doors of communication. My heart breaks for your community as you grieve the loss of a loved young lady who died so tragically. My heart breaks for her family and friends. Hopefully one day, suicide will be something that never or rarely happens instead of being something that we hear about and read about almost daily.
We love you, Lee's Summit.
You are in our thoughts and prayers.
The VanGulick Family