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Home » News » Advice for a Grieving Community

Advice for a Grieving Community

Advice for a Grieving Community

October 14, 2017

Susan VanGulick
Guest Columnist

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

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  1. Julie says:
    October 17th, 2017 at 15:04
    When I was in high school, one of my best friends called me and told me she had just taken a bunch of pills to kill herself but was having second thoughts. She said she was scared and didn't know what to do, but she didn't want me to tell anyone. I struggled with what to do because this seemed like something she would do to get attention. I even suspected she didn't take the pills at all and if I told she wouldn't want to be friends anymore. I deducted that I'd lose my friend either way, so I wrote a note to my mom while I was on the phone with my friend. My mom got on the line and said she needed the phone, then promptly got in touch with my friend's mom. (My friend was at her grandma's house when she did this, not at home.) I was right--we were no longer friends after that, but years later we were reacquainted and I asked her if she realized I did the right thing all those years ago and if she was actually glad I got help even though she stopped being my friend, and she said, "Yes! Of course!" She stopped being my friend and stopped going to our school because she was embarassed, that's all. But she was glad I handled it the way I did. So never hesitate to help. You will never feel like you made a mistake.
  2. Kenny Diver says:
    October 18th, 2017 at 18:44
    The problem is it is not a fix but it is a help. As an educator Yes schools discussing it help but what is found is most students in the mind place and depression and feeling lost are not seeing the resources in front of them. The solution is not the schools need to do more. What it takes is family, schools, friends, churches all seeing the signs and educating all on the signs that are there and than feeling comfortable enough to report them or approach the child on them. Schools can speak of drunk driving and we have teens every year do this despite having sashed cars and fake drunk driving accident with fire personnel and actors and the like. It does not impact those doing it. Same of the sorrow in a teen in a place their minds have them so deep they cant see resources or ways out despite it being discussed and addressed daily or weekly. The solution is not just schools. It is starting when the children are so young and letting it be known they can complain, share fears or emotions or feelings openly and no lectures or saying no that is not true or how it is. It is validating what the teen feels and if they express it they are feeling it , whether we as family, friends or the like see it the same . It is a community effort and we cannot say the schools failed the teens. That is unfair and inaccurate. We also have to make mental illness and depression more of awareness and acceptable. But as sad and yes a situation needing attention, rather then million dollar sports players being selfish, disrespectful fools kneeling . Lets focus on depression, mental emotional and teen concerns. But I don't blame the schools, teachers or friends. If family does not see it coming how can outside family be expected to be accountable for something not even family can prevent.It is sad, it is grueling and so awful for loved ones but it is a group need to address . Our schools do so much already. They are expected to do more than just educate academics now. They are expected too see and address bullying, drugs, drinking, suicide and even with those program, discussions and the like all those continue to occur. No one school, person or the like is responsible. The individual needs to learn to know they can reach out but that is part of depression. They can have support all around and not see it as such. I don't feel fair to say the LS or any school failed anyone. No one failed anyone else, it is sadly an illness and education of the signs is most we can do. But placing blame is never ending circle that solves little. Work as a community, as families and lets prevent more pain as this for anyone. But despite it all we need to educate ourselves on how mental illness , depression work and how to see the signs and as a whole community, state, city and country find ways to help. Yes schools can discuss it and address it and offer and remind support is there but despite that often it still occurs.

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