How I miss you! July 20 would have been your 21st birthday. How proud I would be to have seen you grown into a fine young man, smiling in your wonderful bright way. Five years after you killed yourself, I imagine how you would look, how your voice would sound, matured but still calling me "Mom."
Every time I see or hear a band playing I remember how good a tuba player you were. And I still have not found anyone who could equal your reckless-abandon style of dancing.
You were not a perfect son, Steven, but we were not perfect parents, and still are not. We loved you then and now, and always will.
If only you had realized what great potential Dad and I saw in you. But you never gave us or yourself the chance to pass through that most difficult time in your life, adolescence. For reasons I will never know, you apparently could endure no more of the pain that must have been overwhelming you. Instead of just ending the pain, you ended your life by hanging yourself from a tree in the backyard.
Maybe you could not separate ending the pain from ending your life. Even now, I still do not believe you wanted to die. What I do believe is that you wanted the pain to stop, but did not know how to make that happen.
Steven, I am so sad because many other teen-agers, for whatever reason, have also killed themselves and continue to do so. I grieve for them and for their families and friends. I understand all too well the pain, suffering, torment, despair, anguish, blame, anger and guilt they feel every day. Perhaps we, the survivors of the devastation left by our dead children, can begin to grasp the helplessness and hopelessness you must have felt.
During the past five years I have tried to make a life for myself out of the aftermath of your death. You see, honey, your death killed only a part of me, even though I so much wanted all of me to die in the beginning. In spite of all the brain racking I have done, I am no closer to knowing what caused that foolish and impulsive act that ended a life dearer to me than mine.
But I had to try. I had to find some peace amidst all the chaos, pain, and grief. I had to make some sense of the waste and devastation that filled the void left by your death. If I knew why, I'd have something more to blame for your death than myself -- I found that blaming myself not only exhausted me but produced nothing and threatened to destroy me.
Maybe I also felt someplace inside of me that if I solved the puzzle of your death, then you would return. That is something I had to let go -- no matter how many puzzle pieces I found, you would not return. I would never see you again in this life.
Slowly it became clear that since you had left me with all these questions surrounding your death, I would have to find answers of another sort. That also has been tiring work, but constructive and productive for me.
I saw that I would have to get through the grief, because I would never get over your death. Eventually a new normal of only three living people in our family would develop, but you would always be a part of our hearts and lives.
At this point, some friends commented that even though I had come a long way since your death, they still saw much anger in me. (There may still be some left even today.) Another dear friend and professional counselor told me that anger covered up fear. She asked me what fear my anger could be covering up. The gut- wrenching answer that rose to the surface was that I feared you had died for nothing, that no one would learn from your death.
It has also angered me to see how family and close friends have seemed to forget about about you during the past five years. In spite of my pleas to talk about you and to share the memories they made with you, no one has or does. Maybe it is too difficult for them, but it is much more difficult for me not only to lose you, but also to lose the ability to share my memories with others who knew and loved you. If feels like a double loss to me.
It may be easier for those of us who deal with your death on a daily basis to adjust to it -- we have no choice. It is ironic that I have been called on indirectly to understand the difficulties of those who were not so close to you, even though I believe they did not need as much support and understanding as I did. I was giving more than I was getting after your death. I believe they will survive, but early on in the work of grief, it was not always clear that I, the acutely bereaved, would.
After much soul-searching, I found another object of my anger. It seems that when you died, your school did not know how to respond. Your brother Michael, who was 13 at the time, returned to the school you both attended, and was treated by some of your old "friends" as if he had done something foolish and stupid. Several of these boys made cutting and hurtful comments to Mike even though these angry comments were directed at you.
They were unable to express their feelings to you, so they dumped it instead on Michael, who was already devastated by your killing yourself. He didn't want us to ask that they be reprimanded, but I decided that I needed and wanted some acknowledgement from the school. Some acknowledgement of your death and thereby, validation of your life and of the fact that they were sad and sorry about your death.
It was not forthcoming. You were not even mentioned in your class yearbook or any yearbook since 1980. That really upset me because it made me feel that perhaps you were right, that you did not matter much at all, and quite frankly from my perspective the school reinforced that view.
I had longed for a meaning to your death. I began to find it during one of my many speaking engagements around here about teen suicide. I noticed that parents wanted to hear what I had to say and that maybe I had something to offer. They certainly had something to offer me -- the acknowledgement and recognition that my sharing of your death must not have been easy. They appreciated my doing it. Finally, here was what I longed for.
They made it possible, and still do, for me to keep helping them understand what I have learned from your death, and to help their children learn that suicide is not the way to deal with pain.
You are probably wondering just what it is that your death has taught me. My answer is: many things. Aside from learning how much strength I have, and developing sensitivities to others' needs, I have also become aware of my own vulnerabilities and needs.
I have learned to appreciate nature, the sun, flowers, smells and the night sky, all because I remember how you loved these things. In fact, I think of how gentle you were toward all living creatures, and how you were sought after as a baby sitter. You loved kids and they loved you. Maybe you identified with their vulnerabilities, having discovered that the more you tried to be like your peers, the less you were accepted.
But wasn't there enough love and compassion left over in you to be kind to yourself, or was there only anger, rage and disappointment?
Because of you, I think I have an unusual appreciation and understanding of children's needs, especially during adolescence. You know, Steve, when I was growing up the value system was different. Wonderful musicals and love stories were the Saturday afternoon fare at the local movie house. These fantasies provided great escapes from the pressures of doing what Mom and Dad expected of me -- they always taught me to do the best I could, even though I never felt they thought that was good enough.
My parents also taught me respect; respect for myself and others and people's property. I guess that after learning to respect myself, even though I was unhappy as an adolescent, I could not seriously think of killing myself.
My parents often tried to shield me from the pain of life, but somehow with the support of a feeling of belonging and having my own identity, I made it through to adulthood. Somewhere and somehow we realized that we did not have to kill ourselves in order to end the pain of growing up. It is possible that we feared if we tried to harm ourselves our parents would be so angry at us they would kill us if they got their hands on us.
It is obvious we had a respect for authority, which may have intimidated me at times, but it was important to building structure in our lives and setting limits. We learned problem-solving skills, self- worth, self-esteem, uniqueness and respect for life. Maybe it is time to return to teaching these basics again.
Ideally they should be taught at home by the family, but that has not been happening.
As our country has matured we have gotten further away from home life and from being born and dying in the same room and in the same bed.
We have moved away from a time when death was an accepted part of living and people knew how to grieve. As a result, in those days people learned how to deal with frustration, loss and grief, and this was passed on to their children. Today, people do not die, they pass away or expire like a library book.
Today, birth and death occur in institutions removed from the home and children are deprived of human emotions and stages that await them. Old age has been viewed as ugly and undesirable, so we try to keep ourselves as young looking as possible. What is the price for all this denial?
I think you will agree, Steven, that your generation was treated to the invincible human who was seen on television as dying in one series only to be brought back to life to star in another show the following week, helping to perpetuate the myth that death is not permanent. Perhaps you even thought about that, Steve. How many others have died thinking that they would show us, and when we were sorry, they would come back and let us know how badly they thought they had been treated?
Steve, I do believe that while research goes on to try to pinpoint the causes of teen suicide in this country, something must be done in the schools to help children, starting now:
Teach courses to our children that provide options and choices to suicide. Build self-esteem and self-worth through role playing, reading and exercises, using the mental health professionals in the community with expertise in this very subject.
I for one would welcome the opportunity to go to any school in the area to talk with children and parents to help develop a sense of control, and to teach skills to cope with daily losses, such as a bad grade, a dead pet, not making the debating team or band, not getting the job or being rejected by the college you hoped to attend, and on down the line to moving away, a friend's moving away or the breakup of a romance or relationship.
Yes, I have learned that depression is not reserved only for adults, that children can suffer from severe episodes of it too, and that something can be done about it.
I looked over programs in local schools that focus on suicide prevention and found they are aimed at educating and informing the school personnel, staff, teachers and mental health professionals as to what to look for in an at-risk child.
I can understand why these people need this awareness, but what about the children like you, Steven, who are the at- risk population?
Shouldn't someone talk to them and educate and inform them as to what the pitfalls of adolescence are and what depression is and how to handle it? Shouldn't they be told that they do not have to handle it all alone? Don't they need to know that it is normal to feel all of these feelings and yet at the same time know that suicide is not an acceptable option?
Surely, Steven, you could tell them this, and if you were alive I believe you would. But you are dead, so I feel the need to say these things as I believe they are not being said to the confused and vulnerable teens who may feel so helpless and hopeless that they perceive the only way out is through death.
Steven, do you think what I have written will help others to understand? I hope so, but Steven would you believe that though teen suicide has gotten much publicity in the past year, denial is still the most often-used defense against it? Are you aware that President Reagan declared this past June as Youth Suicide Prevention Month? No attention was paid to it.
The bottom line, as I see it, is that we have nothing to lose by looking at our children as being at-risk and everything to lose if we don't.