In my tenure as educator in a private Christian school, I’ve had some tough weeks before where nothing went right. In those times, I still tried to find the positive amongst the negative and tell myself the pain was only temporary. Invariably, my assumptions were confirmed, as the “bad weeks” never seemed to be prolonged into weeks, months or years. Positive energy was always the next day away, ready to brighten my perspective and turn my attention back to the joys that come from seeing students flourish.
The positive energy of this new school year was unexpectedly and violently ripped out of the atmosphere last weekend when we were informed on Sunday of the tragic news that one of our beloved 10th grade girls chose to take her life on the Friday night of the first week of school. Needless to say, last week was the toughest I’ve ever experienced with students. And I suspect these tough days are going to turn into tough weeks and months ahead for our school family and tough years for her closest friends and family who loved her most.
Where does one start to piece together something this devastating? Your world literally stops. You don’t know what to think, what to believe or what’s appropriate to feel. And it’s not just a few that are affected. When you have a middle and high school only totaling 90 students, it touches everyone.
So much pain.
So much emotion.
So many questions.
No good answers.
This post is my meager attempt to honor the life of this child and help our students cope with their pain. Her grandparents, who acted as her legal guardians for the last several years, have graciously consented to this writing in the hopes that others may understand the effects of suicide. It is their wish that our students would always cherish their fond memories and live a better life themselves for having known their granddaughter – who, at the request of the family, I will give the pseudonym Jane Doe for the remainder of this post.
An element that made this shocking was that Jane had an incredible support system. Her grandparents were very involved and did everything they could to foster a nurturing environment for her and her younger brother. She was not an outcast at school. She was not bullied or mercilessly teased. She was not shy, timid or withdrawn. She was not a discipline problem in the classroom. Oh…quite the contrary.
The picture of health and beauty, her smile would light up the classroom the moment she came through the door. She had a core group of girlfriends who roamed the halls of school together like they were joined at the hip. She connected with teachers and staff. She was loved.
I remember she would ask deep and pertinent theological questions about God and life in my classes. She engaged people. She was a leader on the cheer squad.
But she had deep scars from her childhood that continued to wound and fester. Only a few were fully aware of how painful it was for her. I remember her talking about those in a general way last year when she shared a devotional in my Bible class. It was sweet and precious and courageous. I saw a teenager, confronting her past and working to move forward from it. That’s what every parent and teacher hopes for.
We know now she couldn’t escape it.
Three days after Jane took her life, our middle and high school student body gathered in our church sanctuary, first period Monday morning. You can’t imagine a sadder scene. Students sobbed uncontrollably. Others gathered together in corners or in seats hugging one another. Many just stared off in the distance, eyes glazed over. You can’t help but tear up and have a lump in your throat to see young people have to deal with this.
Members of Jane’s family were there as well as many parents of our students, coming to support their child and their child’s friends. You get that type of supportive reaction in a small private school where everyone knows everyone. Parents investing time in the emotional health of their children – what a beautiful thing to see.
Our church and school pastor had the responsibility of making sense of it all that morning. I’m not sure anyone wanted to or could listen but he did a great job considering the circumstances. And then Jane’s grandmother spoke. I can’t imagine having that level of courage. But she was so concerned at the grief and well-being of our student body I doubt anything would have kept her from taking the stage that morning.
We spent the majority of first period in chapel. After that, many kids went home with their parents. Those who were left spent the rest of the day being debriefed and counseled.
Tuesday wasn’t much better, especially for those in her class. The 10th grade girls made a shrine of pictures and memorabilia in Jane’s locker. They wore pink bracelets and hair bows – her favorite color. We had an emotional talk about her in my Bible class.
As the week wore on the sadness lingered. Some began to share their feelings. Others buried them. Many were having sleepless nights.
Emotions surrounding Jane
There has been such a wide range of emotions presented in words and in looks. It’s understandable because everyone deals with death and grief differently. Our school’s four horsemen have been:
Sadness. It’s a 20 on a scale of 1 to 10. I think you have probably sensed that already.
Frustration. Utter helplessness. That is what I felt all week trying to explain this to our students and her friends. It’s frustrating because you can’t bring Jane back and try to spiritually and emotionally reach her one last time. Dually frustrating, is that as a trusted adult authority figure in their life, I’m looked upon as one who has the answers they need. In this case, I found myself sorely lacking in many instances.
Guilt. Oh, my gosh…the guilt. “I should have done more to help,” I heard a student say this week. “Why didn’t I listen more to her?” said another. In the back of their mind, the tape player is rolling and it’s saying, “It’s all my fault. I could have stopped this.”
Anger. This is a tough one but I’ve heard it several times. People are angry at themselves. People are angry at Jane. People are angry with God.
And I’ll admit, after the initial shock wore off, it was the first emotion I experienced.
I was angry that she couldn’t see past the pain and imagine a brighter future. I was angry that she won’t grow up and experience the love of a caring husband or the joy of holding her own baby. I was angry that she didn’t reach out more and share more and that she forced her friends into experiencing deep pain.
(I’ve resolved the anger in my spirit now but I believe this and guilt will be the two emotions our students deal with the longest.)
Questions for Jane
When? Where? How?
What were you thinking?
How could you do this to yourself?
How could you do this to us?
What caused you to think this was the only way out?
What emotional pain was that bad?
Even if all other hope was lost, didn’t you realize God was there for you?
Why didn’t you share more about what you were going through?
Could I have done more to help you?
Why didn’t you see how much we loved you?
Did I say something to push you to this?
Didn’t you realize you would make us feel awful?
These will mostly go unanswered. Some we don’t need to know.
Hope for Jane
This past Saturday it was standing room only at Jane’s memorial service. The family aptly chose to call it “A Celebration” of her life. It was all of that and more.
One of her closest friends read a farewell letter through courageous tears. There was a slide presentation set to music. Her favorite candies were out on a side table. Her friends devoured them. One of our current teachers shared some fun stories, one in particular of Jane getting caught eating breakfast in the bathroom instead of being in 1st period class one morning. (I’ve always thought laughter at a memorial service feels good.) And one of her former teachers, turned minister, shared with us the hope that we all have for Jane today.
He reminded us that as much as we loved Jane, God loves her more.
The Christian doctrine teaches that God is holy (perfect) and we are not. God cannot look on or abide with imperfection. So if I, an unholy person died, I would be subject to eternal separation from God as my penalty. To remedy that issue and provide a means to escape eternal separation, God sent His only perfect son, Jesus Christ, to spiritually take that penalty by dying on a Roman cross. It was perfection voluntarily dying for imperfection and all I need to do is believe that concept to be true and put my trust in Him.
Jane had made that decision in her life. So today she is walking with God in heaven. Pain free. In glory.
Moving forward without Jane
As tough as it will be for the family, our students, staff and parent body, life goes on for us. But how to move forward? What should we be doing in the present to heal ourselves and live a life that might honor our memory of Jane? Here are some suggestions to consider:
Remember the positives from her life, especially how she gave to others. (The family wanted to share that her organs were donated and have already helped two people with life-threatening situations. So a part of her will continue to live on.)
Be thankful for the time we were given to know her.
Honor her life by carrying the best parts of her forward with us.
Rally around each another in this time of grief. Spend time with one another. Don’t isolate yourself.
Hug someone and listen. Love each other.
Don’t stuff your feelings deep down. Share and talk with those closest to you no matter how painful it is.
Refuse to blame yourself for what happened. She made a choice and it was hers alone.
Draw near to God, the great Comforter. He is our ever-present help in time of need.
Encourage one another through kind words and actions.
Be sensitive to those who may be dealing with this loss harder than you.
Never forget how you felt about this and NEVER, EVER take the same action. Suicide is not the answer.
If this has touched you some how, then please share through the medium of social media. The family hopes that others who may be dealing with this issue can be comforted or perhaps tragedy averted by coming across this post. Be in prayer for them and our student body as we continue to deal with the ramifications of this event.
Goodbye Jane Doe. We will miss you.