Michael George Smith, Jr.‘s body was discovered hanging from a tree in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. It was not a public lynching as many people feared. It was a suicide.
He was young. He was gay. Michael believed the only way he could end his emotional pain and inability to make peace with his identity was to end his life.
I was a youth minister at a church when I received a call about Becca. Karli and Becca’s classmates were wracked with guilt. They blamed themselves.
“Becca was my best friend,” Karli cried. “I knew she was sad, but I didn’t know she wanted to kill herself. Why didn’t she tell me?”
Becca was 17 years old when she decided she no longer could bear the dark, consuming hole of depression. Her mother found her lifeless body in the attic. Becca swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, wrapped herself in a blanket, clung to a teddy bear, and never woke up.
The death of a child or teenager confuses and devastates everyone who loves them.
Barbara Hailey was a friend in high school. She had the most lovely singing voice I’ve ever heard. I moved away from our hometown in St. Louis when I left for college and I never looked back. Barb got married and had children.
Her son, Jake, was killed in an automobile accident in 2010. The pain of his loss are as real and deep as they were when she first received news about his death. In a blog post called A Beautiful Difference, Barb wrote:
What a beautiful difference a single life can make. Those words were on a sympathy card I received almost five years ago when I lost my 18 year old son in a car accident. Jake had just graduated from high school and was getting ready to leave for college when he was killed one night on a dark country road. I thought his life was just beginning, but I was wrong. I remember thinking that I couldn’t believe that this is how his story ended. He had so much more to do.
Over the years, people have asked if I am or suggested I should be “over it” or that I should be “moving on.” The truth is, I will never be “over it” and don’t want to be: “it” is my only son. As for moving on, my life is going forward, but it will never be the same. I am as happy as I can be under the circumstances. I have a beautiful and talented daughter, a great man in my life (who has the same dry wit as Jake), and I am blessed with family and friends. However, no matter what happens in the future, there will always be a empty chair at my table and an empty place in my heart. Hallmark got it right this time: What a beautiful difference a single life can make.
What do you say to a parent, sibling, or friend when a young person dies? When my younger sister, Kellie, died, many people offered words of comfort that were painful to hear. I did not want to listen to quotes from Scripture. I didn’t want to pray about it. What felt enormously healing at the time of her death was listening to people tell wonderful stories about her life and the positive impact she had on others.
“I went to talk to a counselor, but she wouldn’t let me talk,” cried Karli. “She told me all about her friends who died young. I felt like it was my job to counsel her.”
Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, lost his son, Aaron, when he was 14 years old. Kushner explained, “At some of the darkest moments in my life, some people I thought of as friends deserted me — some because they cared about me and it hurt them to see me in pain; others because I reminded them of their own vulnerability and that was more than they could handle. But real friends overcame their discomfort and came to sit with me. If they had not words to make me feel better, they sat in silence (much better than saying, “You’ll get over it” or “It’s not so bad; others have it worse”) and I loved them for it.”
So, what don’t you say to someone grieving the loss of a child or teenager? Laurie Burrows Grad offers this list of the worst platitudes and insensitive clichés to those in mourning:
He’s in a better place. (A better place would be beside me now.)
Everything happens for a reason. (There is no rhyme or reason for this kind of loss.)
Time heals all wounds. (Time doesn’t heal all wounds, although healing takes time.)
Try not to cry. He wouldn’t want you to cry. (He’d be bawling his eyes out.)
It is time to put this behind you. (There is no timetable for grief.)
If you think this is bad, let me tell you about the time … (No comparisons, please.)
I know how you feel. (Do we ever really know how someone feels?)
Let me tell you about my own loss, which is similar to yours. (Please just listen and acknowledge my loss.)
You’ll get through it. Be strong. (This tells people to hold on to their grief and not let it out.)
Grad suggests these kind words to comfort someone in times of grief:
I am sorry for your loss.
I love you.
I wish I had the right words to comfort you. Just know that I care.
I don’t know how you feel, but I am available to help in any way I can.
How can I help or support you?
My favorite memory of your loved one is …
How are you doing?
Say nothing. Just be with the person.
How can parents help young people cope with the traumatic loss of friend?
Jeff Yalden, youth motivational speaker, offers these suggestions to parents, youth leaders, teachers, and to anyone who mourns the loss of a young friend or family member:
Here are suggested responses: Be physically present, show warmth and compassion, be patient, allow the teen to talk about it, listen carefully, acknowledge feelings, show an understanding of what happened, give reasonable reassurance and follow through on promises and agreements made. Teens will try to make some sense of what happened and it is important for them to come to a resolution about the event. Carefully challenge any negative conclusions and reinforce the positive ones.
The following behaviors can be harmful: Focus on self instead of the teen, deny the seriousness of the event, shrug off the teen’s feelings, tell the teen not to think or talk about it, make assumptions, overreact with anxiety or anger, withdraw from the teen, or make major changes in the normal household activities and routines.
When a young person dies, acknowledge your own grief. Be sad. Remember their stories. Allow the best part of them to become the best part of you. Share that story with someone who desperately needs to know that the young person’s life mattered.