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The Lost Ones
I know this happens to families everywhere, every day. Most days I don’t think about it. In fact as the mom of teenage girls, I try hard not to think about it. But today I can’t seem to think about anything else, because it has happened in our small community. Yesterday, a young man my daughter had been in school with for years decided to end his own life. He was fifteen years old. The National Institutes of Mental Health state that suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24. It further states that nearly five times as many males in this age group kill themselves, than females in the same age range. Even more shocking to me was this statistic: for every successful suicide attempt, there are 11 failed attempts. (Source: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/suicide-in-the-us-statistics-and-prevention/index.shtml)
While my heart aches for this poor lost boy and his family, my mind struggles to wrap itself around this question: What could possibly have been so wrong in this child’s life that he decided to throw everything away? He was FIFTEEN YEARS OLD! If things were so bad, how is it that no one knew how much he was hurting? If they knew, why didn’t they get help for him? I guess what my brain keeps screaming is why did this happen? The more I learn, the more the answer becomes apparent.
My 14 year old daughter said to me last night “Mom, I feel bad. The last time I talked to him I was kind of a jerk.” She told me that this boy was often rude to her, and that he wasn’t her friend. They had been on a sports team together, so she knew him somewhat. But he was a year older, and ran with a different crowd. Another person I know used to be his babysitter. She said he was teased and tormented for his whole life, because he was different. He had some physical differences and I know that his family background was a little rough. She told me that he was a sweet boy and that he was always trying to be funny, but he wasn’t very good at it. All these little pieces. Pieces of the life of a boy I never knew, and now won’t get the chance to know.
I realize that kids can be cruel. I was a fat kid and a teacher’s kid – a double whammy – and my family moved a lot, so I was often the new kid, as well. I was teased, tormented and picked on, called names, etc. Because I had good family support, I got through it mostly unscathed. There were many times I cried and felt miserable. But I knew that my family loved me, and that was enough to get me through it. I sought escape in my books, and the refuge that was home. But that was years ago, and I know that times have changed.
I listened to an NPR interview just last night with an author who researched and wrote a book about bullying among girls. One thing that stuck out for me was that because of today’s technology, there is no escape. The schoolyard bullying I endured as a child is now carried on 24x7, through social media, cell phones, etc. Kids who are bullied cannot get away from it. On one hand, they are ostracized if they don’t have an online presence. On the other, that very presence allows people to continue to torment them while simultaneously giving others an easy venue to join in. The anonymity and physical distance the internet provides means people feel free to say things they would never say in person. The author told of a girl who killed herself because of the hundreds of vicious comments posted to her Facebook page after another girl accused her of trying to steal her boyfriend. The accusation was false, but the vitriol kept coming. For that poor child, it seemed there was nothing left to live for, that the torment would never end. I wonder how many kids posted on her page without thinking, just because felt better to be the tormentor than the tormented for a change?
It’s easy to blame parents, society, the internet, the culture, for this epidemic among our youth. The fact is we all carry some of the burden. It is easy to look at a kid – especially a teen boy – and think “That kid is nothing but trouble.” We all see them walking the mall. Some may be dressed all in black with band t-shirts, eyeliner and chains. Others may be sagging their pants and wearing gang colors, scowling and trying to look tough. They may look like jocks or nerds or just average kids. The truth is, they are just kids, and we can’t know what they are feeling on the inside. They could be in deep pain, with no way to express it or work it through. They could be deeply lonely and feel that no one in the world cares what happens to them. They look like they feel invincible, but in reality they feel invisible. We all remember that adolescence sucks, but I think as adults we forget how much it can hurt. Add to this the fact that teens are not mentally capable of reasoning into the future like adults can, and you have a recipe for disaster. For them, the now often is the only reality they can understand, and it can be excruciating.
So what can we do? I’ve been asking myself this question all night and all morning. I’ve come to one conclusion. I can’t do everything, but I can do SOMETHING. So the next time I see one of those kids at the mall, or at the school, or in the grocery store, I’m going to make it a point to look at him or her and smile. Acknowledge their presence on the planet. Maybe say hello. Let them know in that small way that I see them, and that I value them as people. When I see or hear bullying behavior, online or in person, I will try to call people on it in a loving way. I work with teen girls through Scouting, and we have spent a lot of time talking about self -image issues. I am going to keep beating that drum, but I am also going to talk to them about how they treat others. I will try harder to choose my own words carefully, and monitor my actions and attitudes. I will ask God to help me really see kids that are hurting, and do what I can to help. I will pray, every day, for our children and teens. It’s not much, but it’s something. If we all do something, maybe we can help to turn this tide of despair and suffering. Because a single kind word or action may be all that it takes to avert another tragedy.