Breaking Hearts Open

Special to the Portland Press Herald Maine Voices

I applaud the recent teen-age letter writer who has the courage to express her feelings about our suicide epidemic, and encourage that helpline numbers be posted in high schools.

She is correct that we have an epidemic of young adult drug use and suicide. Almost every day these tragedies shout out from the newsprint, or from the television and Internet. May the telling words in the obituaries of young people, “died unexpectedly at home” wake us up!

Adolescence is rightfully the time of experimentation and searching. We leave the familiar surroundings of our family to move out into the larger world. It is right and healthy to challenge and outgrow the roles and restrictions of youth and seek to create new independent and meaningful lives. The excitement and passion of youth are precious but fragile, valuable but vulnerable. This passion, the spark of life itself, deserves and demands the respect and the care of older generations, the rest of us. My heart breaks when I hear of the many deaths by suicide, and the grief and suffering they bring us. Our hearts break open in order to move us to acceptance and action. Underneath teenage searching is a need for understanding, for purpose and community. Many of the causes of suicide are spiritual in nature. Regardless of age we all seek answers, but what’s even more important than answers are the conversations, honest engaged conversations about life’s larger questions, such as what gives life meaning? who’s in charge? how can I live with despair? It is the child’s spirit that seeks expression, often as unique natural emotions like grief, anger, fear and of course, love. This is their essence, their soul, that is trying to express itself. More often than not the child is not mentally ill but spirited, that is, full of natural emotions. We can provide acceptance and action, acceptance with love, knowing we have limited control, and action, knowing we can make a difference. Acceptance requires our humility, our helplessness, and our own surrender. Action requires equal energy reaching out, making contact, and most of all listening, that is, listening without judgment, opening our ears, opening our hearts. Sometimes we need to literally keep our mouth shut, so we can listen and hear with our hearts and souls.
Clich├ęs exist because they contain a grain of truth: suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. We can correct harmful language from ‘committed suicide’ to ‘died by suicide’. Stigma can happen even after the fact. We’re not talking crime here, we’re talking tragedy. It is accurate and honest to use the word died because that’s what happened: someone died: they’re gone, never to come back, except in memory. Both first responders and forever responders – police officers and family members – must live with a legacy of grief, pain and suffering.

We must be mature enough to go beyond the stigma of mental illness labels, which are helpful short-term to identify the seriousness of a problem, but need not be permanent, and always mask a human being with a hurting heart. Every heart needs a listener for their natural emotions. Lots of times we adults don’t know the answers. Besides, it’s not our lives, it’s their lives; that’s what they’re doing: seeking and finding answers for their lives, one day at a time, sometimes one moment at a time. When kids ask, we should respond and be honest, repeat, be honest. To listen sounds simple, and it is, but it means that we put down what we are doing, turn off our cell phone and listen. We must go where the kids are, find them where they hang out, and listen. Walk in there, drive over there, engage at their level, and open our hearts to them. I know it sounds simple, and it is; listening carries the elegant power of simplicity, and it is a precious gift you can offer. Now. You. Listen.

Jacob Watson is a father of four adult children, a former hospice chaplain and author of Essence: The Emotional Path to Spirit. He can be reached at jacobw@gwi.net.