It felt like a typical foggy fall Thursday morning as I turned down Southwest 16th Street on my way to drop off my daughter, Allie, for another day of school at W.F. West High School. As we waited in line for our opportunity to turn left into the congested school parking lot, I saw a woman on the corner alone, holding a white sign with a message written in black ink. She wore a mask and turned her sign with every car that came into the parking lot so that each passenger could read the message.
My immediate thought was, “Oh boy, let’s see what kind of crazy we are dealing with today.” My cynicism lifted as we passed closely by and I could make out just a few words of the message. The words I caught were “life, deserve and value.” I wasn’t able to make out the entire message as I was trying to avoid a fender bender but those words were enough to smack me across the face with the reality that faced the students and staff as they started school that day: Two students in the last month have lost their lives due to suicide.
The heaviness was immediately palpable. The tragic loss of one child’s life feels unbearable, but two? It’s just incomprehensible. I had spoken with a teacher friend the night before as we watched our boys play soccer and he mentioned that in 15 years of teaching in four school districts that he had never dealt with a single suicide. Now, he looks out on the faces of teenagers who have lost two classmates in a matter of weeks.
There is a certain kind of paralysis that happens in grief where you want to do anything and everything to help and simultaneously feel completely and utterly helpless to actually affect change for good. Since I heard the news of the first student’s passing, I’ve felt gripped by this feeling. It is heightened in the case of suicides because I have seen earnest attempts to help that have done more damage than good. The stakes are high so most folks do nothing.
The woman on the corner probably felt that paralysis, too. But perhaps the news of the second student’s passing broke the impasse. She had to act. And this morning, she did.
I dropped Allie off, told her I loved her and drove to work but could not stop thinking about the woman with the sign. The Hippocratic Oath came to mind as I considered her choice to act; specifically, “do no harm.” Holding a sign that says, in effect, “you matter,” doesn’t hurt anyone. It doesn’t cast judgement or create enemies. It does no harm.
But did it affect change? It’s hard to know if a student’s life was changed by that sign but I can tell you with certainty that it affected me. I got back to my office and texted a word of encouragement to the boys on my basketball team to let them know that they aren’t alone, and they can talk to me if they need help processing things. And I made a donation to a nonprofit organization called “To Write Love On Her Arms” that exists to offer hope and support to those battling addiction, depression and suicidal ideation.
Both of these actions were small and felt somewhat insignificant when faced with the heaviness of this situation but it’s something, and something is better than nothing.
So, to the woman on the corner with the sign, I want to say a heartfelt, “thank you.” Your courageous act of standing alone, expressing words of care and encouragement made a difference to me.