There was a crisis in Oak Park, a suburb right next to Chicago. A 15-year old girl ended her life by jumping off the expressway in the thick of darkness last week. What followed immediately touched me in many ways. I don’t know the family or the girl, but my best friend who has a 15-year old daughter who lives in Oak Park teared up. We processed it over a coffee. Then, the next day, my Child Psychiatry Fellow was spaced out in my trainee supervision hour. I asked what’s the matter. She dissolved into tears about the same girl. She also has a teenage daughter and could not fathom this, knowing the wonderful Church going family. This is immediately followed by my teenage girl patient and her Mom walking into my room, with Mom also tearing up over the loss of this same girl again. This rash of intense fear, disbelief and shock is propelled by how unthinkable suicide is in case of this talented youth where it was totally unexpected. I want to quickly add that no one will know the details in full, though folk are trying to piece it together. But that is not the question I want to address. I want to talk about the mothers collectively identifying with the girl’s mother who killed herself and asking what if it is my daughter? In addition to empathy, this identification really sky-rocketed intense fear and doom, asking themselves if they are good parent and if their daughters really will share the stories intimately with them if there is crisis, and how can one know and help. I will address this.
What my teenage patient said was, “If the girl saw how many thousands of people came and spoke so highly of her, she would not have killed herself.” See, the reality is no one will ever come in throngs and propel praises and embrace unless say, you are the protagonist of the obituary. Or win the highest honor such as an Olympic medal (even then, I doubt it).
First, in reality, recognition, appreciation, love and fondness are expressed in small bits throughout life, not en masse necessarily. Let us help our children to mindfully cherish what people tell them from myriad of positive encounters. Pay attention to help them appreciate, as a way of life, that there is a lot of goodness and support that surrounds them.
Second, there must be avenues where youth can process negative things occurring to them. An adult figure such as teachers, relatives, mentors, therapists and psychiatrists are some options, if not parents. They should be able to disassemble and understand what occurred that is painful. Regardless of any grain of truth to the inciting event, complex issues such as jealousy and immature interactions among youth and family dynamics that may help or hurt in resolving issues play into it. At least intellectually and blindly hang on to the dictum in crisis, “intensity of pain is not permanent ever, and shall pass.”
Third, the supreme issue of intimacy. Often teens think, “It is weird to be close to family.” Parents doubt if they stand a chance to be close to their kids. I want to explain what is not so apparent in our daily lingo. It helps to explain this narrative to our kids so they understand the place for intimacy in various contexts in various ways. There is developmentally appropriate intimacy where youth share with comfort with friends that is awkward to talk with family: Sex, ideas, romantic feelings, dressing, dreams for the future, opposite gender issues, looks they like and dislike, teachers they like and dislike, small tiffs and so on. These are with chosen friends, and they change in configuration from elementary/middle school to high school to undergraduate college to graduate college and so on. With family, it is unconditional intimacy. If there is danger, catastrophe, issues of being ganged up by any major crisis, money needs, decisions in life, major vacations, roasting each other intimately, asking for whatever you want to eat or spend time as you like, having the right to refuse all of the above out-rightly and still being loved, being able to negotiate any issue with trust without being rejected, it is the family that serves as receptacle. That is permanent and unconditionally available for our children. There may be fluidity between the two types of intimacy with some overlap especially as one matures into adulthood, but one gets the idea. The checks and balances of our availability to our children are summarized by an endearing mom: “Capture the moments.” Whenever you have the opportunity to spend time or do something together, ask them if they like to do x, y or z with you. They may take it or leave it. You may be pleasantly surprised.