Thursday, January 2, 2020

When the Memory of One Night Won't Go Away

by Beth Saadati

January 2 started like any other day—a welcomed return to structure and routine after two weeks of winter break, with all the hope and promise that accompany a new year. At 3:45 I naively wove through the high school car line to pick up my freshman daughter, completely unaware the world I’d known was about to change.

In the backseat, Jenna chatted lightheartedly with a carpooled friend and recounted the day’s happenings. One awkward moment peppered the list—circulated talk about a guy with a girlfriend who’d asked Jenna to the I.B. Ball, even though she’d said no. “I always attract drama,” Jenna declared.

She laughed it off then asked how many friends had emailed to say they planned to come to a game night she’d host in three days. “You’re already up to fourteen,” I replied. She smiled, seemingly happy with the news.

On the afternoon of January 2nd, Jenna waved no red flags. Her arrival home was followed by a little time in her room, the customary change of clothes, a request to go to her “thinking spot” by the stream as long as she returned in time to finish AP world history homework before attending youth group. Without hesitation I agreed and returned to editing a friend’s novel—the chapter in which the villain appears. Unsuspecting fingers clicked laptop keys.

Time ticked by. Darkness replaced light. Jenna never arrived.

January 2 ended like no other night. A long search. A police interrogation. Friends thoughtfully picking up my two young kids. Sirens, flashing lights, yellow caution tape. Fear of abduction, fear unlike anything I’ve ever known, concluding with a friend’s gentle delivery of eleven terrible words: “Your daughter is dead. It appears she took her own life.”

Then a wailing of “no” that didn’t sound like my voice. A sleepless night. A suicide letter to read, a funeral to plan, painful decisions to make.

The morning before visitation, I sat in the funeral-home parking lot with a family friend—a friend who wanted to say his goodbye privately before the evening crowd came in. We sat in the Accent for over an hour, neither of us ready to see the beautiful girl who, in this world, would no longer smile, laugh, or open her eyes. He glanced towards my seat, said he’d known someone who’d walked through trauma and was never the same, said he didn’t want me to end up that way. I internalized the challenge, assured him I’d be okay.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Was It Worth It?

It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting to read when I opened the email from one of my former English students:

Hey, I know this is kind of out of the blue, but I just started songwriting. One of the songs I wrote is about suicide. I hope to show people who experience suicidal thoughts that there are people who love them, that suicide doesn’t get back at people who’ve hurt them, that it hurts the people they’re closest to. If it's ok with you, I would like to dedicate it to Jenna. I've included the lyrics for you to read if you don't think it would be too painful. If it is, I completely understand. I'm so sorry to throw this at you.

I can’t think of anything more worth sharing for National Suicide Prevention Month. The story within Olivia’s beautiful song is so powerful, so heart-wrenching, so true. I urge you to take four minutes to listen to it. If only we could remember these words when depression and lying suicidal thoughts arise, I believe far fewer lives would end before their time. 

Please stay,

by Olivia Henn

Several years ago I attended a funeral which shouldn't have had to take place—at least not for a very long time. 

She was a young teenager—beautiful, full of life, and a joy to everyone around her. Unfortunately, she was the victim of some bullying at her school, and somewhere along the way she lost hope. 

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to know her. Watching her pictures scroll across the screen and hearing countless testimonies from all the people who loved her, I could only cry and imagine the pain her family was going through. I was much younger then and couldn’t understand why anyone who had touched the lives of so many would ever take their own life.

Time passed. During February of last year, I read Beth Saadati’s blog post “3 (or 13) Reasons Why Not: From One Left to Survive a Non-Fictionalized Suicide” in response to the book and Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why. This inspired me to write my first song.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Letter to the Girl Who Should Have Turned 21

by Beth Saadati

Dear Jenna,

When Dear Evan Hansen came to Greenville, I wasn't ready to see it. (I am, however, currently working through the novel.) In the Broadway musical, Evan undertakes a common challenge given by counselors to help survive the pain in this life. He writes letters. Which reminded me of something I've been meaning to do. Although you won't be reading this, it’s long past time I write one to you.

I wish I could have told you Happy 21st Birthday this week. Twenty-one is a BIG DEAL. I wish I could have seen your smile once again and taken you out to mark the occasion. Or, if you’d been away, at least emailed . . . or texted . . . or talked by phone and heard your voice—and, yes, I’m crying as I type this line.

I wish I knew whether I should think of you, now, as my vivacious 14-year-old girl or as a beautiful young woman. For all your years here, you loved that August 13th date. This is the seventh birthday you’ve missed. Supposedly seven is the number of perfection . . . but not in this case.

I wish you could have celebrated—with friends, cousins, grandparents, your dad, me, and other extended family. I still see and talk with some of your friends, Jenna—we text, catch up over a meal, or meet at their universities—and that’s been good, so good, except you should be there. At the core your close friends are the same, though they've grown and matured. With others, I’ve lost touch. That might have happened anyway—after all, relationships sometimes change—but I’d like to think, if you’d remained, those sweet connections wouldn’t have drifted away.

I wish you could be here for your sister and brother. You’ve missed several significant milestones, but even more, all the little moments of greater worth. You would have shared wisdom to guide them through the turbulent teen years. Told stories that let them laugh. And, no doubt, encouraged them on life's journey as their number-one fan.

I wish you could watch Christa, who plays your clarinet, and Josh march with the high-school band. I wish you could return with the other alumni to cheer them on. This year's competition show is powerful. The title? To the Broken… Which, also, is a letter—composed by someone who finds his voice through writing. The premise and theme certainly ring true.

I wish you were starting your senior year of college. You’re the one who should be taking classes—not me. I wish I could figure out how to rightly re-imagine and plot your bittersweet story, wish I were teaching full-time instead of wrestling to word it in graduate school. I was the teacher and editor: you were the writer. Crafting a novel is such a lonely journey, and nothing about this inherited assignment feels quite right.

I wish I knew your fictional characters well enough to finish your book and fulfill your final letter's request. Really, you’re probably the only one who can do that. Nevertheless, I long to. My inability to give you this last parting gift tears a piece of my heart apart.

I’m afraid this sounds selfish, but I wish you were here while I go through cancer treatments—wrapping your arms around me, resting your chin on the top of my head and whispering, “It’s gonna be okay, Mom”. . . the way you used to whenever a sky-high stack of students’ essays lay piled on my desk to grade.

I wish I knew what you’re seeing. And thinking. And experiencing. I wonder what you know, wonder if people who’ve left this life since your death have shared stories from home. I have a ton of unanswered questions. I’ve gone to sleep hundreds of times begging God to please give me a dream of you. There have been none. I struggle to believe what I cannot see, to hold onto such distant hope. It’s not the way I ever wanted this to be.

I wish this letter were happy and positive, light-hearted and fun. I think it would have been if you had truly turned 21.

There’s more I’d like to tell you—enough to fill a book—but this will have to do.

Before I go, though, I’ll explain the attached photo. My friend Sam, a teacher and writer who leads a ministry called Recklessly Alive, was visiting from Minnesota. If you’d heard him speak before making your decision, I’m pretty sure you’d be around. I went with Sam to a 1924 textile mill in order to photograph Mary, the photographer, while she snapped some pictures for him. That’s when we saw this—the month and day you were born stenciled onto the floor. The reminders are everywhere. I'll never forget.  

To conclude, I continue to journey—life doesn’t exactly stop—and mostly live in the moment, because there are plenty of memories to make and much reason to live.

But I really, really wish you were here. So many of us do.

I miss you. I love you. Someday I’ll see you again.

We’ll have a lifetime of catching up to take care of then.

All my love,
Beth (or maybe I’m still ‘Mom’ to you?)

[Photo Credit: Mary Denman]