One sunny summer afternoon, I was babysitting a one-year-old at our next-door neighbor’s home. I was barely a teenager then, and it was the first time I was given the responsibility to care for a baby so young. The baby’s parents heard from other neighbors that I was a good sitter, and they knew if I had any questions, I could go directly to my mom for help. I was so thrilled and honored to be given the opportunity, but it was a day I will never forget.

It was the day when I heard the young six-year-old boy I usually baby sit screaming down the street. It was a gut-wrenching scream. I hurried outside with the baby in my arms to see what was happening. However, I didn’t see anything that would cause the young boy to be so upset. I yelled at him loud enough to cause the baby to cry, but he was too distraught to notice me. I had never seen this little boy like this. And, no one was helping him. 

I couldn’t leave the baby and I didn’t want to take the little one with me, so I ran screaming to my mom.  She didn’t hesitate and ran about a block to get to him. I could see them, but I couldn’t tell what was wrong from my location. My mom became upset, too, before she took him to a neighbor’s home. Soon emergency crews arrived, and about an hour or so later,   I learned that the little boy discovered that his Mom had hanged herself in the basement of their home because she was not able to handle her grief from losing her spouse in a freak running incident just days earlier. 
Over the next few weeks, I would experience more tragedy as  I lost about half a dozen of my friends, young teenagers, to suicide. I also learned that the little six-year-old boy whom I loved dearly and lived down the street would have to leave everything he knew to live with a family in another state. At times, I would find myself looking at the boy’s vacant home for long periods of time from my bedroom window wondering how things went so wrong.  

My grief and survivor’s guilt were overwhelming. Day after day, I would stay in bed and cry for hours. I couldn’t even bring myself to utter a word for many weeks. I felt alone in my sorrow. I felt that I was the only person to know all of the people involved in this suicide cluster.  

As time passed, I found the strength to get out of bed, go to school, and engage with family, friends, and neighbors. It took a long time for me to adjust to a life without my friends and neighbors who passed. I didn’t think I would have found my way if it hadn’t been for my mother who gave her patience, kindness, and these little moments of non-verbal communiques such as a look, a hug, a smile, and sometimes a little bit more ice cream to remind me that she knows that it is still tough for me and that she is going to continue to help me recover.

She would notice habits I developed as a coping mechanism such as regularly looking at the obituaries. My mom was not okay seeing her young teenage daughter spending her time wondering whom she wouldn’t see again. So, she would get the paper first and put notes in that section of the paper saying things like: 

“There are many beautiful people in this section, but no friends or family” or “If you are looking for Johnny, you will need to see him at Sally’s house.”  (Continued at Right)
She never told me to stop looking or stop crying. She never pushed me to be social when I had no real reason not to participate. She has never forgotten the heartbreak I experienced, and she never gave up trying to heal my heart with unconditional love.

Over time, my spirit mended, but I always carry the memories of those who died of broken hearts. I will likely always have tears welling up in my eyes or rolling down my cheeks when I think about them. It doesn’t mean I don’t live my life.  I learned through this process how to find strength I may not know exists.  More importantly, how one person who tries to be present in your life and meets you where you are can make you feel like you are not alone and that you are important.

My experience with my long and quiet journey to normalcy when I was a teen would be needed decades later. My community experienced a significant number of suicides in a short period. According to experts, several teenagers didn’t seem to be coping. They were disengaged and numb, until I shared my story with them. 

I had an opportunity to support them through their losses, and I wasn’t about to make them tell me what they were feeling because I remembered I couldn’t verbalize anything to my mother  either when I was in their shoes.

I don’t know if sharing my experience while they were grieving saved any lives, but I do know it eased worry and made their journey easier. I didn’t have to go and support these teens. My life at that time was busy enough. I didn’t need to add a few long grieving sessions, too.  I made the choice to be present for them, and I chose to give them the love someone one gave me a long time ago.

This experience encourages me to choose to be present in the moment and let the little stuff go. I know how quickly emotional and mental health can change, and in honor of my friends, I opt to be a good steward of the impact I have on others. 

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