Monday, December 18, 2017

A Small Stone With A Huge Meaning

Don't give up. Don't ever give up. - Jim Valvano

On Saturday, December 16, 2017 the southern part of the state of Texas was thoroughly doused in a downpour.  The next day, Sunday the 17th broke cloudy and cold, and the sky threatened more of the same. At 11:00 that morning, my family and I began our trek from Wimberly, where we had attended my wife Lisa's office Christmas party, to Georgetown where we would meet up with Peyton's mother Jacki and others to finally place his remembrance stone in the Memorial Garden at Forbes Middle School.

The journey was to this day was not one of miles, but of time and obstacles.  On October 8, 2014, Peyton, then an 8th grader at Forbes, came home from school and hanged himself in his bedroom.  Despite the efforts of his mother, first responders, and the PICU staff at Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin, Peyton passed away from his injuries on October 13th.

In the days leading up to his death, Peyton had filed a harassment complaint against another student.  My initial reaction was to use the young man as a punching bag, but as cooler heads prevailed.  I became worried about the burden that the young man would be carrying.  I emailed the principal to see if they were able to identify the young man in question.  I was told he was not, and that worried me, but two years later, after reading the police report, I discovered that the principal at the time had lied to me and Jacki. I have no idea why he felt the need to keep this information from us.  Perhaps he was protecting the student's privacy, perhaps he was following orders from above, perhaps he was covering his own ass, but he allowed us to spend more than two years thinking that this kid went undiscovered, perhaps carrying guilt over Peyton's death.

Earlier this year, when Jacki discovered that there was a memorial garden at Forbes, she asked the current principal if we could place a small memorial stone for Peyton.  She was told no because Peyton had taken his life.   Needless to say, this was the wrong thing to tell two parents that were not willing to slink off with their tail between our legs.  Through our respective non-profits, Kindness Matters and The Peyton Heart Project, and social media, we raised awareness of this situation.  People were outraged by this. While Jacki contacted people within the district seeking to resolve the situation, I began my research to debunk the district's antiquated arguments against the memorial, as well as any policy that the district had addressing memorials (they had none).  In November, we were finally given the go ahead to place the stone.  It had to be placed before the first of the year, as the district adopted a policy that no more memorials would be allowed*.

As we drove up Interstate 35, the sun finally broke through and the clouds began to drift away.  We arrived at Forbes, located the garden, and waited for others to arrive.  Slowly, vehicles began to drift into the parking lot.  A small group comprised of friends, family, and even a school board member, went about the task of cleaning up the garden.  We pulled weeds, moved rocks, and picked up trash.  Finally, we placed his stone, a small 12x18 remembrance of a life that ended far too soon. As I stood silently, I held back my tears as long as I could before I lost it.  As Lisa held me, I let the tears pour out of me.  After I composed myself long enough to thank those that showed up, I knelt down on the cold, damp ground one more time.  I touched the stone to reassure myself that it was there, that the fight to honor my son was over, and we had achieved our goal not to force the district to enact new policy, but to pay homage to a life ended too soon.

I can't help but wonder if Peyton had died of cancer or been hit by a car while riding bike, would we have had two have jumped through so many hoops to be allowed this small memorial?  As an avid reader of author Michael Connelly, I have become a fan of his character Harry Bosch.  In Connelly's book The Last Coyote, Bosch says "everybody counts or nobody counts. That's it. It means I bust my ass to make a case whether it's a prostitute or the mayor's wife. That's my rule." In a way, that is how I feel about honoring students that have passed away.  School Districts need to have guidelines in place should a student lose their life.  If they choose to allow a memorial, a mention in the yearbook, a moment of silence, a picture in the hall or not, that is their right.  However, they must enforce this policy equally.  The president of the student council is no better or worse than the quiet kid in the back of the room failing every class.  Whether the student dies from cancer is no more, or less, honorable than a student that dies from depression.

As we pulled out of the parking lot and headed home, I was finally able to take some solace in knowing that Peyton finally received the honor he deserved. No, Peyton won't be remembered for a long touchdown run, a breath taking performance on stage, hitting the winning shot, or for an award winning article in the school paper.  But thanks to a small stone with a huge meaning, at least he will be remembered.

*As of January 1, 2018, the Georgetown Independent School District will no longer allow external memorials for any student who passes away.  However,  They will allow things like donating books in a child's name or some other thing that can be moved from building to building if needed.  Any memorials that are currently in place will be allowed to stay.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Let's Have A Conversation about Suicide and Mental Health And Save Kid's Lives

“You’re just pissed off. And when you’re pissed off, you lash out.” ― Dennis Lehane
A couple of weeks ago, rumors reached me of a 7th grade boy at one of our local junior high schools taking his life.  I reached out to those I know that would have any information, and it was confirmed that the young man had in fact taken his life.  I reached out to the school to offer my condolences and any help I could, but received no reply.  In fact, I was informed that the teachers had been told not to talk to the students about the incident, and if students had any questions, they were to be referred to the counselors.  I would like to say I was stunned, but that would be a lie.    Once again, an opportunity to educate students about suicide and mental health issues, and to possible save or help some one, was wasted.  

No offense to the counselors at that school, but how many of the students assigned to them have they spent the past ten or twelve weeks with on a daily basis?  How many of those students do they interact with on a daily basis?  How many of those students are comfortable opening up to some one they may not have even spoken to since school started?  It is the teachers that are on the front lines in this battle.  It is the teachers that have earned the trust of the students they are assigned.  It is the teachers that have built relationships with, and they have effectively been  handcuffed.  

My frustration had peaked, and I was ready to launch into a tirade on social media, but then I was asked by the lead counselor at my school for suggestions that might help with this problem.  Please keep in mind that this was the third suicide of a student in the district since June, and it seemed apparent to me that something needed to be done before another student took their life.  I turned o the experts.  Not people with multiple advanced degrees and an alphabet soup of certifications after their name, but the real experts, those that have been touched personally by suicide.  

This time I did turn to social media, in particular, Facebook.  I am a member of a plethora of groups dedicated to raising awareness  and defeating the stigma of suicide and mental health issues.  I am also part of many that provide an open forum and honest discussion for those that have been affected and left behind by suicide.  I also spoke to those that I know personally who have lost loved ones to suicide.  The common thread that seemed to run through all of the conversations were communication and education.

Now before I continue, I want people to know that I am not an expert on suicide.  I am a 52 year old English teacher with a degree in Radio-TV-Film.  What I know is self taught and learned, and before my 13 year old son Peyton took his life in October of 2014, I confess to being as ignorant and uninformed as most.  Like so many people out there that grew up in my generation, suicide and mental health were taboo subjects.  We associated mental health with one word, crazy.  Any one that took medication for or sought professional help for mental illness was crazy.  They would be in the special class with all the other crazies, and all that awaited them in the future was a lifetime of walking up and down the street in a bathrobe screaming that "the end is near!" Nor did we talk about suicide.  Although it has not been a crime, in the United States in over 20 years, there was a time when it was a felony to attempt, or complete,  suicide, and although it was hard to prosecute a dead body, it would be the family of the victim that would suffer the consequences.  

My youth and early adulthood was a time of silence with the old (and outdated) belief that if we didn't talk about something, it didn't exist.  In fact, the first time suicide affected a school I worked at, a letter was put in each teacher's box (pre-email days), where we were told that a student (no name given) had taken their life, we were given explicit instructions not to talk about it, and we were only to send a student to the counselor if they asked.  Even in the days before electronics, most the kids knew well before school started that morning.  There were hugs and sadness in the hallways, but not a word was spoken.  When I asked his English teacher what had happened, she told me that the administration swooped into her classroom, demanded his journal and any work that he had turned in, and left just as fast as they arrived.  Before the first bell rang that day, all trace that this child's shadow had ever darkened the doorway at the school had all but been scrubbed from existence.  There was no memorial page in the yearbook, no moment of silence over the announcements, nothing.  Just an empty desk in a classroom that no one wanted to sit in because of the irrational fear that what ever drove this child to take their life might be contagious.  

It was the desire to purge myself of this ignorance during the horrifying days while Peyton was hospitalized, and in the weeks and months that followed I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about suicide, and more importantly, it’s causes.  Not knowing where to start, I went where most people go when they have a question, Google.  I typed causes of suicide into the search bar and began my journey of learning. I read and read and read and read. I became familiar with the actual causes of suicide, the reasons that people attempt suicide, and the staggering number of people lost each year to suicide. I also read other people's accounts of losing loved ones to suicide, how they dealt with the pain, and how their lives were forever changed. I knew that education was the key, not just for me, but others of my generation, and today's youth.  

The most telling part of how far we had to come was the one and only time my wife Lisa and I attended a local support group for parents who had lost children. As we went around the table, each person or couple, introduced themselves and told how their child had passed. The causes varied, ranging from cancer, to overdoses, to accidents. When it was our turn, and we said that Peyton had taken his life, it was as though the oxygen had been sucked out of the room. People seemed to inch away from us, and all eye contact was averted.  We went to the meeting to find support and understanding, and instead what we found was misunderstanding and ejection. When the meeting was over, the good byes were short and curt. Lisa and I both greed to never go back.

The other reason I saw a need for education were the comments on social media after Peyton's death. His mother and I both told Peyton's story to the media, and it was picked up by news outlets as far away as England. I made the mistake of reading the comments after the stories. Yes, there were quite a few that expressed their sympathy and condolences. Unfortunately, there were those that whether through lack of knowledge or cruelty made some hideous comments. They blamed Jacki and me for Peyton's death, said we were bad parents, that they would have handled things differently, and even classed Peyton a coward for taking the "easy way out".

It wasn't until we found our Survivors of Suicide support group that we truly felt welcome. Every person in that room could empathize with our story, and we were all comfortable sharing our feelings. The biggest thing that we were able to get from our group was knowing that we were not alone on our journey. What I truly found remarkable is how many other people had similar stories. It didn't matter if it was a child, sibling, or spouse that was lost, many of us were blind sided by their suicide. We all look back with 20/20 hindsight thinking about having seen the warning signs, but not knowing what they meant. We all talked about how IF we had known more, IF we had known what to look for, IF we had known how to deal with our loved one, then maybe things would have turned out differently in the end. It was meetings like this that helped me understand what had happened in Peyton's mind.

Facebook proved to be a blessing as well. I was able to read, post, reply, and converse with others who have lost loved ones. Once again, it was an amazing learning experience for me. Sadly, there were so many others who have walked down the same path as me. By talking to these people, I heard their stories, felt their pain, and learned more about battles with mental health issues, substance abuse, bullying, harassment, and ultimately, suicide. After I while, I went from asking questions to answering questions. Not only did it help others, but I found it helped me. It gave me a sense of purpose and belonging. It was through these interactions that I learned the importance of talking about suicide and mental health as well as educating others.

About a month after Peyton's death, I received an email from Matt Maudlin, a coach at Wunderlich Intermediate School, asking if I would like to tell Peyton's story to the students at Wunderlich's annual character building assemblies. Although I had been teaching for more than 20 years, this would be different for me. I had never stood on a stage and spoken to that many students at once. I was shaky and inconsistent, but I made it through, was applauded, and most of all thanked by the students. I knew then and thee that I needed to keep talking. Each time I spoke it became easier to tell Peyton's story, and the students got more out of it. One day, as I was going through my presentation, I saw a student get up, whisper to his teacher, and both walked out together. I later came to find out that not only had the young man had been thinking about taking his life, but he was in possession of the knife that he was going to use. It was the first time he had heard that he was not alone in what he was feeling, and it was okay to talk about it and ask for help.

So that brigs us back to the question at hand, what can we do to help kids and stop suicide and suicide attempts? The answer is easy, talk and educate. We as a community, need to talk to our kids, and there is no better place than a school. There are those that will say it is the job of the parents, but remember that many of these parents grew up in the same era of ignorance and denial as I did. They are not equipped to do it. There are those that will say it is a waste of valuable class time. To them, I would tell them to take a look at some of the things that learning time are sacrificed for. From pep rallies to class ring assemblies, class time is taken away, so why not something that actually benefits the students. And speaking of students, schools are churning out students that know nothing but academics. They load up on AP and advanced classes in hopes of improving their class rank and getting into a good college. What they don't have is a sense of what is going on in the world around them. They can solve complex equations, quote Shakespeare and Milton, and build robots, but have not learned that it is okay to not be okay.

Some schools have become proactive and are getting out in front of this. They require all students to take classes where they can learn about planning for the future, dealing with adversity, and making smart decisions. They are taught about the symptoms of mental health issues and the warning signs that some one might be suicidal. Unfortunately, there are others that are still reactive. They will call in counselors, answer questions of those brave enough to ask and send them back to class, leaving the others to sit and wonder what is wrong with them, why do they feel so alone, so sad, so willing to die. It is time to break the silence, break the stigma, and save our kids. Let's have a conversation about suicide and mental health and Save Kid's Lives.

Friday, October 6, 2017

True Badasses

Merriam-Webster: badass-chiefly US,  informal + sometimes offensive  :of formidable strength or skill

On sunday, October, 1, 2017, the Houston Texans soundly defeated the Tennessee Titans by an overwhelming score of 57-14.  The highlight of the game was the performance of Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson.  Watson threw four touchdown passes and ran for another in the victory.  Texans fans took to social media to proclaim Watson the savior of Texans football, a man among men, and a total badass.  While Watson is a truly gifted player, an incredible young man (he recently donated his first game check to Texans cafeteria workers who were affected by Hurricane Harvey), and perhaps the future of the Texans franchise, he is not a badass.  Yesterday, I had to opportunity to meet John and Jane*, two authentic, real life badasses.  

I was introduced to John and Jane at a suicide awareness event I attended.  On the surface, John and Jane look like your average suburban high school kids, but their stories are what earned my admiration.  John stood in front of a crowd of strangers and told his story about attempting to take his life.  He talked about his battle with mental health issues and how he finally reached his breaking point.  He spoke openly and honestly of his life since that day, how he is coping and going on with his life.  John is a badass.  Talking about your struggles with mental health takes guts.  In our society, people generally don't want to hear about mental health.  Sadly, they equate mental health with insanity due to the lack of understanding.  Then John talked about attempting to take his life.  He broke down several times, but managed to get his story out.  Not only is John still walking the Earth, but he is recovering.  No doubt his life is a daily struggle, but John perseveres.  He gets up every morning and faces the same demons that have haunted him, but now he is fighting back.  John is a total and complete badass.  

The other badass I met was Jane.  Jane talked about her childhood, how she grew up with a negligent mother, how she lived in poverty, how she was harassed on a daily basis at school because of her clothes and her weight.  Jane told us how she would cut herself to trade one pain she could dictate and control for another she couldn't.  She told about meeting a Bob* her freshman year of high school.  How they bonded, and how that bond grew.  How she finally felt accepted and cared for by Bob even though Bob was fighting his own demons.  Then Jane told about how Bob took his life.  For a teenage girl, Jane was wise beyond her years.  She has lived with more crap in her young life than most people deal with in their entire lives.  But because Jane is a badass, rather than give into her demons, she fought back against them and now uses her story to inspire others.  Jane too, is a total and complete badass.  

Our world is full of badasses, but these badasses don't throw touchdown passes, hit home runs, dunk a basketball, or shred a sick solo on a guitar.  The badasses I'm talking about fight daily to stay live.  The battle to silence the voices in their head that try to convince them that the world would be a better place without them, voices that tell them how happy their family would be to be relieved of the burden they have become.  They live with an emotional pain as crippling as any disease known to man, but they go on despite it.  They live with an illness that is shunned by society, but takes more young lives than cancer and heart disease.  They are told they should just be happy, think positive thoughts, or to stop feeling sorry for themselves.  They have to resist the urge to cut themselves, turn to drugs, alcohol, or other addictions to ease their pain.  They are young and old. They are male and female.  They are black, white, hispanic, Native American, Asian, and every other race and nationality.  They are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, neighbors, classmates, and coworkers.  They may sit next to you in class, in the office, in a restaurant, or on the bus.  They may wear a badge, a uniform, a suit, or hand me downs.  They may teach your kids, or even be your kids.  

The next time you decide to throw around the term badass, stop and think.  In the United States, approximately 44,000 badasses lose their battle every year, but so many more, like John and Jane, continue to fight on.  For all those out there fighting the battle to stay alive every day, you are my heroes, my badasses. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Back to School with David's Law

I actually started this post  several weeks ago, and meant to have it posted on August 28th, the official first day of school in Texas, but due to Hurricane Harvey, and his effect on the Texas Gulf Coast, I decided to focus on other issues.  As of September 18, there are several districts along the Gulf Coast that are just now opening their doors to students due to damage from Harvey.  Please keep those affected in your thoughts and prayers.  Thank you.

Across the country, schools are welcoming millions of students through their doors. From wide eyed kindergartners to ready for it to all be over seniors, over 50 million students will be enrolled this year.  Unfortunately, at some of these schools, familiar faces will be missing.  It is one of the sad facts of life that people, even young people, pass away.  Whether it is illness, accident, or self-inflicted, we lose students.  However, thanks to the efforts of one courageous mother, students in Texas will return to something different.

Aside from teachers, there will be something new greeting students in Texas, and that is SB 179, better known as David's Law.  The law itself is named after 16 year old David Molak who took his life in January of 2016.  David had been a student at the affluent Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio.  Alamo Heights is a well regarded and award winning school district, and it is considered by many to be the most affluent in Bexar County.  Like any high school, the student body at Alamo Heights has its cliques and pecking order, and at one point, David became the target of an onslaught of harassment through text messages and social media.  Eventually the pain became too much for David to bear, and David took his life.  In the aftermath David's death, Cliff made a post to Facebook that has since gone viral talking about the unrelenting harassment and cyberbullying David received.  He spoke openly and candidly about the effects the bullying had on David,  the heart wrenching pain, and ultimately the consequences of the long term harassment.

After David's death, news came out that David had been bullied and harassed since at least February of the previous year, had switched schools as a result, and had even attempted to take his life before.  In addition, the San Antonio and Alamo Heights police departments, and the Bexar County District Attorney's Office began an investigation into the alleged harassment.  Sadly, after a several month investigation that ended in May of 2016, Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood announced that no charges would be filed because the current laws in regards to cyber bullying were too vague.  “If we’re not talking about physical bullying, we’re really talking about harassment, and that is a vague statute,” LaHood said. “Under the harassment statute, we have to have the evidence to back up the different elements of the allegation, and it’s just not there.”

Although it seemed that this was a closed case, changes loomed on the horizon that would bring positive change.  The Alamo Heights Independent School District, under the leadership of Superintendent Kevin Brown, created a Task Force comprised of teachers, district administrators, mental health professionals, technology experts, and medical professionals to assess the effectiveness of current campus practices related to:

  • character education
  • social and emotional wellness, and
  • digital citizenship

They met with parents, students, teachers, counselors, administrators, law enforcement, medical and mental health professionals, legal experts, and bus drivers in order to find out what can be done to improve the existing policies and practices to create a safer and more productive atmosphere, as we'll as address social and emotional wellness.  They set up programs for staff and student education, set up support networks, hired additional personnel to reduce the ratio and allow more personal interactions, addressed the issues of over scheduling and overburdening students in order to decrease stress.  They developed principles of character education to ensure that [their] character development efforts are intentional, on-going, and consistently implemented across campuses, and in forms that students relate to. Implemented a 24-hour Code of Leadership to establish higher expectations for our students and anticipate that all students will participate in extra-curricular activities during their secondary school career, and required all clubs and sports to adhere to it as well.  Most importantly, they updated district policies to state that bullying occurs when a student or group of students engages in written or verbal expression, expression through electronic means, or physical conduct that occurs on school property, at a school-sponsored or school-related activity, or in a vehicle operated by the District, “or any other manner that disrupts the educational environment.”
The findings and suggestions of the Alamo Heights Task Force Report were presented to the school board and became one of the first board policies on Texas to address cyberbullying directly, and included stricter consequences, up to and including expulsion, for the perpetrators.  

in November of 2016 Texas State Senator Jose Menedez and State Representative Ina Minjarez, both from San Antonio, filed Senate Bill 179, also known as David's Law, with the Texas Legislature.  Following many of the guidelines and principles set forth by the Alamo Heights Task Force, the earliest form of the bill would classify cyberbullying as a felony, allow courts to issue subpoenas to unmask people who anonymously harass minors online and require public schools to report and intervene in any suspected cyberbullying cases. It also allowed victims to sue cyberbullies’ parents if the parents could have intervened but didn't.  

Just like any law, there was push back from various groups who felt that the law was too severe, or that it focused more on punishment than rehabilitation.  According to sources close to the bill, two of the biggest opponents were the Texas Association of School Administrators (TASA), and the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB).  Allegedly, both TASA and TASB  opposed that requirement that schools must investigate incidents of cyberbullying  that occur off campus and not during school hours.  The key to this requirement is that the cyberbullying must interfere with a student's education opportunities, or substantially disrupts the orderly operation of a classroom, school, school sponsored, or school related activities.  After all, how can a student concentrate on standardized testing if they are worried about getting their ass kicked after the test?  Another sticking point for both organizations was the requirement for every district to establish a way for students to anonymously report incidents of bullying, even though they many already have a way for students to report other crimes.  In addition, the organizations balked at the requirement that administrators would have to notify the parents of the student who had been bullied immediately (now changed to within three days), as  well as notifying the parents of the bully immediately (but still remains a "reasonable amount of time").  As to why either organization would oppose anything that benefits a student who is being harassed is a true head scratcher, but so it goes.  

Sadly, the other part that ended up being dropped was the ability of the bullied person to recoup financial damages from the bully, or bully's parents.  It seems that this day and age, the one way you can get the attention of a parent is to take money out of their pocket.  

Several of the key components of the law authorizes schools to place the offending bully in an alternative setting, or expel them, if they encourage a student to commit, or attempt to commit, suicide; incite violence against a student through group bullying; or release or threaten to release intimate visual material of a minor or of a stunt who is 18 years of age or older  without the student's consent.  Perhaps if this has been in effect, Eloise would have been able to finish the school year with her friends, while Tootie sat in alternative school or at home.  It allows for civil relief from cyberbullying by relaxing some of the requirements normally applicable for injunctive relief.  It also increases the charges from a Class B Misdemeanor to a Class A Misdemeanor, which could mean up to a year in jail, if the offense is committed against a child under the age of 18 with the intent that the child commit suicide or engage in conduct causing serious bodily injury to the child, or the person violates a temporary restraining order or injunction issued under the new civil provisions of David's Law.  

It is sad that our society has to create laws to directly address situation like David's, or to hold school districts accountable for protecting the students they are entrusted with, or to deal with parents who oblivious or in denial of their child's actions, but we do.  As all students get back to the business of learning, there are many that will benefit from the implementation of David's Law.  They should be able to come to school able to apply themselves to their studies without the worry of harassment.  If that threat does rear it's ugly head, they now have new resources for dealing with it.  I urge all parents out there to familiarize yourself with the elements of David's Law and help educate your kids on how to best utilize the aspects of the law designed to help them, or if they are the bully, inform them of what awaits them in they mistakenly think this law does not apply to them.  Administrators, as we send you our sons and daughters, we expect you to keep them safe from harm, to deal with any issues that they may face, and to let us know when, as a parent, we need to get involved.  And finally, to the students, know that there are people out there who want to help you and are dedicated to doing so.  School should be a safe place for you, and if it isn't, then something can and will be done.  You have the right to show up every day and learn, and thanks to David's Law, that will happen.  

*This entry is dedicated to Maurine Molak, Kim Hess, Kara Valeca-Yocom, Jacki James, Kevin Childers, and so many others who know the pain of losing a child to suicide, but continue to help others in memory of their child.  

Monday, September 4, 2017

Apparently There Is A Wrong Way To Die

"Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed"- John Lennon

People never cease to amaze me with their capacity for ignorance.  The things they say and do can leave a person dumbfounded and speechless, and just when you think it couldn't get any worse, one of them rises up and does something to elevate ignorance to a new high. In fact, just last week, Jacki, Peyton's mother called to tell me that Anytown Middle School*, where Peyton was a student at the time of his death, had a small memorial garden at the school to honor students at the school that had passed away.  However, when she approached John Smith* the principal of Anytown Middle School about placing a memorial stone in the garden to honor Peyton, Mr. Smith told her "No," because Peyton had completed suicide, and he was worried that this may encourage other students to take their lives in order to be memorialized because research shows that it will.  After several moments of silence, and once I was able to pick my jaw up off the ground, I asked her if she was kidding, had Mr. Smith really said that?  Sadly, he had.

I was stunned.  I thought of calling the school myself to speak to Mr. Smith.  After all, I have a litany of profanity at my disposal, and after hearing what he had said, I was not only ready to use it, but to be creative and use new and exotic combinations as well.  Once I realized that would be counter productive, and having ruled out the three hour drive to speak to Mr. Smith in person, cooler heads prevailed.  Jacki asked me to hold off for a few days so that she could once again speak to Mr. Smith.  After she spoke to him again, he informed her that ALL research indicates that memorials at school are bad, despite his school having a memorial garden on campus.

I was curious about this research that Mr. Smith used to say that memorials are bad, and that memorializing a student that completed suicide would lead to more suicides.  Keep in mind that I have taught for 27 years, with 21 of those having taught English.  That means I have taught the research process numerous times, and that thanks to advances in technology, the research paper is no longer the daunting monster it used to be, but a streamlined process. What I have discovered over the years is that you can find two sides to both issues.  For example, I have found that there are two sides to smoker's rights, the legalization of all narcotics, or even the good things Hitler and the Nazis did in Germany.  So it comes as no surprise that there is research to support Mr. Smith's claims, but as our media has shown, you can the that material out of context and use it to prove any point you want.  For example Mr. Smith is worried that allowing a memorial stone for Peyton would lead to other students taking their lives.  This is what is known as the Werther Effect, term coined in 1974 by David Phillips in American Sociological Review (Schuurman).  Phillips believed that a highly publicized suicide may become a role model for other suicides, especially among adolescents and young adults.  This seems to be a reasonable concern for Mr. Smith and other school administrators.  After all, they have the monumental task of providing a safe learning environment for all of their students.  Perhaps Mr. Smith is afraid of glamorizing suicide or making Peyton a role model.  Maybe Mr. Smith is worried that should he allow a memorial stone, and another student thought it would be great if they had one too, so they take their life too.  As a result of that death, both Mr. Smith and the school district are held liable.

However, what Mr. Smith didn't take into consideration is that in 1984 I.M.Wasserman, concluded that not all stories about suicide deaths lead to an increase in suicide deaths, but only stories about the suicide deaths of celebrities or other highly publicized deaths. Furthermore, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) has determined “the role of imitation or contagion is less well-established than other risk factors” especially noting depressive illness and history of past suicide attempts (Schuurmann).  In fact, there is not a single documented account of a suicide occurring because a previous student received “recognition” through a memorial service, and there are multiple situations where cluster suicides have occurred when no school memorial services were held (Schuurmann). If no memorial is allowed, it will not stop the students from talking about what happened.  Instead, to the students it will show that the adults are afraid and need to control the narrative.  It makes the students no less dead.  It also provides no productive channels for honoring the deceased. It also tells any student  that is dealing with suicidal ideation to keep your issues to yourself, we (the school) aren't going to talk about it.  Then again, that is just my research.

Most of all Mr. Smith, by not allowing a memorial stone for my son, you are devaluing his life to me and to those that knew him.  Peyton was a living breathing person that died.  By not allowing that stone, you are telling me that my son's death meant nothing.  Do any of the memorial markers in that garden represent a student that died of cancer or some other horrible illness?  Are you telling me that any of those kids was more important and noble than my son?  Do you realize that Peyton died from an illness as well?  His was an illness in his brain.  One that convinced him that he couldn't be happy. One that told him the world would be better off without him.  One that allowed him to believe that his mother and I would be happier without him around. he didn't ask for this disease any more than some one asks for cancer or diabetes.  Not only that, but any other child in the same place as Peyton is now actually discouraged from seeking help as you have implied to them that their death would be meaningless.  

Jacki and I are not asking for a ceremony or to interrupt the learning process.  We simply want to honor our son in the same manner that the school has honored other students.  Hopewell Middle School planted a tree in Peyton's memory just a few months after his passing.  They invited Jacki and I,as well as some of Peyton's friends, to speak .  It served as a teachable moment for the school, and isn't that why we are in education for?  Not all lessons are in a text book.  Most of all, Peyton was memorialized in the Anytown Middle School year book at the end of the 2014-2015 school year.  

I understand that this may not be the popular decision to make, but what is popular is not always right.  You can't pretend that one of your students made a decision that took his life any more than you can deny that his mother and I still grieve his loss.  I went through the board policies and the student/parent handbook, and there is nothing prohibiting a memorial stone, especially when it has been allowed for others.  A rock with a name is not asking too much, is it?  

Monday, July 3, 2017

Dear Parents: Advice For Living After The Loss Of Your Child

Dear Parents,

Please allow me to express my deepest condolences to you and your family during this time. Your daughter was a beautiful child.  Every picture I ever saw of her showed a brilliant and contagious smile. I know there is nothing I can say to bring you comfort, but unfortunately, I know the pain of losing a child.  The whole idea of losing a child goes against nature.  No parent is supposed to outlive a child, and life as you know it will never be the same. Know that grief is not linear, it is a non-stop roller coaster, and there is nothing at Six Flags that can prepare you for the ride. After Peytons death, I was inundated by advice from other people, but the best advice came from people who had already been in my shoes.  I want to share with you the advice that they shared with me, as well as some ideas from others who have been there. 

First and foremost, take care of yourself.  Right now, you are in survival mode.  You can experience the gambit of emotions within hours.  You can go from sorrow to anger and back to sorrow all in one day.  Whether you want to or not, you need to eat, drink, sleep, and get some fresh air.  When Peyton was in the hospital, I dropped ten pounds because I didn't care what happened.  I bargained with God to take me and let Peyton live, but here I am.  I now know I am here for a reason, and given time, you will know your reason as well, so please eat something and drink plenty of water with it.  It may seem simple to sit on the couch and lose yourself in mindless television shows (there are more than enough), but you need to get up and take a walk outside.  I know it is summer and hotter than the hinges of Hell right now, but fresh air and exercise will help your mood.  While you are out, look for dragonflies, butterflies, and cardinals.  There are many that see these as a sign (there are more here) that our loved ones are still near us.  Most of all, breathe.  I know it may seem silly to say because this is normally an involuntary reaction, but sometimes it helps to take a deep cleansing breath.  It may also help calm you down and help get you focused. 

Let others help you.  People will offer their help, take it.  It may be running to the grocery store, doing your laundry, cooking a meal, cleaning your house, sitting in a room with you when you dont want to be alone, or watching your kids so that you can take a nap.  There is no shame in asking for help.  There are many people that want to help, but dont know how.  Ask if they would mow the lawn, take your car for an oil change, or give you a ride if you feel unable to drive.  On the flip side, it is okay to tell people no.  Your friends will extend invitations to you in hopes of cheering you up.  You are under no obligation to go.  If you are not up to it, then dont go.  True friends will understand.  The same goes for family.  Just because the family has always gathered at Uncle Joes for Thanksgiving does not obligate you to go.  The first year is perhaps the hardest, especially the holidays.  You can take a pass on them if you want to, or you can even start your own new traditions. 

Go see your doctor.  The stress you are under will tear you apart emotionally and physically.  No doubt you have lost sleep, or perhaps that is all you do.  They can advise you on everything from sleep to diet and exercise that will help.  More than likely, they will do a depression screening.  Answer openly and honestly.  There is no shame in being diagnosed with depression at this point.  With the Hell you are going through right now, no one will be surprised.  Your doctor may prescribe medication to help with your mood and sleep.  If they do, you may want to consider trying it.  They have your best interest at heart.  If you do not think that the meds are helping, then consult the doctor again about something else.  There is no one sure-fire answer.  However, if you feel that they are not helping and want to stop, consult your doctor.  Stopping some of the meds cold turkey can have adverse side effects.  Sleep is also important as well.  After Peyton passed, I didnt sleep well at all.  I had a nonstop hamster wheel going in my brain, and it never got tired. However, I knew I needed sleep, so I began to use Ambien as needed.  I dont use it all the time, but even two and a half years later, the hamster will climb back up there.  Your continued health is important, so maintain it.

Join a support group or counseling, or both.  Just like anything else, there is no one size fits all, so you may go through several groups or counselors before you find one you like and are comfortable in.  I cannot begin to tell you how much both helped me.  My support group has been a blessing to me. My wife and I didnt like the first group we attended. It was a general grief group, and we didnt feel as though it was a good fit.  The second group was specifically for people that had lost a loved one to suicide, and we were welcomed with open arms.  Not only that, we no longer felt like we were alone in the world.  I still continue to go to this day, not only because it helps me, but I see myself helping others that are new to the journey, and that helps me as well.  I also joined several grief groups on Facebook (Compassionate Friends is a great place to start).  It may seem strange writing about your grief to total strangers, but it works.  Sadly, there are many people throughout the world that have tragically lost a child.  It gives you the chance to share your grief with others who can relate.  Therapy helped as well.  I tried to suck it up at first, but one day, four months to the day that I lost Peyton, I completely lost my sh*t in the coaches office.  I sat there and cried, unable to stop.  Eventually, one of the other coaches walked in and just held me and let me cry.  I knew then that I wasnt going to get through this alone.  I went to several counselors before I found one that felt right.  Once I went as far as I could with her, I stopped going only to discover that I needed more help, so I found another.  It goes like that.  There are times when you may need to go weekly, others when you may only go once a month.  You are human, and no one expects you to go through this alone. 

I know right now, your emotions are all over the place.  Scream if you need to scream, cry if you need to cry, go out in the back yard and take an axe to a tree if you think that will help.  You are allowed to cry whenever and wherever you want to.  I have had to pull into parking lots to cry because something I heard on the radio triggered me.  My wife lost it in line at a Starbucks when everything just became too much or her.  You are only responsible to you at this point.  Talk about your daughter all you want when you want. There is no time line on your grief.  There is no calendar that tells you when you should be over this because the answer is never.  She was your baby, your girl, your daughter.  That is not something you will ever get over.  You also need to ease up on yourself.  I know I beat myself up for the longest time.  I blamed myself for Peyton's death, and despite what others told me, I refused to ease up.  I kept playing the if only game over and over in my head.  If only I had done this or said that, then Peyton would still be alive.  I was reminded by an old friend about the something I was told long about using if.  He reminded me that if my aunt had nads, shed be my uncle. You can if yourself into oblivion, but it will not change the outcome.  Somehow, some way, this was part of Gods plan, and yes, I was really pissed at God for quite a while.  However, I put my faith in God, and I know that Peyton is in a better place, and he is no longer in pain. Know that where your daughter is, everything is beautiful and nothing hurts.  

There are also a few donts I would like to convey.  Dont rush any decisions or make any major decisions right now.  The saying is give it a year.  I did that, and I am glad I did.  Looking back, I would have made some very grave errors in judgement if I had gone with my gut at the time.  Any decisions I would have made would have led to horrific consequences.  Dont feel obligated to anyone whether it is friends, or work, or whatever.  True friends will understand, and work will always be there.  Neither of those is a priority for you, you are the priority.  Dont let people talk you into what they think is right. Do what you want to do.  Dont look for comfort or escape in the wrong place.  Avoid alcohol or other intoxicants.  Food can be a danger too.  They may momentarily dull the pain, but when the effect wears off, reality will come flooding back with a vengeance.  don't get upset if someone says something stupid, especially if they mean well.  No one is out to upset you, but finding the right words come hard.  Repress the urge to throat punch them.  Don't get upset when others move on.  Soon, people will go back to their lives and families, but you will still be in this never ending hell.  It will frustrate you because you not because of anything that they do, but because their lives are back to normal, and your's will never be again.  You will see families together laughing and carrying on, and would will want to scream, "My child is gone!  How can you be so happy?"  Most of all, don't forget your family.  Your kids will need you as much as you need them.  Family takes priority over everything, including work.  If your coworkers and employer don't understand, screw 'em.  You can always get another job, but you only get one family.  

Finally, know this, it gets better.  Dont get me wrong, you have a long road ahead of you, and it is going to suck for a long time.  Is sorry I am being blunt, but I am not going to blow sunshine up youre a$$ and tell you all will be back to normal soon.  It never will. Eventually, you will establish a new normal.  Things are going to suck for a long, long time.  Then one day, youre going to wake up, and things will suck a little less, and even less a week or two later.  Thats not to say there wont be backslides.  You will feel like you are standing in the ocean facing the beach.  You will feel the waves hitting you from behind.  One might push you forward, the next might hit the back of your knees, the next may just wash over your ankles, only to have the next knock you flat on your face.  All you can do is keep getting up, and bracing for what is to come.  Dont get discouraged because you will learn to live with it.  Rely on others, rely on each other, and rely on your faith. As I said before, there is nothing I can say or do that will ease the pain.  There is no magic elixir or time line that will lead to happiness.  There are no short cuts or cheats to relieve your pain.  There is just time. 

During that time, you collect memories of your child.  Have people send you pictures and videos of your child, as well as having them write stories and their favorite memories.  You can use these to create a memory book.    It has been suggested the best way to do this is to set up a memorial page on Facebook and have others put pictures there.   Even though physical presence is gone, her spirit can stay with you forever. 

As the days become weeks, the weeks become moths, and the months become years, the pain will recede.  It will always be there, but it will not be all consuming.  Rely on friends, rely on family, and rely on faith, and it will get better.  Know that myself and others are here for you when you need us.  There is no favor too small to ignore, and there is no hour too late or too early to ask.  All we ask in return is that you let us. 


David James