Today, I took my teenager to say goodbye to a friend. No one enjoys going to a funeral but when the service is for someone barely out of their teens, it’s even worse. The death is untimely. Unfair. The life is cut short before the real living begins. Sadly, this friend suffered from mental illness. The decision to end her life was her own.
Grace. As I sit here reflecting on what was probably the most powerful service I’ve ever attended, the word grace comes to mind for a number of reasons. While I didn’t know Emma well, it was clear from the packed funeral home that we were all lucky to be graced by her presence. She had a huge smile, loved to dance and in twenty short years had an impact on this world. My teen had the privilege to meet her volunteering for Inclusion Connections, a local organization that serves young adults with developmental disabilities. Emma had Cerebral Palsy and when she hit her late teens, her mental health took a toll.
Depression is common for chronically ill kids. The sad reality of disability is that it can be isolating and frustrating. Even more sad is that we, as a society, still stigmatize mental illness and we definitely don’t talk openly about suicide, however, Emma’s parents handled her passing with grace. They didn’t gloss over the situation or cover it up. When the announcement was made, we were told that she lost her fight with mental illness. They were honest and open.
Today, at the service, I listened to her father, not only honor her memory, he explained how his life changed the moment he met her. He paid tribute to the young lady that she was before mental illness took control of her life. He took the time to remind the room that his child was not the person she became the last two years of her life and he painted a realistic picture of what life is like with uncontrollable anguish. He put his pain aside to make sure that we knew how exceptional his child was and how horrible mental illness can be and then he did something that I found truly remarkable. To two packed rooms, he talked openly about our mental health system.
We are failing our kids who need help. Our community doesn’t have enough beds allocated to children and young adults with mental health issues. While he didn’t mention it, when the police are called for a life-threatening situation and there’s no bed, jail is the only place to take them. As parents, we can only do so much and to his credit, he lauded Emma’s therapist for doing everything she could. However, the reality is that we need more resources allocated to help the mentally ill. Period.
Needed even more? An open dialogue about mental illness. Youth suicide rates have hit an all-time high, yet, we as a society are uncomfortable discussing the issues that surround taking one’s life. As parents, it’s our job to listen to our children, to pay attention to any behavior that’s out of the ordinary and to get them help if needed. It’s also important for us to talk openly with others because mental illness is common and you never know who you will help. Emma’s family did just that and they handled it with grace.
We all hope that when we leave this world, that we’ll have an impact and sadly, twenty years is not much time to leave an indelible mark. It’s clear that Emma did through her carefree attitude and determination. Nearly $10,000 has been raised for Inclusion Connections in her honor so it’s apparent that she touched the lives of many. And, if today is any indication, her legacy will continue through the efforts of her parents to bring awareness to mental illness.