The grief and sadness at the Green Ladle Thursday night was palpable.
There was also blame, disbelief and words of caution.
There were expressions of remorse and calls to action.
There were voices of love and remembrance, hugs and tears.
Towering above it all was fear.
The kind that clutches at your throat.
Tightens your stomach.
The kind of strangling fear that senses certain danger.
The swirl of emotions and recriminations was produced in a community conversation held two days after Tuesday’s suicide of Lewiston Middle School student Ani Graham.
The sadness, love and remembrances were for her. The calls to action and fear were for others who may follow Graham in death.
All of it was raw and none of it can be dismissed.
Greg Marley, clinical director and senior trainer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Maine, facilitated the conversation, opening with an explanation of the grieving process and how it differs for each of us.
He assured people that grief is natural, and can be more painful in cases of suicide. He talked about the very real phenomenon of copycat suicides, particularly among teens, and the essential need for adults to watch for warning signs in children. He also advised teens that adults really are willing to listen to them, and encouraged them to reach out if they’re hurting.
His principal advice? Be kinder than necessary.
For parents, being armed with advice and support is just what they need.
Since Ani’s death, one of her friends has been hospitalized for contemplating suicide and another is on suicide watch, according to their parents — who were at the meeting.
Children are sad and they’re scared, and they’re begging for help.
At one point, Marley reminded adults in the room how hard the middle school years can be, and asked anyone if they would want to repeat that time in their lives. There was a murmur across the room of “no, no, no,” followed by an uncomfortable wave of laughter.
It was the only laughter for the evening, and a telling reminder that no matter how self-assured a child may be, growing up is tough duty.
And, as one parent pointed out, when today’s parents were growing up, the bullies were at school. Once children got home, they were in safe harbor.
Today, she said, “the bullies follow us home” on our phones, on our tablets.
There’s no escaping the assaults short of shutting off social media — something young people find impossible to do.
Another parent quickly pointed out that while we all want teen bullying to stop, too many adults feel perfectly free to bully and insult one another on social media. Children are learning this behavior at home, she said, and adults have an absolute responsibility to be more tolerant of others.
Here’s some more advice for parents from parents:
— Teach children to advocate for themselves.
— Stop blaming; start doing.
— Volunteer at your child’s school when they’re young, so it isn’t “weird” to do so when they’re in middle school.
— Develop relationships with teachers, and tell them when you’re child’s behavior has changed.
— Hold community meetings to “come together when there is no loss.”
— Encourage children to have more empathy for one another.
— Turn the conversation about bullying to one of kindness and understanding.
While adults talked about ways to better care for teens, most of the teens in the room sat and listened.
As the meeting was wrapping up with facilitators sharing phone numbers for community resources, a group of Ani’s friends stood up from their table and faced the front of the room. It was clear they wanted to say something, so facilitators paused to give them the floor.
Holding a microphone, a tearful student paused a very long time before speaking.
Her message was directed at the adults around her: You can have all the meetings you want, she said, and talk and talk about what you have to do. But unless you do something — really do something — we’ll be sitting in this same room next month talking about this again.
We need help, she said.
That’s fear talking. It was a voice from the middle of the storm.
Late Thursday night, after the event, police responded to a report of a Lewiston Middle School student with suicidal ideations. On Friday morning, another call for a different student.
While the focus right now is on Lewiston, this is a problem in every school, in every town.
What, as communities, are we prepared to do?
Talking is a start. Just a start.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 10-24. Every week, an average of more than 100 young people in this country commit suicide.
Maine 24-hour Crisis Hotline: 1-888-568-1112
Maine Youth Suicide Prevention, Intervention and Postvention guidelines: www.maine.gov/suicide/docs/postvention_report_finalb.pdf