*This post contains spoilers for "13 Reasons Why" Season 2*
Suicide is a subject I never thought I'd find myself writing about. But after seeing its effects in the lives of those around me, hearing on the news about celebrities taking their own lives, and just recently watching the show "13 Reasons Why," it's a topic that's been on my mind.
If you're not familiar with "13 Reasons Why," it's a Netflix original series that revolves around a young girl named Hannah Baker. Before the show ever begins, she takes her own life and leaves behind 13 tapes where she recorded her story and the reasons behind her fateful decision.
If you plan to watch it, be warned. Both seasons 1 and 2 are brutal and heart-wrenching. They contain vulgar language, and portray violence, sexual harassment and abuse including rape, as well as bullying that is so dreadful, it’ll make you fearful to ever send your child to high school again. The depictions are incredibly graphic but they certainly raise important questions.
The one that kept coming to my mind was: How can I help?
I’m a mom of three small girls. My oldest hasn’t even entered kindergarten yet, but I still feel the need to understand what is going on with today’s youth. My children will be among them someday. And while we can’t be there with them every day as they step out of our homes and into that school building, we can do something.
As I watched this show about hurting teenagers attempting to navigate the difficult terrain of young adulthood and interacting with their loving, but somewhat oblivious parents, I made some observations that I think could be lessons for all of us. These lessons also come from observing relationships around me as well as my own relationships with others.
Whether you watched the show or not, you can take this advice into account. I would never venture to suggest who and/or what is responsible for what is going with the teenagers in this country. This is about not accusing anyone, but we can all learn from it. We can all try to do what we can.
As you’ll notice, I see and write mostly from a parent’s perspective, simply because I am a parent and I want to know what I can do to make a difference for my kids and their generation, but these lessons apply to friends, grandparents, aunt, uncles, cousins, teammates, etc. You never know who might be suffering.
We need to listen better and empathize more.
As parents, we need to listen to our kids. I mean, we need to actually listen. All too often, we are hearing only what we want to hear.
It seems as though the way that we frequently choose to deal with others’ pain is by not dealing with it, but by wishing it away. That might sound harsh, but the truth is that it’s uncomfortable… excruciating even to see our kids hurting. So, maybe sometimes we try not to see it. We try to believe that everything is just fine, even when it’s not. Sometimes the truth is ugly, and painful, but pretending like it isn’t, doesn’t change the fact that it is what it is. We need to stare at that truth, no matter how much it hurts. That’s how we can be there for our hurting children. We can recognize the pain they’re feeling and then sit with them in it. That sitting in it will hurt us too, but it is only then that we can actually help them move towards healing.
Whenever we hear ourselves saying phrases like, “You’re fine,” “Oh, everything is OK,” “There’s no reason to feel that way,” or “It’s not that bad,” we must be checking ourselves. Are we actually listening? Are we giving our children room to air their feelings? Do we truly understand what they’re going through? Have we tried to put ourselves in their shoes and imagine how this situation feels through their perspective?
Brené Brown, one of my favorite speakers/writers right now, is a researcher of shame and vulnerability. She points out that there is a distinct difference between sympathy and empathy. It’s important is distinguish the difference, because (in Brené’s words) “empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.” She uses the metaphor of a friend who is stuck in a deep hole. Sympathy is going to the edge of the hole, looking down, and saying, “Oh no! I’m sorry you’re stuck in this hole. Must be pretty bad.” Empathy is climbing down in the hole to be with them. Sitting there, experiencing what they are feeling, embracing the pain and the hurt and the discomfort. It’s much much more difficult. But it can make all the difference.
We might not know what to say when someone’s hurting. Words can ring hollow and useless. But what is important, is that the person sharing with us feels heard, understood, and that we are connecting with them. When we empathize, we can parent better.
It doesn’t matter if we don’t agree with the reason someone is hurting.
We can witness someone close to us suffering and not understand why. The reason doesn’t seem valid to us. But it doesn’t have to. Our understanding of the reasons behind the pain are irrelevant. The point is that the person is hurting. It doesn’t matter why or if we can justify their pain. The pain is there. We need to be there for them regardless.
Have you ever had one of your (younger) kids be devastated by something ridiculous? Such as their favorite shirt being in the wash? Or getting the green cup instead of the blue one? To us, it seems absurd. But from that little one’s point of view, the world is small. The things that are important to them are proportionate to their worldview. Honestly, it is pretty silly to be upset about getting the wrong color cup, right? But aren’t we all upset about things sometimes which, from another perspective, are pretty silly?
I imagine God looks at us and all of our worries and fears and tragedies, and he could think the same way. “Oh, silly people, if you only knew how unimportant this is in the grand scheme of it all, you’d let it go.” And while that is likely the truth about much of what we feel, I believe he loves us and understands that, in our small worlds with only our small tunnel to see through, our problems seem much larger. And I don’t believe he judges us for that, but instead, comforts us and keeps on loving us all the same.
Another example (that we’ve all most likely seen or been a part of), is when a close friend loses a beloved pet. You might not be an animal lover yourself. You might not “get it.” But to that friend, their grief is equivalent to losing a loved one. You don’t have to agree with those feelings to be that person’s friend in that situation. Crawling in the hole with that person doesn’t require you to understand why they are stuck in it. It simply requires you to see the hole and to be there with them. And when possible, help them dig out.
Be kind. Give people the benefit of the doubt even when they don’t deserve it.
I think this is the lesson that the show "13 Reasons Why" tries to get across most clearly. We should be kinder to each other. Literally every single person you encounter has a story that could break your heart, if only we took the time to hear it. As Brené Brown says, "Everyone has a story that will break your heart. And, if you're really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring you to your knees."
Every single person you meet is or was someone’s child. Imagine if we treated them as such?
Imagine if your own child were to undergo something terrible and come out broken and hurting and looking to hurt others. How would you want people to perceive him or her? As the awful person they appear to be on the outside? Or as the hurting person crying out for help that they are on the inside?
For me, one of the most powerful moments of the second season of "13 Reasons Why," was in Episode 12 when Jessica’s father addresses Justin. A little backstory if you haven’t watched, in season one, Jessica passes out from drinking at a party and is raped by boy named Bryce Walker. Justin is her boyfriend at the time and Bryce, the attacker, is Justin’s friend. Horrific as it is, Justin is aware of the entire situation unfolding and allows it to happen. By the time Jessica’s father is confronting Justin in season two, he knows all of this information. So, as any father would be, he is beyond livid at this teenage boy who allowed his precious baby girl to endure such abuse and trauma.
In the second season, Justin decides to testify on Jessica’s behalf, despite the fact that he’ll most likely face legal repercussions for his lack of action that night. When Jessica’s father comes face to face with him for the first time, he is kinder than I expected. And yet, his words are chilling. He says, “I never liked you. And I can never forgive you. Despite everything, I thank you for your courage and wish you children of your own someday. So you’ll know what it’s like to want to save them from the world.”
Ugh. Tears. Isn’t that what we all wish we could do? Save our children from the world?
But let’s also try our best not to be part of the “world” that children need saving from.
Be careful not to inflict pain on others. Start a new cycle. Be more intentional.
I like to think that most of us aren’t out to hurt other people. We are just overly focused on ourselves, which often results in inflicting pain on others.
Out of insecurity, we tear others down. Out of fear, we judge people and push them away. Out of pain, we hurt other people. And then, the people we hurt continue a vicious cycle of suffering.
We all hurt. We’ve all been hurt by people. But we all have a choice to continue that cycle or to break it and start a new one. Kindness and love can be their own beautiful, life-giving cycles.
But to create that, we have to let go of the insecurity, fear, and pain that causes us to act badly. We need to make sure that even passively and unconsciously, we are not hurting others. Hurting others unintentionally can no longer be an excuse. We can’t always control how others view our actions, but it is our responsibility to do our best and be intentional with our actions anyway. As the Bible says, “ If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12: 18 NIV)
We should ask ourselves, how can I be of value to the people I encounter? What can I do to make their day better, to help them see some beauty in themselves or in the world? We can look at others and try to see all the things they aren’t telling us. We need to ask more questions and dig deeper. We need to care more and love harder. And if we already do try, we can try harder.
We cannot be responsible for the actions of others, but we are always responsible for our own. God forbid any of us should ever be in the position of someone like Mr. Porter. He is the school’s counselor in "13 Reasons Why". Hannah Baker comes to his office right before she takes her life. She sits across from him and tells him a bit of what she’s going through. And although he “follows protocol” and does what is technically required of him, in Season 2 he is left forever believing “I could’ve done more.”
Let’s do what we can do now, while we still have time. ♥
*If you suspect that someone you know or if you are struggling with depression and/or suicidal thoughts, please don't wait to get help. There are plenty of resources and people who want to help you to get well. You are loved and you are not alone.
Recognizing the signs of suicidal behavior:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: