We should always be thinking about suicide prevention, every single day, by understanding the signs, talking to each other, and raising awareness. September is Suicide Prevention Month and I want to thank my friend, Susan, who continues to share her story of loss, heartbreak, pain and lessons of love and kindness. Susan lost her 15-year-old daughter, Grace, almost four years ago to suicide.
I met Susan when we were in high school, though we were just acquaintances. More than 25 years later we connected again through a mutual friend. Since then, I’ve gotten to know Susan much better through our girls’ soccer games, sharing and listening to each other on the sidelines.
I honestly can’t imagine the pain of losing a child. Susan tells me she thinks about Grace every day and while she has learned to better manage her grief, the pain is still immense and intense.
A year after Grace died, Susan launched the first Run with Grace 5K to raise money for the Grace and Kindness Scholarship Fund which helps send underprivileged youth to camp. Kids who display extraordinary kindness to others are nominated by teachers for the scholarships, specifically honoring Grace who was an incredibly kind girl and loved her camps.
Through the Grace and Kindness Foundation, sharing her story and lifting up others, Susan carries the legacy of her daughter’s beautiful spirit as a lesson to others.
The following was written by Susan and delivered to a group of high school girls.
By Susan Holt
My story is going to be different than the others you have heard. It is tragic, it is difficult to talk about… but there have been lessons along the way that I can’t ignore and feel like I have to share.
My daughter Grace took her life two years ago. Grace was 15 and a sophomore at South Medford High School. Grace’s story is not going to sound like what you would imagine when it comes to somebody who is suicidal. There is not one person who thought she could be suicidal…not one. Not a friend, not me, not her counselor.
I have to start by telling you a little bit about Grace. Grace was an amazing girl. She was kind beyond what I have seen in anyone. She was creative, she loved animals, she loved people, she was an amazing friend and she loved her family. She was the kind of kid who had friends in all different kinds of groups whether they were athletic, popular or nerds.
Grace didn’t judge. In fact, if someone seemed a little rude or maybe not very nice she would say something like “well you never know what’s going on in their life”.
Grace was also a typical kid. She was messy, put off schoolwork and wouldn’t always do her chores the first time asked.
More than anything Grace was simply kind and nice to everyone. She smiled all the time and she complimented people and tried to make everybody feel good about themselves.
Five months before Grace died, she told me she didn’t understand why she felt sad because her life was wonderful. I knew this was a sign of depression and started talking to her about it. Grace and I talked about everything. She was so open with me and it’s hard even for me to believe now there was anything she didn’t tell me.
I had her go to counseling. She really liked her counselor. Her counselor could see she was dealing with depression and maybe not adjusting well her sophomore year. She couldn’t do the sport that she loved because of an injury and her best friend and her boyfriend went to another high school. It just seemed like a rough time but nothing too serious.
Kindness matters is the name of the nonprofit a friend and I founded. It’s a theme that is so important to me because it sums up Grace so well. But what I want to talk about is what the words mean and what the actions look like. It’s really easy to say kindness matters and to say it’s important, but to act on it is very different. I think a lot of people feel good about themselves when they do community service or get recognition for doing something nice. True kindness is different. It’s doing something that might feel uncomfortable or be difficult to do and you do it because it’s the right thing and a nice thing to do… not because it will make you look good or you will get credit for it. I’m not saying volunteering in a formal way or doing community service activities are bad I’m just talking about what I think true kindness can look like.
When I started thinking about kindness and acts of kindness that I have seen, mainly through teaching, a few examples jump to the Forefront. I’m going to share three. The first one has to do with Kyle Singler. Kyle is a professional basketball player, makes about 8 million dollars a year and is basically pretty famous. Definitely one of the most famous kids to go through the Medford School District. When I had Kyle in 7th grade it was obvious he was going to go places and was going to be a professional athlete. He was the most athletic kid and could dominate any sport he wanted.
However, when I think of Kyle I will always remember one day in my health class. He had no idea that I saw him do this but he was sitting by a little kid that was kind of a misfit, couldn’t get what was going on in class and socially awkward. I would see Kyle help him without me asking him to. He would kind of guide him through whatever we were doing and looked out for him constantly. This kid could easily be one of those kids that get’s made fun of. He dressed kind of weird and didn’t seem to have friends. I really don’t believe Kyle helped him because he thought it made him look good and I know he didn’t realize I saw it. But these are the things that stand out to me not the fact that he was famous. When I think of Kyle Singler I will always remember his kindness.
Another example has to do with a girl I would see walk down the hallway with total confidence and her own style. She wore a headband every single day. I was curious who this girl was and didn’t have her in class. That year there was also a student named Steven who is severely autistic. I absolutely loved him and worried about how he was doing in classes besides mine. I noticed the kids were usually pretty good with the special education kids who have severe disabilities. However, not always. When I asked another teach how he was doing in her culinary arts class she said he’s doing great because I have this girl (the girl with the headband in the hall!) that works with him and always has his back. I knew I loved that girl before I ever met her.
My third example is something that will be with me forever. It has to do with my daughter Jill Rosie. This example of kindness and empathy surpasses pretty much anything I have seen. We were driving along a very busy highway. There was a girl sitting on the side almost on the white line with a dog. It was January and it was absolutely freezing. She had hardly any clothes on and no shoes and was shivering and crying. Her dog was shivering and they were clearly a mess and needed help.
I first drove by the girl on my way to pick up Jill Rosie. I saw a car there and somebody talking to her so I thought somebody else has this. It’ll be okay. In my heart I knew I should stop. After I picked up Jill Rosie and we drove back by she said “Mom you have to stop.” And I said somebody else is there. They’ll take care of it and she said no stop mom. We went back and it’s a good thing we did because the other person was leaving.
It seemed like there was nothing you could do for her and yet it didn’t seem right to leave her. We tried to calm her down and talk to her which was very difficult because she didn’t make a lot of sense. Jill Rosie had stayed the night at somebody’s house and she got her clothes out and covered her. She found something to put over the dog to keep it warm and we happened to have a leash for our dog in the car which she got for the dog.
Jill Rosie comforted this girl like I didn’t even know how to do. It wasn’t fun and, in fact, it was kind of uncomfortable. She was such a mess but it was the right thing to do. We stayed with her for a long time until we could get help and when we left Jill Rosie made me go to the closest store and get her food and her dog food. Nobody was watching, she wasn’t going to get credit for it and in fact she told me I better never tell anybody. It was kindness to the core. A reaction of doing what is right and nice and needs to be done. Nothing and I mean nothing could make me more proud to call her my daughter.
Along with kindness matters is being a true friend. A true friend is a friend that is unconditional which means they are there when you are fun but also when you’re not very fun to be around. Another lesson that I have taken and I hope others take from Grace is that you truly never know what somebody is going through.
This past summer I taught summer school and there was a girl that was so rough. Lots of makeup, bad attitude look like she was about 16 even though she was 13 and just not nice. I had a really hard time connecting with her and in my mind just that she was a snotty kid. I made a judgement call and basically stereotyped her because of what she looked like in her attitude.
I decided to try a different approach and spend some one-on-one time with her and found out that she was homeless, had been sexually abused by her father, and her mom’s boyfriend and basically was raising her little sister. No wonder she had a bad attitude. No wonder she looked rough. It was quite a lesson for me. You really never know what people are going through. Grace looked happy, she smiled, kids would tell me she was popular why wasn’t she happy. No one knew what she was going through. A true friend is with you even more when you aren’t fun to be around because they’re there for you. They check in, they listen and they care. They’re not just there for the fun times.
Talking about depression and suicide is something that I have just been able to do in the last few months. I actually couldn’t call Grace’s death a suicide for a long time. I thought of it as an accident because it just seemed so unreal and impossible that she could have taken her life.
In a way I will always think of it as an accident because the truth is if she was able to think clearly I know in my heart she would never have done what she did. I knew Grace was dealing with depression but I had no idea that it was so deep. Lots of people deal with depression. I’ve dealt with depression. But I’ve never had thoughts of not wanting to be alive. Again, things aren’t always what they look like and you don’t know what people are going through.
Depression can never be taken serious enough. I have kids at school all the time that will tell me so and say they are depressed or don’t want to live but I think they just want attention. Then they need attention. Even if it is just for attention there must be a reason why. Grace wasn’t like this. If I could go back I would just listen. Listen and be much more observant.
If you notice somebody has changes even if they are subtle like they’re now eating lunch alone or are not social anymore or don’t want to do the things that they love to do. Those can all be signs that something is very wrong. I think Grace’s signs were so subtle nobody really thought much of them. I also think that Grace’s depression scared her and confused her. Like she said her life was wonderful and she didn’t understand why she felt sad. That is what is a true chemical imbalance causing depression. And when you’re 15 you can’t always understand that there is real help and it won’t be that way forever.
I would do anything to have a second chance. I don’t with Grace and so I will forever share her story in hopes that it can help somebody. Maybe somebody like Grace that isn’t open about how she or he is really feeling. I also have to say that if you are concerned about somebody or yourself you have to tell an adult. Not just friends but an adult who will know what to do.
The last thing that I like to talk about is faith. This is a tough topic for me. I have to be honest I can’t say I’m a person that has had unwavering faith in God. I think part of it is that I didn’t grow up with a strong foundation of faith. And it’s not that I don’t believe in God it’s just that I’ve always had more questions than solid beliefs. I knew that if I was going to make it through this grief I needed help. Something much bigger. I am lucky in that I have a few incredible mentors that are friends that are walking this journey with me and helping me in many areas including this area. I have been told that it is okay to question and it is okay to be angry with God I have been very angry. I always believed that if you are a good person and you do good things that really really bad things won’t happen to you. It’s sort of dumb to think that way because bad things happen all over the world and you know people don’t deserve those things but I had never had anything really horrible happened and I didn’t know anybody that had. When I say I felt angry at God I mean really angry like I can hardly be in church or listen to songs or read the Bible. I just figured if he is a good God how could this possibly happen.
As my mentor has explained to me God does not choose for bad things to happen but he can be there with you and help you. I have to say that I believe this because I have seen God work through others. I also believe with all my heart that Grace is with God. I know that. I have had things happen that can’t be explained except God made them happen to help me survive what truly seems unsurvivable. I have to believe and have faith that it is God. I believe that God has put people in my life that never would have been to help and guide me. At this point in my process of trying to have some healing, I feel like I am going in the right direction in having faith that God is real that God is good and that God is there. This is a very slow Journey for me but I know I’m going the right direction.
Learn more about the Grace & Kindness Foundation and the Run with Grace 5K here.