Suicide…the drunken uncle nobody wants to acknowledge…

I know it’s been a long time and I’m sorry that this post isn’t really about a drunken uncle, but it does include talk of suicide, so tread lightly if that is a trigger.

Below is an email I sent in support of my friend Anna, a high school senior trying to get her high school to put a chair of remembrance out at their upcoming graduation in honor of a friend who lost her life to suicide last year. Anna and several other students at the school have tried to get the administration to reconsider their “no” answer, but they will not.

The administration has allowed other memorials to be utilized at various school events, and it has become apparent that the degree of sympathy allowed to be expressed openly for a lost friend depends in large part to some on the way in which a person dies.

This is sad, particularly when we’re talking about a young girl who, through no fault of her own, simply couldn’t overcome the thoughts in her head. Succumbing to the dread isn’t weakness, it’s the end result of an illness. It’s a final act, the final act, of mental freedom for a still developing brain that simply couldn’t cope without the help that it didn’t know where to find.

The administration will no doubt say that the memorial could make some students upset or trigger them. Most of the kids graduating that night will be old enough to vote and to be called to fight in the United States Armed Forces. If the sight of an empty chair or mention of the name of a dead person causes them despair, then I weep for the future of humanity and would suggest that their school has failed them.

No matter what happens, I am proud of Anna for fighting for her friend’s legacy and trying to get people to acknowledge that her lost friend is more than just a suicide statistic to a lot of people who liked and who loved her.

If you’re so inclined to support Anna and the other students in support of their lost friend Julia, you could sign the petition linked below, or I’m sure the district superintendent, Dr. Mark Miles, would love to hear from you.

I think I was civil in my email and hope any of you who decide to write him will be as well. He did not give me the courtesy of a response, so it’s my assumption that the school is sticking to their guns.

markmiles@rsdmo.org

——————————————————————————————

Dr. Miles,

I am writing to you at the bequest of some dear friends of our family, the Zamenski’s, but mostly on behalf of a senior student at Rockwood Summit who is like a second daughter to me, Anna Zamenski.

By now I’m quite sure you are familiar with what is going on so I won’t rehash the details and it’s not my intention to add any fuel to what has probably become a bit of a nasty fire for you and your administrators.

I have been a police officer in the City of St. Louis for over twenty-two years. I mention this ONLY to give you context of my understanding about what you and your staff and teachers must deal with in your profession. Like police officers and sadly nowadays, even doctors and scientists and other professionals society relies so heavily on, teachers are under a lot more scrutiny than ever before. I understand what it’s like to feel attacked when you are simply trying to make the best decisions possible for everybody, sometimes under the most difficult of circumstances.

Having said that, going to the principal’s office is unnerving for students who care about their education and behavior, even if the principal is a kind person. It is my understanding that Anna was called to the office today by the high school principal and at least one other staff member and was accused of initiating an online petition that she had no control over. Berating or upsetting a student to tears is shameful, especially in this situation where we’re dealing with a kid who is trying to be supportive of her dead friend the best way she knows how.

I don’t know what the rules are with respect to honoring students who have passed away during their time as students in Rockwood, but I would ask you to consider this. I have been told and have no reason to disbelieve this, that some students who have died unexpectedly have been honored individually in some small way at graduations. 

If this is indeed the case, then whether or not a young person’s individual eligibility to be remembered one last time in front of her classmates and friends should not be incumbent upon dying in a manner that the administration deems “tragic.” 

A teen dying in a car accident is tragic.

A teen dying in a hunting accident is tragic.

A teen dying from overheating/exhaustion during football practice is tragic.

And yes, a teen dying via suicide is tragic.

Rockwood has a reputation as one of the best school districts in the region and this is an excellent opportunity to show off why this is so. 

Suicide happens.

It happens not only with our kids, but also with the elderly and people of all ages in between, oftentimes for reasons that those of us who are left behind to mourn simply can’t understand. We as adults struggle to understand, so what must our kids think when this happens to one of their own?

Nobody is asking for Rockwood to glorify suicide or even mention the manner of Julia’s death, but refusing to acknowledge her existence at Rockwood as an individual sends the wrong message, particularly now that all of the Summit seniors are aware that there was a request made to honor her. The message doing nothing will send is that we heard you the students, but we didn’t listen to you.

Even in my police profession, we have been guilty of shunning police officers who have ended their own lives by not honoring them when we honor other officers who were killed at the hands of others or who otherwise died accidently while on duty. We are getting better at understanding that the stresses of the job add up and sometimes just become too much for people to handle on their own. We’re learning to acknowledge that suicide isn’t committed by the weak or by quitters and trying to teach our young officers that looking for help with mental issues is just as okay as looking for help with physical ailments.

As you know better than most, high school kids are under a great deal of pressure nowadays. In addition to doing well in school, many of these kids have jobs or play sports or are in clubs and have to please parents at home as well as finding a way to be true to themselves both in and out of school. Their lives are constantly under review from adults and peers, especially with social media and sometimes, just like with adults, it gets to be too much.


As adults, many of us are aware of the warning signs and know where to look for help, but many young people don’t have that information yet. 

Rockwood is being watched now. Why that is or who has drawn this unwanted attention to the district doesn’t matter. Rightly or wrongly, the school district will be judged by some on how they handle this situation. My hope is that Rockwood uses this as an opportunity to empathize and to educate, as that is what Rockwood does so well. 

At the end of the day, you are teachers. 

Please teach these kids that you understand that they have a lot going on and that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. Teach them that you are there for them. Teach them that their parents or police officers, or doctors or somebody at the other end of an 800 number is there for them when life doesn’t seem worth living, but please don’t teach them that the life of a young girl who lost her fight with her demons matters any less than the life of a student who died any other way.

Julia existed and she was a Rockwood Summit student. But for circumstances that were beyond her young brain’s ability to control, she would be graduating with her friends. All Anna is asking is that you acknowledge that “JULIA” is missed, not that one of a general group of many is missed. That’s not too much to ask.

I am, quite frankly, very proud of Anna for trying to keep her friend’s memory alive and fighting like hell for it to happen. Julia’s death has been especially hard on Anna. The easiest thing for Anna to do would be to try to forget about her friend and move on, but in spite of the fact that Julia’s passing causes her heart to hurt and her eyes to cry whenever she thinks about it, Anna fights through the pain for her friend.

There is no reward or “victory” for Anna to see her friend mentioned individually at graduation other than to know that she did what she thought was right and that adults she trusts agreed with her. That sort of passion and perseverance and friendship is something that Rockwood should encourage in its students, not fight.

I appreciate you and the hard work you do. I hope you will reconsider your position.

Best,
Don

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14 Responses to Suicide…the drunken uncle nobody wants to acknowledge…

  1. gbqs says:

    Very well written email and, yes, I will be signing and sending an email too. Utterly tragic in so many ways. The administration had already “convicted” her before pulling her into the office to accuse her, I’m certain. I went through a similar situation at a university in Illinois and nearly quit college over it. Anna should be honored rather than vilified for having the integrity to stand up and fight for her friend’s recognition. Thank you for sharing this! And, yes, it’s been far too long since we heard from you.

  2. gbqs says:

    Sorry for the second comment, but I feel remiss in not adding that part of me has to believe the administration fears opening this possibility to others who may ask for the same. How would the school be looked if there were 2-5 honorary chairs at every graduation? IMO, they’d look like heroes for bringing visibility to a mostly under-acknowledged need. With suicides as frequent as they are and mental health still being an “unmentionable”, what better way to illustrate that than to make this a regular custom (with family’s agreement of course)? We have a problem and no one wants to talk about it.

  3. Julie says:

    As always your voice is magical don. I’ve missed you

  4. Your voice has been missed. This school is missing a big opportunity to teach their students something beyond what they learn in textbooks. I understand the tone of your letter is to not alienate the powers that be, but seriously. To not memorialize a student because of their manner of death is ridiculous. Sounds like the school administration needs an education in mental health and stigma.

    • I think it’s encouraging that a lot of the kids are picking up on the fact that the principal seems to be acting so stubborn for reasons that don’t make sense and are trying to call her out on it. It’s nice when the young protesting isn’t police related for a change. Lol. Thank you. Hope you’re doing well.

  5. Maggie O'C says:

    Don, you know all the great things that I think of you and this is yet another great piece of writing.
    I work for Lines for Life, a non-profit dedicated to suicide prevention and destigmatizing mental health struggles.

    The YouthLine is our peer-to-peer line for youth ages 10 to 24.Their training materials are available to schools around the country and they will be expanding to the East Coast in the next year. Please share far and wide and let me know if I can be of any assistance in any way.

    https://oregonyouthline.org/

    xoxoxoxo

  6. corley598 says:

    I was so struck by your phrase “It’s a final act, the final act, of mental freedom”. My step-daughter, who was much older than Anna, died by suicide eighteen months ago. In our final text conversation the night before she died, she texted “I don’t know how much more I can take. I really don’t know what to think. I have a lot going on in my head right now.” Her act relieved her of her mental anguish. but plunged those of us who loved her into deep despair.

    • So sorry to hear about your step daughter. I’ve been a city cop for a long time and have been around a lot of suicides. The “lucky” families get notes with explanations and some small measure of closure I think. Other times, the families and friends are left to wonder what they could have done to help, when really the answer is probably nothing. I think these kids trying to get a small token to their friend all feel like they failed her in some small way and are just trying to do right by her one last time. It’s a difficult thing for people to talk about, but it’s common enough that I hope more people will. Stay well.

  7. markbialczak says:

    Thank you so much for standing up for what is right, Don, and for explaining why that is so with such precision. The school’s leaders would do so much more teaching by putting out that chair and allowing their community members to learn from every bit of Julia’s precious and painful life in their own way.

  8. randomlyerin says:

    That was a very well written letter. As a survivor of attempted suicide myself, thank you for helping be an advocate for your young friend and what she and her classmates are dealing with. There are no easy answers, and help is often near impossible to get no matter what age we are, but sweeping it under the rug isn’t going to do any good for anyone.

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