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The Grief I Experienced During Graduation Reflecting on a Former Classmate's Suicide

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Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts or have lost someone to suicide, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

We’re all dressed in black to celebrate our “departing to better places.” This is one of a few jokes I recall from all the commencement speeches I’ve listened to over the years.

I’ve attended a lot of commencement ceremonies, having an older sister and having been a band geek playing “Pomp and Circumstance” in the pit year after year. The chore of commencement ceremonies directly opposed all that is comforting to the introvert in me. As much as I would like to admit I liked watching strangers or distant acquaintances of my sibling complete a laborious milestone, I remember barely anything about graduations I’ve attended. Except one image.

May 2012, I was a junior in high school playing “Pomp and Circumstance” a billion times for seniors I mostly didn’t know. The screen on stage showed five to six hundred individuals (the typical class size of a 5A high school) posing and smiling in the exact same manner as they shook hands with the superintendent they had never met. Then, the announcer called the name of a student who had taken his life a month ago and his parents appeared on stage to receive their son’s diploma. They didn’t smile. Not even when the audience clapped without the sports-like whooping and yelling that accompanied the other typical diploma recipients’ walk across stage.

May 2017 approaches and I await the simultaneously boring and satisfying commencement ceremony that marks the end of my undergraduate career. May 2017 approaches and I still recall the wrinkles under my late classmate’s mother’s eyes, the fidgeting of the father as the couple paused in front of a camera meant to capture an image of their son. It’s the image that has played like a short film clip in my mind, still after five years, like the after-sight of a light too bright for my pupils to dilate.

An article on Vice, cites Johanna Jarcho, Ph.D saying mental illnesses flourish in the minds of kids in their early 20s. Count me in that population, as my only consistent roommates throughout college were depression, nightmares and anxiety.

According to Teen Help, between 1,240 and 1,668 teens died by suicide in the US each year between 1999 and 2014. That’s an entire 5A high school student population wiped out every year to just one fatal cause alone. More teens die from suicide than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, combined, according to the Jason Foundation.

Sure, I’m more than ready to say goodbye to the daily reminders of bad memories — drama and broken relationships mostly — stored on campus. And I’ve already planted a growing pit of apathy regarding my grades and current classes since I turned in and heard back from graduate schools. But apathy mixes with depression when April rolls around, bringing about the marking of yet another year of recalling memorial posts for my classmates and thinking they were part of a bad joke. Another year of wishing I could believe that everyone young lives until they’re old.

I beg my late classmate’s ghost to tell me what makes surviving peers and me exempt from suicide when suicide is such as great risk of those, like me, who have had chronic bouts of mental illness. What makes my surviving peers and me exempt from the what took the life from him, an unsuspecting teenager just one month shy of commencing life beyond high school? This question feels like an open wound, unanswered and never satiated.

Nothing gives rise to “Senioritis” in my final stretch of college like the strange and invasive jumble of grief and confusion of knowing that not everyone gets to complete college, or even live to complete college.

Shouldn’t I find motivation and not “lazy” depression from knowing I’m somehow still here and haven’t died by suicide? Why can’t I type up these final papers with celebratory vigor and attend every single on-campus event before I dress in black and march off to a “better place?”

Perhaps grief is just a natural side effect of graduating, especially those who graduate with depression in their pockets, anxiety on their shoulders and loss in their holed jeans. It’s a symptom of the truth that so many young people cannot “graduate” to adulthood, not until research and awareness make mental illness a universally conquerable experience that removes one more obstacle from commencing life beyond depression.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Thinkstock photo via kreinick.

Originally published: June 23, 2017
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