School staff and parents at Nauset Regional High School in Eastham and Monomoy Regional High School in Harwich are struggling this week to support young people who are grieving the deaths of friends.
The family of Noah Tadema-Wielandt, 15, a Monomoy High School sophomore from Harwich, confirmed that he died by suicide on Jan. 17.
Nauset High Principal Chris Elsasser alerted families by email on Jan. 20 that a senior at the school had died two days earlier. The cause of death has not been confirmed. For now, said Elsasser, the school’s focus is on the students’ grief.
The losses have prompted efforts by parents, school officials, and health professionals in communities across the Lower and Outer Cape to mobilize support for grieving students, families, and staff.
The Cape & Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition has organized a meeting this week for people on the Cape in the suicide awareness field to develop and implement a “postvention” plan to support the community, said Dr. Kim Mead-Walters of Orleans, one of the organizers of the meeting.
Mead-Walters, a family physician who has practiced in Orleans since 1996, founded the organization Sharing Kindness after her 16-year-old son Jeremy, a junior at Nauset High, died by suicide in 2016. Sharing Kindness has offered grief support to staff at both schools, acknowledging the difficulties for teachers and other staff members who are grieving themselves while also trying to support the students. Sharing Kindness offered a similar program to Sturgis High School in Hyannis recently, following the unexpected death of a beloved teacher.
Monomoy staff will have the opportunity to participate in a Sharing Kindness community grief response program this week. The organization has also offered a suicide awareness documentary titled My Ascension for both school and community showings. The film is about Emma Benoit of Louisiana, who survived a suicide attempt at age 16. It also examines the effects on communities of the deaths of two other teenagers.
No time has yet been scheduled for the community showings of the film.
“When I am called to sit with a family,” said Mead-Walters, “I am there not as a physician, or as the director of a nonprofit. I am there as one bereaved parent to another. Early on, it feels as if you cannot possibly survive this. How do you live in a world without your child in it? I want to hold space for other bereaved families and provide hope.”
She added, “It is important to remember how our loved ones lived, not just how they died.”
It is hard to explain, Mead-Walters said, but suicide is not a choice to die.
“Most who die by suicide don’t want to die, but they want their emotional pain to end,” she said. This insight helps to focus prevention efforts, Mead-Walters said, on “less bullying, more kindness” and on addressing racism, homelessness, food insecurity, and eating disorders. All of these are risk factors for suicide, she said.
Researchers report that suicide is rarely a reaction to a single event and is often related to chronic anxiety and depression. The idea that it is preventable is true to an extent, Mead-Walters said, but also carries an ugly subtext that casts blame, increases shame, and silences people instead of supporting them.
Her son Jeremy was getting treatment for both depression and anxiety; his family had resources and expert medical knowledge. “Even with the best of care and support, some people don’t survive,” Mead-Walters said.
Long-term healing for survivors goes well beyond the immediate need for “challenging conversations,” she said. “For far too long, people never spoke the person’s name again. I can’t imagine if I had lost my son at a time like that. There is so much stigma related to suicide and overdose. We are working to promote a healthier narrative for survivors of suicide loss.”
The context of what children are going through now, two years into a global pandemic, cannot be ignored. In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy put out an advisory on the urgent need to address a youth mental health crisis that had been building long before the pandemic. Suicide rates among youth ages 10 to 24 increased by 57 percent between 2007 and 2018.
“The Covid-19 pandemic further altered their experiences at home, school, and in the community,” wrote Murthy about young people’s lives. “And the effect on their mental health has been devastating.”
The Independent follows guidelines for journalists provided by Suicide Awareness Voices and Education, a nonprofit dedicated to the prevention of suicide and endorsed by 25 partner organizations including the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Poynter Institute. Their recommendations note that “100 studies worldwide have found that risk of contagion is real and responsible reporting can reduce the risk of additional suicides.”
News coverage, the guidelines state, should dispel myths and inform the public of the complexities of suicide, and should include helpful resources and messages of hope and recovery.
Advice for young people from professionals about grieving
There is no right way to grieve. Grief can be intense and loud, or quiet and barely there. Some people are not sure how they feel. It is all OK.
Common reactions: sleep, appetite, memory, and ability to concentrate may be messed up; you may get easily frustrated.
Virtually every grieving person feels guilt or regret about something that they said or did not say. These feelings are intense when someone dies because we cannot apologize to the person.
If you are worried you contributed to the death in some way, talk to an adult you trust right away. Say you need more than “Don’t feel that way.”
Some people will say or do things that are inappropriate or that bother you, such as when someone who is not your friend comes up and hugs you. They may be doing the best they can. Talk about your feelings with someone you trust.
Write or draw, collage, or paint to release feelings.
Be kind to yourself: Tell the critic in your head, “I know you are worried I am doing this wrong. But really, I am doing my best.”
Celebrate the good. Laughing and having fun does not mean you don’t love or miss the person you’ve lost.
Parents: watch your children for
- Changes in sleeping or eating habits
- Withdrawal from friends
- Drug and alcohol use
- Neglect of appearance
- Marked change in personality
- Drop in grades
- Persistent boredom
- Resistance to praise or rewards
- Giving away possessions
- Becoming suddenly cheerful after a period of depression
Parents’ action list
- Lock up guns and medications
- Keep alcohol and marijuana locked away and track the amounts
- Monitor kids’ online activity, watching for research on methods of suicide, purchasing of materials or items that could be used for self-harm; spending time on social media sites dedicated to self-harm or suicide or receiving texts from peers about suicide
- If a child says “I want to kill myself,” take it seriously and seek professional help immediately.
Source: American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
- org: suicide awareness and grief support
- Chat online at OregonYouthLine.org
- Crisis Text Line: text HELLO to 741741
- The Dougy Center: dougy.org
- For LGBTQ youth: thetrevorproject.org
Cape & Islands Suicide Awareness Walk, May 21, at Veterans Park Beach in Hyannis at 10 a.m. Sponsored by Sharing Kindness, Cape & Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition, NAMI Cape Cod & the Islands and the Samaritans on Cape Cod & the Islands.