Tuesday, February 9, 2010

reflections on a life lost

If you haven't heard, the DC area got hit with a ridiculous amount of snow this past weekend. During my time "off the grid" I thought about a lot of things, one of which was this post. It has been rattling around in my head since about last Wednesday or so and I am just now getting the opportunity to put fingers to keyboard to get it written.

I love my job as a high school counselor. I enjoy being able to work with kids and make a difference in their lives. There are few perks to the job (yes, I know, I get holidays and SOME time in the summer off- I do have to work 4 weeks in the summer beyond what a teacher has to do), but really the only real rewards of the job are knowing you've helped someone. there is the occasional note from a parent or student to say thank you, but that is about it.

However, last week was one in which the exact opposite happened. I told a colleague of mine on Tuesday, that it was just these occasions that make me wish I had a job where I didn't have to worry about the mental health and well being of anyone other than myself. Sometimes, the responsibility is too great, the depth of a mental illness too deep, and the ability to help becomes futile.

On Monday, February 1st I received a phone call that I will never forget. The head of my department called to let me know that there had been a crisis involving one of my students. My mind raced to a few different students who I knew were troubled, one of which had just been in my office the week prior in crisis, threatening to hurt herself. When I heard his name mentioned instead, I almost collapsed. It was all I could do to hold it together until the end of the phone call. Pat knew there was something wrong, as the call itself is unusual, but he heard the tremor in my voice. He walked out to the kitchen where I was on the phone, ending the call. As soon as I hung up, I leaned on the island with my head down and sobbed. I sobbed like I had lost one of my own family members. One of my seniors that I had been working closely with had committed suicide. Emma thought I was laughing and began to laugh along, until Pat told her I was sad. He told the girls I needed to be left alone and the big girls listened, Emma followed me into the dark living room, crawled up into my lap and just hugged me. How on earth she knew what I needed, I don't know, but it surely helped.

This is the second time I have received a call about the death of a student in a little over a year. I can't exactly put words to my feelings, but this one is different. It completely shook me to my core. When T. died in November of 2008, it was a tragic and random act of violence. In this case, P. decided, with thought and determination, to end his own life. I can't but think of all those left behind in the wake of this horrible event. So many of us asking why and what if.

Everyone was in shock that next day. As I drove into work, I was preparing myself for a stressful day of grief counseling. Of wounds opened and re-opened with the news of another classmate dead. I was prepared, I kept telling myself I needed to hold it together for the kids.

My strength lasted all of 2 minutes. As soon as I entered the building, I started tearing up. By the time I reached my office and saw the beginnings of the crisis team setting plans in motion, I lost it. I remember my vice-principal coming in and talking to me about the plan to follow P's schedule and talk to his classmates. I hadn't even taken my coat off and I looked at him through teary eyes and he said to me, "Oh, I guess you were close with him." Yes, I worked closely with him.

I then realized, there was no way I should be talking to already emotionally fragile teenagers. The contagious crying would never end. At that moment, as my wonderful co-workers came in to see me in a steady stream, the counselor became the counseled.

Over the course of the day, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place. P was an incredibly bright young man who, a year ago, had such great promise. He was a gifted writer who often used his talents to write lyrics for the band he formed with friends. He was a great football player and enjoyed his time on the Varsity team since his freshman year. A broken ankle sidelined him during his junior year, in a rush to get back on the gridiron he permanently damaged his ankle. I believe that this was the beginning of the end for him. He lost his identity and from this point forward, he continued to search to find another way to find his "place" in this world. The band was one way, but it seems it wasn't enough.

Last spring, I began to see P's grades suffer. I was concerned, but not majorly. We met, we talked about it, and he knew what he needed to do to get back on track. This fall, his grades continued to drop and he was often in my office. He would come in to see me, knowing full well what I was going to say and what he "needed" to do. He flashed his big, bright winning smile, and would leave telling me exactly what I wanted to hear. There were flashes of serious problems early in the year. Child Protective Services came to meet with him based on a call they received about him having been kicked out of his house by his mother. Through the whole interview, P was evasive and denied that there was a problem, but in such a way that I was sure there was some truth to the matter. He would bob and weave and you never felt like you were getting a straight answer out of him. That is how many of my conversations went with him.

There had been such a dramatic change in P, that I was concerned that something major was going on with him. We had a conference with his mother and his teachers and everyone voiced their concerns. There wasn't a single teacher in my office that day that didn't truly feel as though there was something amiss with this young man. We so strongly wanted to see him get his life and grades back on track. At the same time, I was beginning to get word from my colleagues that indicated there may have been more going on. His friend's parents had contacted another counselor in my department concerned that P was talking to himself and was declaring himself the son of a king and proclaiming that he was destined for greatness. Another counselor mentioned to me that one of his students felt as though P was stalking her. He had expressed feelings for her that she could not reciprocate, and he took it hard. He was calling her often and was found sitting on her front porch one night.

I spoke to P's mother about my concerns and she had expressed that she was having difficulty at home, but seemed reluctant to pursue anything. I was concerned that there were serious mental health issues that sounded suspiciously like schizophrenia. P's mother did ask me to send home numbers for counseling resources but I also encouraged her to contact his Physician for a direct referral that would work with her insurance.

As the second quarter wore on, the grades were not improving. P seem in denial that there was a problem and refused to let me move him out of his AP English class. He was convinced that he could pass his classes and earn his way to a half-day schedule for second semester (something he really wanted and that his mother said he could have, if he could pass his classes for 1st semester). Around Thanksgiving, his mother asked me to make changes to his schedule to place him in an on-level English class, so he might be able to pass it. It was way too late in the semester to make the change, so we had to wait to make the change until second semester.

Through out all of this, his teachers never stopped communicating to me (and P, as well as his mother and sister) their concerns about his grades and dramatic lack of enthusiasm for school. I met with P regularly and he always left my office with that trademark smile.

During exam week, P. came to me to adjust his schedule for the next semester. He knew he failed English 12A and would need to retake it after school in order to graduate. He seemed to have a different aura about him, as if he had made his peace with his grades and determined to do whatever it takes to get to graduation. I thought we had turned a corner. Just a few days later, I spoke to his music teacher and she expressed that he was not doing anything in class and just kept his head down. I made it a point to write myself a note to see him when all the start-of second-semester hubbub died down. He had also just submitted an application to a local college and I needed to go over a few things with him before I could write my letter of recommendation.

I never got to meet with P. The sticky note with his name on it still hangs off of my monitor. All I could do that horrible day last week is think, what if I had seen him, what if I had noticed something, what if I could have reached him, what if...? I suspected mental health issues, but I never saw him as a suicide risk.

As a counselor, I know that I worked hard to help P, I did what I could with the information I had, but I still couldn't help thinking that there was something more I could have/should have done.

When I met with P's mother that day, I know she was looking to me for answers. Part of me was angry with her for not getting him help, for not being able to look past the cultural stigma of her upbringing to see that he needed help. But all of me was mourning with her, I could see her genuine pain and that her tears, as she clung to me during our embrace, were real; a mother, lost in her grief.


Anonymous said...

My condolences on this tragic loss. I'm a high school English teacher and know far too well of what you've shared here. Though you will obviously second-guess yourself, it's clear that you did so much for this young man, far more than many others might have done.
Wishing you some peace as you figure out how to move forward.


Sue (spbray) said...

Thanks so much for the kind words. Thankfully we had a snow day the next day after the announcement that let so many of us have more time to come to grips with things. Then the blizzard of 2010 occurred which allowed for more healing, but I was unable ti trudge through 30+ inches of snow with my 3 girls to go to the funeral.

Again, thanks for the kind words, they mean so much.