“When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful.” Malala Yousafzai
Suicide is often preventable, not always, but often. There is no one absolute thing that can point to why someone does or does not follow through with suicidal ideation (thoughts of killing oneself). But, if it were going to come down to anything in the case of Emma Hartshorn*, it would be inner resilience, the love of one important adult, and six incredibly important children.
Emma was the firstborn of seven children. She was a natural nurturer, a people pleaser, stubborn, and too smart for her own good. Her childhood home was not a happy place. She was abused from an early age – as were the six siblings who followed. From the age of seven, Emma was charged with caring for her brothers and sisters, even babysitting alone. The new babies were always put in Emma’s room. She tended to them like they were her own. At the age of nine, Emma gained full kitchen cleaning duties, including most of the meal preparations. By the time she was ten, she vacuumed the floors, did the laundry, dressed and bathed her siblings, answered their calls for help or attention, broke up their squabbles. All while spending countless hours daydreaming about a carefree childhood with good parents. Emma often watched the neighborhood children play through the window as she cleaned. She also spent time daydreaming about her parent’s accidental death and her subsequently taking over official custody of her siblings.
Add to this, the frequent moves, poverty, lack of friendships, plain looks, ugly second-hand clothes, physical and emotional abuse by her father, and neglect by her mother; it is easy to see why Emma began thinking of killing herself at an early age. By fifth grade, she would sit alone on the playground during recess wishing she were dead. School after school, teacher after teacher, bully after bully, Emma never seemed able to escape the torments and tormenters of her life. Death seemed a truly viable option, and often, the only option. These thoughts were frequent as she faced mean children and sometimes mean teachers, absentee school counselors, oblivious relatives, and at a minimum, weekly physical assaults at home. The verbal and psychological assaults were daily.
Home was not a safe place to be; school was not a place she liked to be. Home was unpredictable as to when the next violent outburst would come at her. It always happened without warning and came fast and hard like a pressure cooker exploding. The only thing that was predictable was that it would happen again, and soon.
By the time Emma was in high school, not much had changed. There were more siblings still being added; the last arrived when Emma was almost 19. As they came, they brought her much joy but also additional workload. Her grades suffered. She was forced to take near remedial classes simply to keep her head above water. Since school work was not a priority for her at home, she needed classes that did not require much of her time. No one ever picked up on the fact that she scored extremely high on the standardized tests, year after year, yet took remedial type classes.
Things escalated at home the older she got. To protect the kids, Emma began to verbally fight back against her father’s abuse. However, she was still unable to tell anyone at school despite her desperation to protect her siblings. She tried superficially cutting her wrists at one point but did not find it helpful and abandoned the idea.
One particular day in high school was so bad Emma spent the entire day thinking of different ways to kill herself. Everything she did presented an opportunity. She could
dunk the blow-dryer in the tub, fall down the staircase, tie her scarf around her neck, step in front of a car…the list grew all day.
Throughout her youth, Emma’s suicidal feelings were strong and she was very serious about it. Death frequently felt like the best release from the prison of her life.
Emma had only one adult, a great-grandmother, who showed her an appropriate amount of love. She passed when Emma was twelve. Up until that time, however, she made Emma feel special and loved, worthy of love and important. Her death was exceedingly difficult, especially during such a vulnerable age. The saving grace in her life, her younger siblings, helped soften the blow. They were affectionate children and provided
a lot of hope and reasons for Emma to live.
Emma survived her ordeal but struggled with depression and suicidal ideation well into her twenties. She could have followed through with her suicidal thoughts. Instead, she grew into a responsible adult. She now holds a Master’s Degree and is a working professional. It is likely she has not yet fully dealt with the ramifications of her childhood and lasting impact on her life.
The reality is that Emma could be any one of us. The deep love of a caring grandmother and Emma’s deep love for her siblings helped her through some horrible years. We can only guess at a more positive outcome had other adults taken an interest in Emma’s plight.
We don’t really know why some people are able to stave off the effects of depression and suicidal ideation. But, we do know that social isolation makes a negative contribution. Each of us has it in our power to make a difference to the Emma in our lives. I would go so far as to say that we each have a responsibility to make a difference.
Just as you may have learned to recognize the signs of stroke or heart attack. Learn to recognize the signs of depression which may be evident in the teens around you.
Emma was not only lucky, but she was resilient. She possessed a strength to stay focused on how much she was needed by her siblings. Not every kid has that strength. Not every child has a grownup who is watching over them. You may be the only person who is called to make a difference. Look around. Pay attention. Whose life can you save?