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Leeann Passaro: After Loss

TW: deaths by suicide

Nine years ago today, I was fifteen and a sophomore living at boarding school, but I happened to be home for a long winter weekend. I remember my mom coming into my room and sitting on the edge of the bed. I remember the warmth that came with the familiarity of waking up in my childhood bedroom. I remember the sudden shift that came when my mom told me that we needed to talk, when she told me that Madison Holleran had died overnight. I remember being confused more than anything --what kind of terrible accident could take the life of a promising young person so suddenly? --but I was grateful to be home where I felt safest and most connected to my hometown friends and community. My mom cried as she told me. I sat there pondering.

A few days later, when it came to light that Maddy had died by suicide, I truly didn't even comprehend what that meant. I think I literally Googled "what is suicide?" to find a definition. I remember turning the concept over and over in my head. I remember being so shocked for so many reasons, but also that I had gone my whole life without comprehending that this was a way that people died. I was embarrassed that I had been so naive to this reality. When I went back to school, I didn't sleep for months. My roommate's fan buzzed in the background as I asked questions to myself and traced patterns on the ceiling.

We all lost a lot when Maddy died. At 15, my friends and I also lost innocence.

This past December, I went back to my high school to speak to the senior class. They lost a classmate last April to suicide. I learned just moments ago that my high school just lost another student this past weekend in the same way. I texted the people I love who are still at the school, not saying much because there isn't much to say after this kind of tragedy strikes twice in such a short amount of time. As the story so often goes, both students were seemingly loved and well-supported by their peers and the adults in their lives.

In my 35-minute speech back in December, I only snuck in a few sentences on the topic, too afraid to really touch the subject. I mentioned that I now serve as the Chief Operating Officer of The Hidden Opponent. I explained our mission here at THO, and then here's where I left the conversation: "I have personally struggled with anxiety and depression, mostly related to concussions from sports, so this is something that I care deeply about on a personal level. And even before that, when I was 15, when I was a third former here, I lost one of my old teammates from my hometown to her mental health, so unfortunately, I think I know what you all have been going through since last spring. But I will say I am really proud of you all for still being here and of Lawrenceville for helping mend the community."

When I had time for questions at the end, I offered to talk more about mental health, but as suspected, no one dared to ask.

After hearing the news today, here's what I wish I had said instead:

"Suicide is now one of the leading causes of death in young people. I may be old enough to be your teacher, but we are part of the same generation and it's a generation that has seen more suicide than any before us. It's something that all of us have now encountered and unfortunately, it's something that will likely touch most of our lives sometime again. This kind of loss isn't something that we can just pick up and move on from. This type of death in particular sticks with you, no matter how close you were to the person or not. It's a type of death that you'll think about at random times for the rest of your life. It's a type of death that leaves a lot of room for questions.

When I was your age and I first suffered this type of loss, I had so many questions that I didn't vocalize. Sometimes, I turned to Google. I had intrusive thoughts that I couldn't shake and nightmares that kept me up at night. I turned to music or ocean noises for those. I didn't think I could talk to my mom, my friends, or my dorm parents about these things.

Because how could I ever ask:

"When a bone shatters, how many pieces does it make? How far do you think those pieces could travel?"

The harsh reality is that people in this room have already struggled with self-harm, thoughts of suicide, or deep, dark hopelessness. And more people in this room will face those at some point in their lifetime.

I never thought that I would personally be someone to understand the depths of mental health because I have always had enough to be "happy." But the chemicals in your brain don't consider how great things might be on the outside. Depression or anxiety don't let you see things logically. Later in high school and into college, I struggled with my own mental health, mostly in relation to concussions from sports. I'm so grateful that I found ways to rewire my brain into once again seeing the good in life. I think of it as such because at least for me, it didn't take drastic life changes for me to "be happy again." Like changing the video from SD to HD, the same picture had always been there, it just became clearer once again.

But I also understand how some people might not be able to stay long enough to see that change happen. Since that first loss at 15, I've seen countless deaths by suicide in friends, acquaintances, or even people that I didn't know personally, but had some connection to. Each one hit me differently. I used to think that maybe the person didn't ask for help, or maybe they felt like they didn't have people who could support them in their healing. But I've since come to realize that sometimes we still lose people to suicide, even when everyone around them is aware of the situation and working actively to pull them out of the abyss. Maybe not everyone can be saved, no matter how hard they (or the people around them) try.

So unfortunately, I think I know what you all have been going through since last spring when you had what was maybe your first taste of what suicide can do to you or to a community. I wish I could say "this will make you stronger" or "this too shall pass" or "this will be the last time you encounter this." I don't know if any of those things are true. I do know there are a lot of people, myself included, who have now gone through this type of loss at a young age and probably have the same thoughts, feelings, and questions that you do. I know I often shoved those thoughts or questions down because I didn't want to trigger or burden other people with them. Instead, maybe we all need to find more appropriate and safe times, places, and people to talk about it with. I have a couple of friends in my life now who have experienced similar losses. They are people that I can turn to and be like, "hey, you ever wonder..." and talk through some of these thoughts. Those are some of the coolest friendships I have.

All that to say: this is seemingly becoming one of our generation's biggest problems. I guess the only hope I have is that we are now all in this together when it comes to solving it. And at least we have each other in the meantime as we find ways to continually grow and heal.

My friend Maddy left this world with a Bible quote about how just an ounce of faith can move mountains. I like to think that our collective hope in a brighter future might be able to lead us to such. If you're someone who's currently going through it, try to keep going. Day by day."

Imagine what we would say if we weren't afraid.


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