I will never forget James. I had been working as a school counselor for a few years and overall I thought I was doing a good job. Then James walked into my office. This was in the early 90’s and there was still a certain degree of stigma associated with seeking mental health services, especially for males. Just the fact that James walked into my office and asked, “Are you busy?”, told me he really needed someone to listen.
He took a seat. He talked and I listened and sometimes we just sat quietly, yet when our time was up, it seemed he hadn’t really revealed anything of huge significance. The next week James came back and he talked some more, I listened some more and we sat in silence part of the time, and again, it didn’t seem like he told me anything that was really of consequence. I decided he was holding back and that when he was more comfortable and I had built a greater level of trust and confidence, he would confide the real issue that had initially prompted him to come in. Each week I would think,” this will be the week that James will really open up.”
Spring Break came and went and April turned into May, and James didn’t confide anything horrific or greatly troubling to me. I became worried that the school year would end before James really let me in so that I could help him with “the real problem”. To make matters worse, James was a 6th grader which meant he would move on to Junior High after the summer break. I went so far as to ask another counselor for advice on how to get James to trust me enough to share. Her advice was good. She told me I had to think of the help I offered to my students as being like grasping a handful of sand. I would be able to hold on to most of the tiny grains but not matter how tightly I squeezed some of them were going to slip through my fingers. She gently pointed out that squeezing too tightly would only cause even more grains of sand to slip out of my grasp.
Summer break arrived and while I still thought about James often, I told myself that I had tried my best and that he was a precious grain of sand that had slipped through my fingers despite my best efforts.
Fast forward three years; I was sitting at my desk trying to quickly finish up some notes at the end of the day. Outside the buses from the Junior High and High School had arrived and the teens were switching to their second buses that would take them, along with the elementary kids, back to their homes.
I heard a voice at my door, familiar but deeper than I remembered “I bet you don’t remember me, do you?” I turned and saw an older version of my former student and I couldn’t hold back a smile. “Of course, I remember you James!” He had a bit of a sheepish look but he didn’t have time to mince words or he would risk missing his bus. “Do you remember when I used to come in here and talk to you?” I told him I did. He quickly said, “It really, really helped.” and then before I could say anymore, he was gone.
To my knowledge my path and James’ have never crossed again, but I will forever remember the lesson I learned from him. James may or may not have been holding back a dark secret, but what he really needed was for someone to listen and let him know that they cared about him. It turned out that I had not failed him after all. We don’t always know the struggles that others are facing so that makes it all the more crucial that we treat everyone with compassion. Just because some of the grains of sand slip from our grasp doesn’t mean that we didn’t touch them for a moment. Sometimes, a moment is all that it takes to make a positive difference.
September is Suicide Prevention Week. Let’s all remember that the small gestures of kindness, be they actions, words, or simply a pleasant facial expression, can be the best part of someone’s day. It might even be what gives them the strength to hang on.
If you know someone that you think may be considering suicide you can help:
- Talk to them directly. Talking about suicide doesn’t make it more likely, it is just the opposite.
- Really listen, you don’t have to have the solution to their problem to be able to help.
- Try to get them to talk with a mental health professional or a hotline worker.
- Ask them to promise (in writing is great) to not hurt themselves without giving you or another person the opportunity to listen and help.
All threats of suicide must be taken seriously regardless of age. It is the number two cause of death for people between the ages of 10 and 34 and the fourth leading cause of death for individuals between 34 and 54. During 2020 suicide rates are going higher than ever as a result of stress from the pandemic and all that goes with it.
There is one more super simple thing you can do right now. Pick up your cell phone and go to your contacts. Add a new contact called SUICIDE then put in the number 800-273-8255. It is the national hotline number. I hope you never need it for yourself or for anyone, but if you do, it will be there and you won’t have to rely on an internet connection to look it up.
Have a blessed week and remember to sprinkle a little kindness on those around you.
Photos provided by :Mads-Schmidt-Rasmussen, Dan Meyers and Manasvita.