The self-inflicted death of a close friend is one of the most devastating experiences a teen can have, yet it is disturbingly common today. The government says that suicide is the third-leading cause of death between the ages of 15 and 24, taking the lives of some 5,000 young people in the United States every year. Think of it: 5,000 kids who had their whole lives ahead of them--suddenly gone.
For every one of those suicides, there are many others--parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, close friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, and more--who are left shattered, wondering what they could have done to prevent this catastrophe and wrestling with feelings of guilt for not acting in time. The boy or girl who takes his own life will never know the many, often enduring consequences of that act of self-destruction, but his or her survivors surely will!
I have met with many, many teens who have had to deal with a friend's suicide, and in every case they have been left wondering how they missed the signs of approaching disaster. This is because you can never know really what another person is thinking. And when it comes to such dark thoughts as ending one's life, people seldom are willing to reveal precisely what their intentions are.
This is not to say that there aren't clues to be looking for: depression and hopelessness, a fascination with the subject of suicide, preoccupation with death, loss of interest in things formerly cared about, giving one's belongings away, making unusual, goodbye-sounding visits or phone calls to close friends, and--the hardest one to recognize at the time--very suddenly appearing calm and happy when nothing else has changed. That last clue could be a sign that the person has a plan to end his or her misery. If you should observe signs like that in a friend, don't keep it to yourself. Share your concerns with a school counselor or another adult. Timely help could save your friend's life.
If you are among the tens of thousands of teens who have lost a friend through suicide, you may be haunted by the memory of this terrible event. Teens I have met with tell me they can't help thinking about how their friends died, painting in their mind's eye scenes that would fit in a horror movie. If you are tormented by such thoughts, it might be that your imagination is depicting a scene far worse than what really happened. Rumors among classmates and friends sometimes get badly distorted. In any case, these images should fade in a few weeks. If they don't, you should arrange to see a counselor who can help you shake them.
If you are feeling angry toward your friend, you should understand that this doesn't diminish your love for him. Just be careful not to take your anger out on the wrong people. Instead, think of energy-consuming projects you and your friends could take on. Discharge your anger while doing something positive, like collecting money to buy sports equipment for your school or clearing litter from some part of town with special meaning to the friend who died.
Another common reaction teens often tell me about is guilt. Oh, how guilty they feel! They feel guilty for missing all those clues. They feel guilty for not being better friends. They feel guilty for not calling, not writing, not this, not that. For the most part, I find that they have done nothing wrong, but they feel guilty anyway. If that is how you feel, it will help if you can find someone you trust who will really listen and hear what you have to say. Then say all these things that are troubling you; it will help to unburden yourself of these heavy thoughts. As you recite these things, you will begin to realize that most of them are simply regrets--nothing to be guilty about at all. Finally, you might write a letter to your dead friend, telling her how sorry you are, then find some creative way of "delivering" it. One way would be to take it to the cemetery and leave it at your friend's grave. Another would be to attach it to a biodegradable helium balloon and send it aloft. Your friend won't actually read your letter, of course, but teens I know who have done this sort of thing tell me they felt enormous relief afterward.
Grieving the death of a close friend is painful, no matter how your friend died. What that friend offered you in the form of love, companionship, and shared pleasure is gone and cannot be recovered. Still, as the days pass, try to remember all those good things instead of concentrating on how she died. Gradually, you will come to see those memories as treasures, as much a part of you as all your other treasured memories. They haven't ceased to exist simply because your friend took her life.
If you continue to be troubled by your loss, I suggest that you see if there is a teen bereavement group or a suicide survivor group that you could join. Just sharing your thoughts and feelings with other teens who have had similar losses can be a source of great relief and perhaps enable you to save others from a similar fate.