What do you say to your child after the death of their friend?

A mother writes a note to her son as he mourns the death of a friend from suicide. 

Liz Etheridge Philpott
A picture of crepe myrtle trees in Norfolk, Va., with red ribbons tied around the trees in honor of Sarah Peterson, a local teen who died January 20 after an attempting suicide on January 16.

Editor’s Note: Sarah Peterson, 15, of Norfolk, Va., died Jan. 20, after attempting suicide Jan. 16. Monitor blogger Lisa Suhay is a neighbor of Sarah's family and her 14-year-old son, Avery, was a friend of Sarah's. Local media, guided by ethical concerns, does not report on the specifics of suicide by minors, but the Virginian-Pilot published Sarah's obituary. Ms. Suhay, concerned about her son's reaction to the suicide, wrote the letter below to Avery. She spoke directly with the Peterson family, neighbor-to-neighbor, about it and they agreed that publishing it could be a service to community awareness and healing. The Peterson family is planning to start The Sarah Michelle Peterson Foundation to help address and heal teen depression through education and research.

Dear Avery,

I know you don’t want to talk about Sarah’s suicide. You say it’s not affecting you at all, you’re “fine” and “she’s just a girl who lived down the street.”

Because you’re a 14-year-old boy and I realize boys may approach grief differently than girls, I’m tempted to roll with that.

However, I’m your mom and you’re not looking me in the eye when you tell me you’re fine which has my parental radar on high alert.

Also, it’s not “some girl down the street,” it’s Sarah, who was at our front door nearly every day all summer long asking for you.

It was Sarah, of the long, wavy, white-blond hair and cheery disposition. She disguised her depression and emotional suffering so perfectly that an entire community sits in dazed mourning today.

She and her friend would come to the door numerous times a day, giggling as you exaggerated an eye roll and waved them away saying, “Shoo! Scat! I have other stuff to do right now. Sheesh!” You had already spent hours of teen time wandering the neighborhood with those two and your circle of summer pals.

Also, it took you four days to tell me about Sarah.

When you finally did, your head was down, you tried to get the sentence out so fast it was like seeing someone rip off a bandaid to show mom a glimpse of the hurt.

Then you got that wound wrapped up tight as fast as possible.

You said, “I didn’t mention it because it didn’t affect me.”

A moment later you added, “Also, I just wasn’t accepting it. I’m still not accepting it.”

Kid, you are not fine. I know this because you failed to tell me the whole story.

The truth is that when you told me about her suicide, Sarah was still alive.

She was lying in a hospital bed, her brain activity had ended after her suicide, but it would be another four days before she was removed from life support.

I found out through Facebook, where her parents posted notes to the community.

Her parents are great parents. They didn’t fail her in any way. Her dad wrote that Sarah hid her depression so well her parents only found out last month and while they got her help immediately she was unable to cope.

While you may feel I was prying into your life, I was really trying to figure out why our entire neighborhood was tying red ribbons (Sarah’s favorite color) on everything and posting the message “Pray for Sarah” everywhere.

They were praying for a miracle.

Those ribbons remind me of you because, like you, they’re all tied up tight, being savaged by the howling cold that’s set in here this past week.

I let you have space and time because I knew you were trying to cope all on your own.

Maybe you do that because you have never seen your father shed a tear under any circumstances.

So, let me tell you that your father’s eyes welled up when I told him about Sarah, and he had only met her once.

After I told him, he mortified you with that big, awkward hug in the hallway.

Because your head was buried in his embrace as he rocked you, you didn’t see his eyes, teary and filled with worry for you.

That’s what happens to parents when they hear that one of their child’s friends has taken his or her own life in a time of deepest despair.

We become terribly selfish.

While we immediately feel pain for your friend’s parents and family we are stricken with immeasurable terror at the thought of losing you.

I know you wish I’d shut up. I heard you loud and clear each and every time you said, “Why is everyone making such a big deal? I’m fine. This is embarrassing. I just want it all to go away. STOP!”

It will stop, but I don’t want the part of you that cares and shows emotion, sadness, grief, and love to go away.

That’s why I am sending you out on your bike in the cold today, to follow the trail of red ribbons from our house to Sarah’s house and beyond, to the hundreds that flutter in the wind down her block.

Then you can blame any tears you might shed on the bitter cold gusts animating the ribbons as they and you wave goodbye to both Sarah and the idea that we can avoid the pain of loss by pretending we don’t feel it.

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