The past two weeks my sixth graders have completely stunned me and my co-teacher, Claire, with their honesty and vulnerability. Most of my kids are twelve years old, but they are thinking and worrying about things that are so much bigger than them. There are two separate issues that came up on two separate nights. The second one I will save for a separate post.
Two weeks ago we were talking about healing. We started with superheroes and moved on to the ultimate superhero – Jesus. Our main activity was to have each group write a song about what needs healed in our society with one group focusing on Nebraska, one on the US, and one on the world. Before they started we asked them for suggestions to get the gears turning. The first thing any of them brought up was suicide. I cannot write the look on this little twelve-year-old girl’s face when a few seconds of thought produced this idea. In that moment I saw my own heart break reflect in Claire’s eyes as well. Do not mistake me, they are twelve and there were a few who made jokes, but a majority of our class had hurt in their eyes.
I know the Church’s teaching on suicide and I feel that this is a good time to share it. The Catechism (2280-2282) emphasizes that it is contrary to natural inclination to live and is not in the spirit of thanksgiving, as our lives are a gift from God. However, “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282). It goes on to emphasize that we are not God and therefore cannot determine whether or not a suicide victim is or is not worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.
This topic is something that came up frequently when we did our question box for the high schoolers during Totus Tuus. But how do I explain that to twelve year olds? How am I to go about doing anything other than comforting them and reaffirming the value of life when some are sad and some crack jokes? On reflection we realized that we could have handled it better than we did and that too breaks my heart.
When the kids brought it up, all we really did was confirm that suicide is a problem in our community and that it is an incredibly difficult and painful situation. I honestly don’t remember saying much more than that. As soon as we sent them home for the night, Claire and I expressed to each other how surprised we were that they had started that conversation. We realized immediately that we should probably have temporarily de-railed the lesson to address their concerns. We did not explain to them what the Church teaches on the matter, maybe directed at a stray comment from one of the students but definitely not with the attention of the whole class. We also realized right away that we had missed our opportunity. I feel fairly confident that if we tried to bring it up now, they would all be shut down to the conversation.
Suicide is hard to talk about with twelve year olds. I did not handle the situation the way that I would want to, looking at it in retrospect. However, in the most positive and Christ-centered view of things that I can find, I have to trust that what Claire and I said was appropriate to our classroom, that in those few moments the Holy Spirit spoke through us. Out of all this worry and sadness of our failures, that is my prayer.
In the weeks since I felt moved to make arrangements for their concerns to be addressed and their questions answered. The Director of Religious Education (DRE) is currently attempting to arrange for the parish priest to come in and speak to the kids, something that Claire and I are looking forward to so that our students may be set at some ease. Feel free to comment about how you would have handled the situation or suggestions for how I and other Religious Educators might seek to go about it in the future.