My family phoned the police when we realized he was missing.
At 6 o'clock the next morning there was that knock on our door.
"There are some things as a policewoman that I wish I didn't have to do," said the officer sorrowfully, looking straight into our eyes. "I'm sorry to tell you that your son has passed away."
"What?" my mother cried, eyes wide in shock, disbelief. ""Passed away?"
That night was painful. To be honest, some days, even today after eight years, the pain is just as searing as it was when I looked across the table to see my mother crumple into a heap. The wailing that escaped her lips was horrendous, like that of a dying, wounded animal. Her deep anguish triggered mine, and I broke down sobbing, suddenly hit with the reality that Ben was gone forever.
The pain does not go away.
It shows up when you least expect it. When you are playing an ice breaker and asked how many siblings you have. What do you tell them? Do you lie? Or do you tell them the truth and make it awkward for everyone involved? You ask: Why does it have to be so complicated? Why does it have to be this way?
Ben did not die in vain. I have learned many lessons from his death.
Probably the most important is that I need to cherish life. I can change my circumstances by living; by dying I will not accomplish anything.
To be honest, sometimes I am afraid I will do what my brother did. There are days when I just want to give up and disappear, too tired to continue the fight. I cannot stop crying and I long for a concrete end to the painful feelings I am experiencing.
But I realize that in those moments that it is not death I am truly seeking. I simply need someone to listen to me. Someone who will hold my hand and tell me that I am worth it, that I will get through the day.
Thinking about it does not mean I am going to do it. All I am saying is, "Hey, I need to talk to someone right now. I need someone to listen to me. I need help figuring out just why I am so confused and lonely and scared."
Counselors can help. Some close friends can help. Some people need to physically remove themselves from certain situations.
Dear Palo Alto, I love you. You are the town that gave me the individuals who saved me during my time of need. You are the town that sent my family flowers, the town that cooked and delivered heaps of food to console us. You are the town that put in place initiatives to ensure the safety of our youth. I thank God for the people who came alongside me to support me, the people who held me when I could no longer walk upright.
But it is not just the initiatives; it's the genuine connections between individuals that count. The daily interactions between parent and child, teacher and student. The teacher taking time to make sure that student is OK, really OK, and following up with him or her.
It's the friend who asks why her friend is looking so sad and skinny all of a sudden. It's the friend who persists and finds out why his friend is drinking so much.
It's the teacher who remembers to ask if things are improving at home.
It's the counselor who has the ability to discern what exactly the problem is, or just that there is a problem.
It's all of these things.
I hope you, too, can learn from Ben's death. If you are a youth, I hope you learn it is OK to talk about your feelings. It is OK to open up to a teacher. It is OK to say you can no longer bear it. It is OK to take alternative routes. Heck, I did. I ended up going to community college for the first two years out of high school and, although it was tough, in retrospect it turned out to be a blessing. I am in a much better place these days and I am glad I made myself vulnerable and reached out. I have so many people to thank, but I also remember I made the choice to receive help.
Admitting that you are having trouble finishing your homework or managing your load does not make you a failure. You are so much stronger for having stepped up and shared what is troubling you. Life is hard. And you have the right to say that it is. It is OK to say that the pressure is too great, that you need support.
Please do not let negative thoughts fester inside of you. I am telling you: Hold out. Talk to someone. It can change your life. It can save your life. You can change your life! If you are a youth of this town, please do not be afraid to speak up.
And if you are a teacher, the teacher a student confides in, please be with that student in the moment. Do not hand them over to a counselor right away. Just listen first, since he or she approached you. If they are asking for a counselor, by all means please direct them to one. But it may be scary for them.
Seeking a counselor still carries an enormous stigma. Many believe that signifies weakness. But it is actually the opposite: The strong help themselves. They take breaks and ask themselves why they feel shaky when they do. And we need to encourage that.
In these situations, please be a friend to the student. Please take the time, even if you are busy, to hear the child out, to approach the child gently if you believe he or she is struggling. We are all children after all, under the hooded sweatshirts, baggy jeans, the fierce makeup, and skin-tight midriff-baring tank tops. We are children and we need to know that we are not alone when we perceive the world to be a dark, scary place.
This is not just for teachers, either. Parents, please listen to your kids. Please talk with them. They need you, despite the resistance. Please show them you care.
Please do not let my brother's death be a waste. Please learn from it, if anything, that there are so many more kids out there who are dying inside and close to the edge.
These kids do not really wish for death. They just need a space to talk things out, to say they are not OK and to be accepted in whatever state they are in. Thank you Palo Alto, for all your prayers, for all of your efforts, the initiatives down to the hugs and phone calls. Thank you. I know that you have at least saved me, that you have given me a reason to live, those faces I have needed to look at to remind me that love and hope do exist and that yes, one day, it truly does get better.