Life Is Beautiful: A Reminder

I still remember where I was when I first heard that he had committed suicide. It was May 2010 and I was in Europe. In five words, an existence was erased. “Kyle killed himself last night.” At first, I felt nothing.  To be honest, I did not know how to feel. It wasn’t that I had never experienced death before. I had heard tragic stories of people I knew. I had been to funerals of my own friends and family. It is just that this was Kyle. The one who lit up a room. The one who greeted you like he hadn’t seen you in years. The one who would never take his own life.

Last week was National Suicide Prevention Week, seven days dedicated to raising awareness about suicide and encouraging treatment for those afflicted. Suicide is a disease that touches us all. If you have never lost anyone to suicide, you more than likely know someone who has. Every year, more than 36,000 Americans take their own lives, many of them as seemingly happy and worry-free as Kyle was. That is one hundred a day. One every fourteen minutes.* And for every one suicide there are countless other victims – family members, friends – left asking why, wondering how a part of their life could be so tragically and irreversibly altered.

I was not even particularly close to Kyle. He was one year older and in the grade above me at school. But I got to know him pretty well during the fall of my freshman year; well enough that not knowing how to feel eventually gave way to a feeling of emptiness. It was not even what I would necessarily call sadness – just a sense that something was not there that should have been. Eventually feeling turned to action, when Kyle’s best friends in our fraternity decided to throw an event in his honor, knowing that he would be the first to do so for any of us. The event took the form of an on-campus concert, with all proceeds going to benefit a Philadelphia-based organization committed to helping and treating at-risk adolescents across the country who faced the same issues that plagued Kyle.

In two years, that concert has raised more than $48,000 dollars for mental health awareness. More than anything, that number is a testament to the number of lives Kyle was able to touch. But the real success of the event is not something that can be quantified. Its true success was allowing us to keep Kyle, to give his spirit a vitality that transcended death. It was for that reason that the event was given the same title as his funeral service: A Celebration of Life.

Only it turned out that the event was not only a celebration of Kyle’s but of all of ours. I can speak only for myself, but I believe that brush with mortality made all of us see things in a new light. Later that night, going out for beers together – something we did just about every night in college – became much more than just going out for beers together. We fall into monotonous routines, doing things over and over unthinkingly, and, in a weird, backwards way, it is only once that routine is disrupted – something that is supposed to happen doesn’t, or, more tragically, someone who is supposed to be there isn’t – that we recognize we were sleepwalking at all. Kyle, if only for one night, did that for us, waking our unconscious conscience. Keeping Kyle alive kept us alive.

In what is already a cryptic and confusing world, perhaps this is life’s most profound paradox: it’s only once we recognize dying that we can truly appreciate living. And so in the wake of a week dedicated to fixing a disease that goes largely unnoticed and treating the victims within its unforgiving clutches, I urge you to be aware of your own and your friends’ and family’s mental health. Encourage treatment for those you think need it. But also take the time to remember those who have gone. Remember their smile. Their laugh. Their spirit. And in recognizing what is no longer here, be ever the more grateful for what still is.

Because, ultimately, it is in recognizing life’s fragility that we discover its undying beauty.

*Statistics are from 2009, the last year in which national data on suicide was collected.

 

 

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