This morning while driving my daughter to school, I found myself explaining how parents deal with our children’s pain. It wasn’t the conversation I had planned. She had been asking about a young friend of hers who had been hospitalized. I felt she needed to know. We talked about the feelings that become too big to handle alone and the reason she goes to her own school where the teachers and clinicians all understand that sometimes she needs their help with sadness and fear and feeling safe. She brought up another young friend who was recently hospitalized when everything seemed to be going well and an unexpected breakup with his girlfriend sent him into an emotional tailspin.
Then my daughter said something that made me take a step back and think about us, the parents. She said that what had happened to the boy was much worse than what was happening to the girl. She knew this because his parents wore their sadness on their faces and spoke in public about his struggles and their concern. The girl’s parents had kept her situation quiet, carrying their heartache among us with their usual smiles and gracious manner. To my daughter’s eyes, their quiet strength did not reflect the gravity of her friend’s situation.
I thought about how I shared my concerns about my daughter’s struggles with mental illness with our community. I have learned to cope by becoming an advocate. In our church we celebrate milestones and successes and I have shared how we’ve fought and won exhausting legal battles over school placements and triumphs like her being named student of the month. I have been instrumental in developing disability awareness worship services and introducing programs for greater accessibility and inclusivity.
But, do I communicate the depth of my caring for my daughter to my own daughter? For her I try to always be strong and safe. Maybe I need to rethink this. As a young teen, she needs guidance and role models as she grapples with understanding the feelings of others. She needs to learn to look beneath the surface in order to empathize with others; and, to discover that there are different ways to cope with crisis and pain as an individual and as a family member.
We all need to recognize the signs of families among us who need our support, especially families who are struggling with how to nurture, protect and heal their child when challenged by a mental health crisis. We need to embrace them and let them know we care whether they are outspoken advocates, emotionally eloquent or strong and silent.