Dear Dr. Brilliant Cliché;
I’m graduating from high school next week and have a spot reserved at a good university in the fall. I should be feeling good, but I feel as if someone pulled the rug out from under me. I am hoping you can help.
My best friend killed herself the day before yesterday. Our school has brought in a grief counselor and is doing everything they can to help the students adjust, but I don’t see how anything can help. The problem is, no one in a million years would have imagined that Lisa would commit suicide. She was smart, and she was so pretty it made me jealous. She always got a good part in drama club plays and everyone thought she would go on to really do something. She got accepted at Yale, for god’s sake. And right before graduation, she kills herself?
It makes me doubt everything around me. I feel lost, like there’s nothing to hold onto. If she had EVER given even a hint if this, it wouldn’t be so hard to take, but if Lisa was carrying around so much pain inside and nobody, I mean NOBODY, had a clue…how can I ever trust anything again? Everything seems like a shame, a card trick. I just can’t process this.
Grief is unsettling and only time will help it to pass. That being said, I have some words to consider after the initial shock fades a bit.
Our culture is confusing. On the one hand, it tells us that our appearance and our actions define who we are. On the other hand, it tells us that it’s what’s inside that counts. I don’t think that either view is entirely true.
It doesn’t work to ground yourself in the external world because it’s something you have no control over. You shouldn’t ground yourself 100% in your internal world either because this can be a trap; emotions and thoughts are not always based in reality. The only effective way to ground yourself is with a feedback loop between your internal world and the external world. Who are you, relative to whom you wish to become? What course of action are you choosing? Are you surrounding yourself with people who compliment and support your goals? When you ground yourself this way, the questions become more important than the answers. It helps you to observe and pay attention.
You are not defined by what people think about you, or what college you are going to, or what scholarship you have. These are your tools, they are not you. The mistake your friend probably made was in not having a balance between her inner world and her outer world. A tool is not an endpoint, and seeing it as such turns life into a win or lose competition.
You cannot know what was in your friend’s mind. Her appearance may have been as good as it was because it was all that she had- there was no internal sense of self. She may have lived to please others. She might have been in pain or she may have suffered from guilt, emptiness, or confusion. Sometimes people kill themselves in a misguided belief that it is making the world a better place. There is no way of knowing for sure, and it is not a good idea for you to ground your own mind in a guess about someone else.
People commit suicide most often at transitions, either when things become really good or when they become really bad. These are the times when we can actually see our lives- when the auto pilot which runs us most of the time turns off.
I am sorry for your loss, but you are not she,
Dr. Brilliant Cliché
Granny says: the older I get, the more I realize that very few people will allow themselves to be vulnerable enough to reveal suffering or doubt to the outside eye…and with good reason- we live in a world where people who have the appearance of success or beauty are revered. If those same people are caught in a moment of weakness, or in a bathing suit that reveals their one square inch of cellulite, the media goes for their throats.
Those of us who look up from the ground at the idols on their pedestals don’t realize what a pressure it puts on them- they can only stay there as long as they are perfect. One wrong move, and they fall. It’s easy to become frozen in fear- a beautiful piece of preserved ice that will shatter at first touch.
Your friend was about to be moved from the pedestal she occupied in her own school, into a vast ocean where she was one small fish, battered by rivals who might be far better prepared for the fight. If she had no center and no soul to take with her, she must have been terrified at the prospect.
But let’s get back to you. Here’s the big question- how do you learn to trust again? That’s tough, because in a way, this was a betrayal- it’s as if Lisa lied to you with her beauty and her smiles. But think about it- her beauty was not a lie. She was beautiful. And her smile made other people smile. When she was in that moment, it was the most real she ever was. The lie was within herself.
If you ground yourself, and build yourself, you can trust that. Please, don’t worry. Go to school in the fall and fill your own life with purpose. In time, you will be fine.