Published in the Courier Mail 26 April 2007
IT HAS been a week and a half filled with grief.
The Virginia Tech shootings on April 16, perpetrated by Cho Seung-hui, were devastating, and mourned all around the world.
Similarly, the deaths of 16-year-old Australian schoolgirls Stephanie Gestier and Jodie Gater, in an apparent suicide pact hinted at on MySpace, have left their families, friends and community distraught.
As the initial shock of these events begins to pass, we question and reflect. While we are told that clues to both of these tragedies lay in the writings of troubled young people, those who knew them must never be made to feel that they should have been able to prevent these things.
Josephine Kim, an American mental health expert who, like Cho, emigrated from South Korea at the age of eight, was quoted as saying: “I think we failed him as a society at large. I think our community failed him, the school system failed him, and definitely the immigrant life really failed him.”
The mother of Stephanie Gestier, expressing her grief online, wrote the following words: “There is nothing that couldn’t have been sorted out. You were my only child and can never be replaced.”
Regret is a difficult taskmaster. And while it is only natural for us to look back and ask, “What if?”, it affords us little comfort and even less hope. It deals with the past and, unfortunately, we cannot change the past.
For friends and family, there must now be time for mourning. They don’t need to be strong, they can simply weep. For the rest of us, we would do well to take a moment before we move on to the next headline. It is healthy to pause, and reflect and examine. After all, both of these situations are the sad final chapters of people who felt they had nothing left. Suicide is not the choice of those whose lives are brimming with hope.
Most of the reports and websites about the Virginia Tech shootings list 32 victims. Yet there were actually 33. For Cho also died on that day. That it was by his own hand does not make it any less a tragedy.
What can we learn? What can we take from these stories of young people who chose death over life?
We all realise we cannot stop headlines such as these, but there are small things each of us can do to help instil hope in those around us.
We can speak easily and non-judgmentally about depression. A Turkish proverb teaches that he who conceals his grief finds no remedy for it. As one to in five Australians will experience depression at some stage in their life, we must initiate and continue regular discussions about this illness, and its treatment.
We must continue to destigmatise mental health issues and encourage a supportive attitude so that no one feels they need conceal such soul grief, and can share this with family and friends.
Further, each of us can consider the contribution we make to the lives of those around us. Even the most introverted of us influence those around us and contribute to their experiences. Do we contribute kindness, understanding and love or do we contribute judgment, mockery and alienation?
Particularly when those we interact with are more difficult to love, we can easily brush them aside, caught up in our own busy day and full lives.
It’s easier that way. But it’s not better.
Someone once said: “Never deprive someone of hope; it might be all they have.”
It’s true that the way we treat those around us can either inject hope into their souls or drain it away.
Taking the time to treat even difficult people with dignity and with love can present a challenge, but it is one that we can, and should, continue to rise to. The significance of a word of encouragement, a kind deed, sharing a meal or similar, can be just the thing that strengthens a weary soul.
It’s true that we can’t do everything, and it’s also true that we can do something. What will you do today?
Ruth Limkin is a Brisbane pastor and writer