April 9, 2016, was Jeffery’s 17th birthday. But he didn’t live to celebrate it. On that chilly Saturday, his family and friends celebrated the milestone at his grave.
There seemed to be too many tragic deaths in March: the Brussels terrorist attack left 32 victims dead; former Toronto mayor, 46-year-old Rob Ford, died from a rare form of cancer and left behind his wife and two young children. But one untimely death hit me hard—Jeffery, my son’s former classmate at Claude Watson School for the Arts in Toronto, committed suicide a month shy of his 17th birthday.
On Friday, March 11, just before the March Break, Jeffery, a Grade 11 TOPS (Talented Offerings for Programs in the Sciences) student at Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, jumped off a bridge near Don Mills & Overlea Boulevard, killing himself. I was stunned by the horrible news like everyone else. No one knows why that happened. Did he die from a broken heart? Or did he die from stress? People don’t have a clue and can only speculate. There was no warning sign. Nobody saw it coming. The sudden death of this intelligent young man was like ear-splitting thunder in a clear sky .
Just three years ago, his Grade 8 classmates considered him most likely to become someone taking over the world. But he is gone now. How unpredictable fate is!
On Saturday, March 26, my son and I, in sober black like many others, attended Jeffery’s funeral in Markham. Jeffery’s family, friends, elementary school teachers, high school teachers, school administrators and friends’ parents turned out to mourn his passing and to celebrate his life with laughter and tears.
Jeffery’s mother made an eloquent speech in Mandarin, her native language. She compared her eldest son’s life to a shooting star—short but bright. She took this opportunity to advise the young people in attendance. She said, “Teenager years are a difficult time. To overcome difficulties is a necessary step to enter adulthood. Stay strong while facing challenges.” She encouraged them to open up to their parents, teachers and friends about the problems they may have and seek help when they need it. She wished them well. She said, “Someday if you time travel and meet Jeffery, tell him this: ‘You left too early. You have missed so much in life!’”
Jeffery’s father made a speech too and shared the same sentiment. He said to Jeffery’s classmates, “We hope that in the future when you encounter big challenges, you can show your courage and also communicate with your families in a timely manner. The difficulties are always temporary. With family, friends and teachers backing you, any difficulty will eventually be overcome.” I was deeply moved by the words of Jeffery’s grieving parents. Even in unbearable pain and sorrow, they still thought about other kids’ well-being.
Jeffery was buried in a cemetery in Pickering on that beautiful spring day. Whatever turmoil he was in is over. He now rests in peace. But for those still alive, many questions linger: What made the 16-year-old boy lose the will to keep on living? Could something have been done to prevent this superb student’s premature death? How could such a sensitive, thoughtful and gentle soul end his life like that and put his loved ones through hell? I will never forget his mother’s heart-breaking wail in front of her son’s casket.
When kids are little, parents warn them about strangers. But when they turn into adolescents, who do you think become their worst enemies? Themselves! Most communities across our country have felt the pain of suicide by young people—too many lives cut short too soon. I wonder: How can we as family, friends, educators, doctors do more to prevent such tragedies from happening? Isn’t it time to pay a great deal of attention to teenagers’ mental health issues?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gu Zhenzhenis a mother of four and an occasional teacher in Toronto.
This article is from Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Sept/Oct 2016 issue.