The Cry For Help the Web Didn't Answer
Last month, Warren and Kellie Penpraze made the heart-breaking decision to take their 19-year-old daughter Olivia off life support. Olivia had been admitted to the hospital after a suicide attempt resulted in irreversible absence of brain function.
When the grieving father went to notify his daughter's friends using her laptop, Warren stumbled on Olivia's Tumblr, a microblog with more than 900 pages of posts chronicling the last two years of the teen's struggle with suicidal feelings, as well as an account on Vimeo, a video-sharing platform where Olivia had posted vlogs.
"I started to self-harm by 2008 and also made my first suicide attempt," Olivia told viewers in a video posted two months prior to her last attempt (reposted here). She held up several hospital bracelets. "I have attempted suicide more times than I can count."
Olivia Penpraze, via Vimeo
She assures viewers that things do get better. But just a few minutes later, the confessional takes a dark turn: "Every year since 2008 I have attempted suicide on the first of May. But I think I'm not going to fail this year. I'm sorry."
Supportive and cruel comments alike filled Olivia's inbox on Tumblr. Still, no one made an attempt to contact her parents.
A few weeks later, Olivia posted another video (reposted here. This one was more desperate. Olivia told viewers she wanted to say goodbye.
"I know people say I meant a lot to them but I don't know that I can believe that, but if I do mean a lot to you, I'm sorry," the teen said. "I know that a lot of you mean a lot to me but I've just lost contact with everything. I don't know. I'm sorry."
It was the last video Olivia posted.
"We are finding out now there are kids on her Facebook who actually know her on the Tumblr account," her father told the Herald Sun. "If she says she is going to do something on this date they could have told us. Even if it was a false alarm, we could have done something."
In a thread about this on the social network Google Plus, someone asked the question people like to ask when tragedy strikes the young: where were the parents?
I remember being a teen. I was close with my parents but there were things they didn't know, among them the fact that I was compulsively chronicling my life -- online. There were no blogs at first, but there were bulletin boards and, later, hosting sites. I was careful to cover my tracks and when I couldn't, I left so many tracks that any attempt to identify where I was spending most of my time would have been a nightmare.
A couple of my friends who also wrote online knew about my site, but none of them broke the unspoken vow that we were not to share the things we read in each other's digital spaces. Writing into a void helped us share aspects of ourselves that we'd not normally known how to broach and we treasured that privilege.
I can only wonder what I might have done if one of them had written about taking her own life. Would I have violated our trust and told someone? Would I have tried to handle it myself, for better or worse? Or would I have disbelieved her, because it's easier to imagine people are being melodramatic rather than it is to deal with their hurt?
Suffering is hard to face. The suffering of others -- the suffering we are helpless to end -- is harder still. But we need to have that courage. We need it with our friends and we need it with the strangers we stumble upon online who are sharing their individual heartaches.
And I think that when we next sit down with the teens in our lives, we ought to ask whether they have ever encountered posts online that made them worry about a friend and let them know that they can tell us about it, that we know pain is real and loneliness is debilitating. We ought to let them know that they're not alone, that they can lean on us, and they can come to us if they fear one of their friends might be in trouble.
Have you talked to your kids about this? Share your approach in the comments.