It’s important for teenagers to understand the concept of their own mortality.
It occurs to me we all in different stages of our lives think we are invincible or at a minimum assume we are immune from bad things happening to us. This mindset helps explain why some of us make foolish decisions without a care in the world for our own safety and wellbeing.
As we get older, and we experience the ups and downs that life provides each of us inevitably, we become a bit more intimately familiar with how fragile our lives can be. It’s part of the rollercoaster that is life.
I remember a speech from my college Dean about mortality while I was a freshman. During a weekly Mass, the dean used the opportunity to announce a fellow freshman had died from mononucleosis. As I reflect back on it today, I think it was the first time in my life at 18 years of age when I had someone close to me near my age pass away. It was a big deal at the time, though I had only known the guy for about two months at the time. It was late October when he started feeling unwell and went home to Long Island to be cared for by his parents. Because mono is so contagious, he left school immediately. He would never return, as we learned in that weekly Mass that he had died. The Dean reminded us about our own mortality and how fragile life can be.
About nine years later, my younger cousin tragically died in a rockclimbing accident while in college, sending shockwaves through our family as she was a bright, kind soul who lost her life at far too young an age.
The two incidents were significant memories for me as they hit hard at the time, leaving me wondering why and questioning the fairness of it all.
It’s been interesting to observe my 15-year-old son Beckett’s reactions to the unexpected losses of acquaintances in this tight-knit community. At 15, Beckett has had a couple of these situations in his young life.
The first was back in 2022 with 14-year-old Gavin Knupp’s passing. Gavin is Beckett’s age and they played against each other in youth soccer for several years. They were acquaintances with many shared friends. For months, Beckett spoke about the tragedy. He was moved to tears trying to wrap his head around it several times. In an abrupt departure from the norm, he shared his feelings many times about the situation. It impacted him. He still talks about the horrible accident today.
Earlier this month, the world of many local teens was impacted with another tragedy, as 18-year-old Ezra Morningstar died unexpectedly. He had just graduated last summer from Stephen Decatur High School.
As was the case in 2022, Beckett has fixated a bit on the young man’s passing. Similar to the situation with Gavin’s celebration of life, Beckett wanted to attend Ezra’s similar event on Tuesday night at Mother’s. I was proud he wanted to pay his respects.
Ezra had evidently been at our house a couple times as he lived in Berlin. Though there were a few years between my son and Ezra, all the kids of Berlin know each other, and Beckett thought a lot of Ezra. He said he was super kind and welcoming to him even though there was an age difference. A few lines in the obituary this week seemed to hit the point. It read, “He saw you. I mean, he really SAW you. No one, young or old or outcast, was dismissed in Ezra’s presence. I’m not a superhero aficionado but there was some sort of X Ray vision that allowed him to see into people’s souls even after a brief encounter. Everyone who met him, even when he was being a goof, felt it.”
There have been numerous studies and position papers written on helping teens cope with the sudden death of a peer. One of the commonalities involves understanding and embracing life. With these two deaths, Beckett became a bit obsessive over their suddenness, talking eloquently for a teenager about how it can happen so unexpectedly and the huge impact it has on friends and family members.
As we were driving back from Ezra’s celebration of life, Beckett got a little teary telling me about the tribute video shown and some of the comments from people who spoke. It’s clearly had a profound impact on him, as he even asked me what I would do if something tragic happened to himself or Carson. Before I could say anything, he interrupted and said not to answer that he knew already. He then asked me if I had lost anyone in my life close in age to me and I shared the stories mentioned herein as well as my college roommate who died in the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I talked a little bit about the stages of grief, including shock, sadness, anger and then the forever missing feeling that persists when those close to us pass, especially well before their expected time. We must move ahead while grieving.
We sat in silence for a few miles before he turned on some music. I never know what kind of genre of music he will play these days but, on this ride, he picked some country music. It fit the mood.
A day or so later, Pam and I on separate occasions remarked to Beckett how impressed we have been with how open he was talking about his feelings. I didn’t agree with everything our kid said about this situation, but I am relieved and proud of him for openly discussing it. Acknowledging confusion and not knowing exactly how to feel is a sign of maturity. It’s a big part of adulthood.