Lily's Story
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    "Lily’s death could have been prevented,” Lily’s friends shared this with me months after her death.

How do I encapsulate in words, the experience of knowing Lily, and losing her? It feels impossible to accomplish through these mere characters on a white page. Nothing can show you or give you an understanding of the utter shattering of all levels of my being, nor the destruction of my life, the lives of my family, friends, and community. Nothing can allow you to feel the depth of pain in my heart, nor the loudness of her absence. Nothing can truly allow you to feel or understand the unbearable, near impossible work of surviving. Nothing will bring her back...ever...but through trying to speak for her, and for many who suffer as she did, I hope to transform this pain into positive change. Lily’s life mattered, she had incredible value as a human being based on her own incredible personality, tolerance, kindness, empathy, and love. I would give anything to bring her back, or to go back in time and pull her out of school and protect her… but I cannot. I can only do my best to honor her and her story, and hope that it helps others who continue to struggle and suffer daily because of the hate and cruelty so prevalent in our world.  

Lily was, since her birth, a joyful, bright, happy, empathic, loving and kind person. Growing up on a small farm, she was always at my side - being my helper - and she adored the many animals outside and inside our home. Lily could always be found with the animals or drawing. Art was another love which began as soon as she could hold a crayon. This never diminished as she grew. In addition to her perpetual love of art, her passion for animals was embedded in her blood. She began horse lessons when she was five and over the years developed into a solid enough rider that she had a summer job riding horses for our neighbors.  It was her dream job! It was with one of these neighbors - Mel Hare - that she enjoyed riding with the most. He liked to go her speed - fast! She had dreams of helping others through working with animals. 


Her general outlook on life was incredibly optimistic and happy. She brought that shining, bright energy with her everywhere - and it impacted people. It was contagious! This was the person she was...until she realized she was a lesbian. She came out to me and a few family members just before her 6th-grade year. She was honored and surrounded by love and support. Although she found a loving response at home, she began to truly become aware of how the world commonly treats those who are queer (I use this as a general term for anyone identifying LGBTQIA). This was apparent in her observations of her peers, in our community, our state and on the national level. She fell in love with Trevor Noah of The Daily Show after his episode on the issue of transgender bathroom use. His common sense perspective on the issue gave her hope...however she saw examples of the opposite, of the hate and discrimination, everywhere. This was especially true because we lived in Utah where discrimination is institutionalized, and progress in this area is PAINFULLY slow! While she was alive there was a law in Utah called "No Promo Homo," which promoted discrimination of LGBTQIA youth.  This impacted her deeply.  For her, it was so clear and simple that this was wrong and that this struggle was about basic human and civil rights. After seeing daily examples of just how hateful many people are toward the group she had realized she was a part of, she began to struggle. She began to see a world without hope - a world that was grey. She suffered and was reminded every day at school or when watching the news,  that this suffering was something she would continue to experience because of her identity as a lesbian. The way people acted, spoke and believed, hurt her deeply. Her hopelessness grew as she witnessed continued evidence of people’s judgment, hatred, and discrimination. She was so angry at the world for this cruelty, often justified through their own belief systems. It seemed simple to her - everyone deserves human rights and respect, and people should be judged solely by the kind of person they are - by HOW kind they are - nothing else. 

The change in Lily happened fairly quickly...moving her from a bright, joyful and happy young girl to a depressed and self-harming one in just over a year. The shift was more subtle at first and then intensified radically upon entering middle school. When she revealed her cuts to me after the first week or two of school, our household was sent into a whirlwind of panic. I was terrified! I knew from my experience with self-harming students, that there was a strong connection between self-harming and suicide. I wanted to protect her, to help her… she was my baby and like most parents, my biggest concern was for her safety and survival. We quickly found a therapist who had experience with these issues. She loved her and seemed to make improvements quickly. This gave me great hope that she would be okay, she would make it. Lily was surrounded by adults who loved and supported her, and I believed that with that and therapy, we could hold her up and get her through it. My own therapist later made the analogy that these supports are like buoys. I like this analogy because you can rebuild a foundation, but if a critical buoy fails, someone drowns. It was not until it was too late, that I realized how truly critical the buoy of social life and school is for adolescents. I thought if I gave her enough love and support we would get through her it. 

Lily complained often about what she witnessed at school. Her friend who is transgender was often told they were “a girl” and that their name was not their chosen name. Often heckling like this occurred in front of teachers who did nothing to stop it. Thus reinforcing her belief that they agreed. Although I encouraged her to report what she was observing, she adamantly refused. She said “snitches get stitches,” and “I will not get on their bad list.” While these statements created concern about the climate of reporting in the school, I agreed not to report it myself because she stated she would kill herself if I did. Like all parents of self- harming youth, I felt powerless and held hostage by the fear of the worst possibility. Even after being chosen as student of the month for her tolerance, she didn’t feel she could safely speak up. Only after her death, did I realize that her experiences of bullying at school, as well as witnessing bullying of others queer and straight,  directly created this feeling of a lack of safety and a hopelessness she felt would never end. Again, this was heightened by living in Utah, where there are very few examples of open support, love and TRUE acceptance of the queer community. 

Prior to her death, although I was terrified, I had a deep and abiding faith we would get her through it. This belief was reinforced by the fact that for the month before her death, Lily was doing ‘future talk’. She spoke of the upcoming Valentine’s dance she was excited about, and discussed possible careers in art, working with horses somehow, or becoming a therapist. She had also been teaching herself Farsi, after reading the story of a young Persian girl who realizes she is a lesbian.  Only a week and a half before her death, I had taken her on a ‘mother-daughter trip’ and although she was still clearly frustrated with things at school, we had fun and she expressed excitement about some upcoming events, such as dance. and that she was going to spend some time with her Auntie and with other friends the next weekend. She hadn’t cut herself for awhile and had replaced it with expressing her feelings through her art. While this art was often quite disturbing, through family sessions with her therapist she informed me that it was helping her avoid self-harming. Her art was often of wolves or dogs who were lacerated, stabbed and wounded and most notably with their mouths bound and tied. Once she told me angrily, “you don’t like my art anymore!” I told her it upset me because it kind of looked as though she was glorifying hurting animals. Her response was, “no, they are surviving!!” It was only after her death that I fully understood how much these drawings revealed how she felt...cut up, wounded and harmed while being unable to speak of it. Like many others, she did not feel safe or able to speak of what she was seeing and experiencing at school and wouldn't tell parents because they feared the fallout of reporting because of the culture that existed (and still exists) in the school. 

We had established a gauging system for where she was at emotionally. In regular daily check-ins, she gave no indication that she was down at the level of concern. Most days were a four or five (with ten meaning she was doing great - very happy, and 1 meaning she was actively going to attempt suicide). She genuinely seemed like she was improving because she had gone from many days at a 3 to more often a 5, with sometimes even a 7. All the caring adults around her, including her therapist, felt she was doing better. In addition to the future talk, she was using new tools to cope with her feelings… instead of cutting, she was releasing them through art. While these images were often disturbing - I was glad that she was using a healthier outlet for her feelings. She promised me she would let me know if she dropped to a 3 or below. 

And then the very fabric of our reality was ripped away at 6:30 the morning of Jan. 26, 2017 when I found her dead. If you have never experienced this horror, you are likely to feel as I did before that moment, concerned but because the thought is too overwhelming to even think about, it is pushed away. Only those who have experienced this truly unbearable pain understand that it is so much worse than your best attempts at perceiving what it might be like. The destruction is indescribable. Every aspect of my being was shattered, destroyed… decimated. I was broken in every way. The mental, emotional and physical anguish and obliteration that comes with losing a child to suicide are annihilating!! We wracked our brains, poured through journals and notes, talked with friends and family trying to understand WHY??? What triggered this? Why didn't she say anything?  Because suicide is such a torment and so complex, we ran through the layers of what we did wrong, how we failed her, how we lost her. Every moment was filled with overwhelming pain and confusion. It is quite literally a hell that consumes every cell of your being. She was my baby… my life, my love, my heart and like her brother - my greatest treasure. Why wasn’t our love enough to save her? What didn’t we see? What did we do wrong? The questions and pain were so great... bigger than it felt possible to endure. Each moment was completely filled with suffering and sorrow. Every basic function, a struggle.  Breathing, eating... just staying alive, a struggle. My heart was and is a shattered landscape of desolation, and so...so heavy. It felt impossible to move through each moment, to do anything, to live. 

Although I knew that what Lily witnessed caused her to feel depressed and to feel hopeless, I had no idea until later what she had personally experienced. On the day Lily's death was announced, many students reported to the office what happened to her the day before. For reasons that will never make sense, the Principal chose not to communicate this with me or my family. The mind-shattering agony of trying to understand ‘why’ or what the tipping point was, lifted when I found out. Not the agony of losing her of course, but the mental and emotional torment of struggling to make the pieces we knew fit with her choice to commit suicide. It was cruel that this information was not shared with us by the school; common decency and basic ethics should have made them ensure that we knew.  And it was ethically, and professionally wrong that she did not report it to the investigators, considering they asked for this information and that there was the possibility that there was cyberbullying as well. 

Sadly it was around three months after her death, that a friend of hers reached out to me wanting to talk about her death because of their own struggle with closure. Through our conversation, it became clear that they thought I knew what happened. They shared that they were one of many, who witnessed multiple boys repeatedly and insistently tell Lily horrible things, such as: “kill yourself! Do it, do it! Do it tonight. You are going to anyway. Hang yourself, shoot yourself. Do it. Do it... Kill yourself!” They also informed me that quite a few students (some the same ones who said that) regularly said things to Lily at the lockers or in the hall which were always degrading and unkind. Finally, I understood the source of the things we read in her journals.  And finally, we understood the ‘tipping point’ for her. The last thing she needed to hear were these cruel, destructive words… re-emphasizing her belief that no one cared and that she had no value. Although I felt some relief knowing the missing piece, I was angry that these boys could do that to her - could be so cruel. After feeling flooded with anger, I realized that these boys must have something in their lives which made them feel like it was okay to do this to her.  I always believed that if I was a good enough parent, I could get my kids through anything. I never understood how much power other people’s parenting or influence from culture, has on our children. That hatred, discrimination, cruelty, and meanness could be the tipping point to take amazing Lily out of our lives was something I just cannot understand. 

Following this, I was bombarded day after day with students, former students, parents, coworkers in the district, community members, all sharing their story of bullying in the middle school. It became extremely clear that there was a problem with how bullying was handled and addressed in that school. I reached out to the principal to discuss what happened and received no response. Then I began reaching out to the school board to discuss the problems and seek solutions. Because they were in the process of hiring a new superintendent, I waited until they had made that decision to proceed. The new superintendent was very concerned and ready to examine this issue in our district. In a presentation for the school board members, I gave information about what was not working and solutions to try to  address the problems.  The material was based on the experiences shared with me by others, on Lily’s experience and my own personal experience. Because I had taught in the high school for the past three years, I had insight into some underlying policy, reporting, training and accountability issues. Since that meeting, the superintendent and the board have all worked hard to address the problems and adopt policies and practices which will do more to keep ALL students safe at school. Although there is more to be done, they have made a good start!

Our community has responded with genuine care and concern, with a deep and heartfelt desire to improve the situation facing the youth in our community. Many groups and individuals are working to address the issues of bullying and adolescent suicide. Coalitions have been formed and we are all trying to work together to ensure we strengthen our safety net and create a culture of love and acceptance for ALL children, especially those most at risk. Although my community is responding with action, the underlying issues in our state must be addressed at the legislative level if there is going to be any real, lasting and effective change. And this change cannot be just nice words, it must include accountability and REAL, visible action!
    
As you can see from the infographic on the main page, Utah’s adolescent suicide rate (ages 10-17) is more than twice the national average (2014). This is unacceptable. In response to Lily's death and all I've learned from it, I started Lily’s Hope, llc, as a social impact company to address these issues locally, statewide and nationally. Originally I intended to visit with school boards throughout the state to encourage them to adopt similar changes. Then after speaking with people working in other districts, it became clear that many were simply sweeping these problems under the rug, blaming them on "high altitude," or were resistant to doing anything for many reasons - some of which are simply discrimination! Change, I realized, would in many areas of the state (as with many other states), have to be mandated. Part of the work of Lily’s Hope, is to advocate on the state level that the Five Necessary Components be mandated and required for all Utah School Districts. These are elements, which were not present in our district and which if adopted and implemented, will save lives.  They are critical to any bullying, cyberbullying, hazing, school safety, and suicide reduction policies or plans.   However,  none of us can do this alone. It will take a collective voice to get this into legislation. See the state advocacy page for more info. 

In addition to many resources that will be offered through the website, I will also be gathering “Stories of Empathy.”  We are all exposed daily to the meanness prevalent in our culture. While these shouldn't be ignored, examples of kindness and empathy need to be celebrated and shared. Kindness, like meanness and violence, can spread in a contagious way. I hope to honor people like Lily, who could not bear to see the suffering of others and choose instead to spread empathy and kindness in this world. Every person is important to this world, and we need to continue to spread this love and help our society heal from the great suffering that is all too prevalent for so many people. YOU are the ones planting seeds of kindness and change! Please do this every day, in small and large ways. 

Overall, I seek to increase kindness, acceptance, and humanity in our culture. Through this, I hope to reduce the adolescent suicide rate and bullying/violence in our schools. It’s all about kindness. And it begins with YOU...please help me create change! None of this work will ever bring my incredible daughter back, but it will hopefully help save yours, or others who struggle and suffer as she did. Lily and her life had the greatest value to me and that value should not be diminished by the fact that she was a lesbian. I loved and will always love her, just as any mother loves their children. Being a lesbian was a part of her, and a part that caused her great suffering...but that is only because of the hate, fear, lack of understanding, and discrimination she witnessed and experienced -  not because she was any less valuable as a result of her sexual identity. ALL of our children deserve to feel valued and loved for the kind of person they are, not devalued, or unprotected because of any letter they identify with. Please help the many people, the many mothers crying out, the suffering youth screaming out for us to WAKE UP, and help make the world a safe, healthy and loving place for all.


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