Auntie SparkNotes: Bully's Remorse
I need some help, and it's not a happy topic. In middle school, there was this boy, who I'll call Mark. Mark was awkward and goofy, and nobody really liked him. Looking back, he was probably gay, but I can't be sure. Everyone was mean to him, behind his back and to his face. I regret to say that I was right there with them. I knew him in 6th-7th grade, and he transferred schools after that.
The summer before I got into college, my friend called me and told me that, while trying to look Mark up on Facebook, she found out that he'd killed himself last October.
Auntie, I've been thinking about everything, and I feel more awful than I can ever find the words to describe. Mark probably just needed a friend, and that could've been me. But it wasn't. It's been such a long time, and I hadn't had any contact with him -- or even many people who knew him -- for about five years, but I can't stop thinking about what a really, truly terrible person I was. I hate that about myself. Is there anything I can do at this point to try to accept what happened and my part in it?
I'm so sorry, Sparkler. Nothing hurts like regret, and even with so many years in between you and your treatment of Mark, I know this must be unbelievably painful. And before we go any further, you have to remember—and repeat to yourself as often as necessary—that regardless of what you did, the decision to end his life ultimately came down to Mark. You were not responsible for his death.
What you were responsible for, however, was participating in the bullying and abuse of an easy target. And while I can't stress enough that you—and anyone else who bullied Mark—are not to blame for his suicide, the one thing I'm not going to tell you that you shouldn't feel bad about what you did. There's a reason why you're consumed by guilt, and it's not just because of the terrible way it ended; it's because even if it hadn't ended that way, what you did was still cruel and wrong and cowardly. You know it now, you knew it then, and you're ashamed.
And you know what? That's how you should feel. Because you're a good person, and one of the unfortunate side effects of being a good person is feeling completely and totally terrible when you act like a jerk.
Which, in fact, is the one bright spot that can emerge from a tragic events like Mark's suicide. Because I'm guessing that from now on, you'll never participate in that kind of peer-driven meanness again. You'll probably teach your own children never to treat people the way you treated Mark. And as a grownup, you'll never be skeptical or flip about the harmfulness of bullying.
And all of this is so, so important. Because while nobody can make someone else commit suicide, it's still possible to make someone's life so miserable that he feels like there's nothing to live for—and when that happens, we need people like you to see it, stop it, and work to keep it from happening again.
Basically, you've learned a really hard, but really valuable lesson about what it means to be a decent human being.
And when it comes to assuaging your guilt over the way you acted, I can't recommend enough the cathartic power of sharing it. Get involved in anti-bullying advocacy. Volunteer for programs like the Anti-Bullying Network or the Trevor Project that offer hope and resources for bullied kids. And don't be afraid to talk about the painful lesson you learned—namely, that even though you weren't responsible for Mark's death, you will never, ever stop regretting the way you treated him when he was alive.
Because at the end of the day, the best salvo for a past you can't change is the future that you work to make better. If even one kid hears your story and is affected by it, you'll feel your burden grow a little lighter.
And on that note: thank you, so much, for sharing this letter with us. It was brave, and it makes a difference, and I'm very proud of you.
...Crying? I'm not crying! YOU'RE THE ONE WHO'S CRYING.
Do you have a bullying story to share? Tell us in the comments. And to get advice from Auntie, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Related post: Auntie SparkNotes: Bully for You