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Nick’s way

First slide

A friend recently invited me to wear a bright blue rubber bracelet with the following words in white: “Nick’s Way Challenge, 365 Days of Kindness, Never Forgotten,” and the date of Nick’s birthday.

The man who asked me was Nick’s father.

I had only met Nick briefly — just a month before his death at 21. Immediately struck by his radiant smile, I wasn’t surprised to learn later that his friends called him Smiley. In just minutes, I sensed a soft heart, a bright intellect and a compassionate young man. 

To Nick’s father, I said yes. 

In the first days and weeks, I would often take the bracelet off in the evenings with a sense of relief. The next day, I’d either forget to wear it or see it on my dresser and decide to skip a day. Though it was almost weightless, somehow it felt so heavy.

But then I decided to leave it on. It seemed to remind me of the pandemic within the pandemic: Suddenly on a near-daily basis, I was hearing via friends, family and neighbors about mental illness, hospitalizations, drug overdoses and suicides — or what Father Charles Rubey, founder of LOSS, (Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide), describes as “emotional cancer.”

According to US News and World Report, “Emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts among girls between the ages of 12 and 17 increased by 26 percent during summer 2020 and by 50 percent during winter 2021, compared with the same periods in 2019.” Drug overdoses surged 30 percent last year, and a new umbrella phrase has entered our lexicon: “ deaths of despair.” 

According to psychiatrist Timothy Sullivan, the “accumulating emotional burden caused by the effects of the pandemic on our habits and social interactions,” continue to severely impact children and adolescents “for whom social interactions and peer involvement are crucial both for their healthy development and their emotional well-being.”

The longer I leave the bracelet on, the more unpredictable its messages to me become. Some days the bright blue communicates the warmth of Nick’s smile and propels me to commit even the smallest act of kindness — holding open the door at a store. On others, my heart is heavy as all I can seem to see is “Never Forgotten.” More often than not, the bright blue almost shouts in my peripheral vision, prompting me to slow down, step outside of my to-do list, and see how I can be more present to my family, friends and even strangers. 

“My first year grieving was like wearing a lead apron over my shoulders that I could not take off,” a friend whose son died by suicide 12 years ago told me. “Once in a great while, an understanding friend would come alongside me and slip their arm through the apron to help me carry it for a short time.”

While at some level I comprehend this lead apron and pandemic of deaths of despair, at another level, I know nothing. Before I began wearing a daily reminder of this crisis, it was easier to pass it all off as some other family’s issue. But “Nick’s Way” is slowly changing my perspective.

The bracelet already has sparked conversations with my three teens about mental illness. After I told my ninth grade son why I was wearing the bracelet, he surprised me by nodding and declaratively telling me, “Dad, listening is number one.”

“I would add ‘asking,’ ” said a friend of my mom’s whose grandson died by suicide. “When we have loved ones who deal with depression, it is awkward to ask them how they are doing.” But ask we must.

And we must pray — and engage in daily acts of kindness: listening, asking and so much more. One look at the bracelet is often all it takes to remind me to seize the daily opportunities in my path — if only I put down the phone, pay attention and consider the way that Jesus is inviting me to take.   

“Nick’s life on earth has passed, but his memories and contributions to the community continue with these acts of kindness,” his father told me nearly one year after Nick’s death. “We feel Nick is with us, pushing us to perform these acts of kindness … it’s who he was.” The initial run of 2,000 bracelets is almost gone, and he and his wife are ordering more.

I am honored to be invited into such a grief — and into such a bright way of kindness.

Nick’s Way.

Johnson and his wife, Ever, are co-founders of trinityhousecommunity.org.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021