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Disposing of the pain

The second annual Embrace Life celebrations at Tuugaalik High School this past month were emotional, meaningful and, at times, deeply personal. The event opened lines of communication and built strength amongst the student body in Naujaat.

Students Sabina Iyyiraq, left, and Tiffany Putulik help barbecue hamburgers during Embrace Life celebrations in Naujaat this past month. photo courtesy of Julia MacPherson

The week before the event was to be held, teachers were asked to talk to their class about suicide prevention, embracing life and the purpose of life, as well as sparking discussion on feelings and emotions the students have surrounding the topic.

Tuugaalik vice-principal Julia MacPherson said the students draw pictures or write personal letters, notes or poems and hand them in to their teacher.

“The teachers lock the submissions up and make sure no one else reads them, because they're very private and very personal to each student,” said MacPherson.

“On our actual Embrace Life Day, Sept. 22, we had all the students gather in the gym and we started with mindfulness activities that I led, during which I tried to get the students to be more mindful of the present – thinking about where their feet are on the floor and how they're sitting – get rid of all the thoughts that are bothering them, and work on their breathing, which really seems to help and the students seem to like like it.

“At this point I got them to take a hand and put it up on their heart and about six senior high students broke into tears and teachers took them out of the room and helped them calm down.

“It was a very, very emotional and very powerful talk.”

The students were then shown a video from the We Matter Campaign, which featured Jordin Tootoo talking about the loss of his brother (Terence), how it affected him, his goals moving forward and what he does in his life to stay happy and healthy.

MacPherson said every teacher wrote a positive note or message to individual students.

She said music was played as the teachers walked quietly around the gym and passed them out.

“There wasn't a dry eye in the gym,” she said.

“A number of students embraced and comforted one another and, in that room at that time, they felt very loved and cared for.”

Barbecued hamburgers and s'mores were on the menu for the afternoon activities and a fire was lit for the students to throw their personal letters, notes, poems and drawings into. The first year, the students formed a circle around the fire and went one at a time or in groups to throw their notes into the flames, but, this year, each student went up to the fire when they felt ready.

From there, the event took a happy turn, with music, students playing sports, filling their bellies and talking.

“It's always tough because it's a very heavy topic that's tough to talk about,” MacPherson said.

“In fact, there are still some people who don't think we should even talk about it, but that's the whole point of Embrace Life in that we're trying to bring awareness and understanding and, eventually, stop suicide from happening.

“We know times can be tough and there will be turmoil in their lives, but we want our students to know they have someone who cares about them. And the idea behind the positive note was to tell them why.

“Yes, the morning was very, very emotional, but there was definitely a happiness present, and the afternoon was pure happiness in celebrating life.”