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Behind a smile; becoming a voice of change

Be the kind voice that someone hears when they are having the worst day. Be the voice that shares their heart and who struggles openly. And be the voice that is genuine and concerned for others. A single, real conversation can make a difference, and the conversations that I have had with two women have made a significant difference in my life.

Be the kind voice that someone hears when they are having the worst day. Be the voice that shares their heart and who struggles openly. And be the voice that is genuine and concerned for others. A single, real conversation can make a difference, and the conversations that I have had with two women have made a significant difference in my life. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Brittany Cannon)

O'FALLON, Mo -- “People see a smile and think that everything is OK. But a smile doesn’t necessarily mean that things are OK.”

An acquaintance who experienced the devastating loss of her child to suicide recently shared this message with me. 

I remember seeing Facebook posts about a young girl’s life cut short – a ray of sunshine that would no longer brighten the world. I knew the young girl’s family, but not well enough to ask what had happened to her. I just assumed she had fallen ill and passed away. I’d soon learn that was far from what happened. 

Recently, while waiting in line with my family at a food truck frenzy, I ran into my acquaintance, and we began talking about life and our daily struggles. I finally garnered enough courage to ask her what had happened to her daughter. 

“She committed suicide,” she replied. 

Reality smacked me right in the face. I stood there stunned, unsure how to respond. 

Her daughter was 21, going to college, my friend shared. She had a boyfriend and plans for her future.

I didn’t know how to reply in that moment. “Sorry for your loss,” was all that I could muster – which didn’t seem like much at all.

We continued to talk as we waited in line. What stuck with me most from our conversation was what she shared about all the things that a smile can hide, and how she wants to be a voice for her daughter. 

In our culture, when a person smiles, we automatically assume this means that they are happy. We don’t look beyond the smile, because a smile is the universal symbol for happiness. 

But, what if that isn’t the case? What if a smile can mean several things? It could represent happiness or contentment; mirror a memory of something pleasant; or it can be a Band-Aid for our sorrow. It doesn’t have to only symbolize happiness. 

At the time that my friend shared with me her daughter’s tragic story, I had been having an extremely rough year myself. I was having a hard time juggling all of my responsibilities. My plate was overflowing with being a wife and mother to four young children. I was attending graduate school. To pay the bills, I worked a full-time job, plus three part-time jobs, one of which was the Air National Guard. Those were just the big things in my life that I was trying to tend to, and I was overwhelmed. 

I hid all the tears and the stress that I endured behind a smile, every day. Looking inward and reflecting on my own experience, and thinking about the message my friend shared with me, I realized that a smile indeed does hide a lot of things. 

Think for a moment about the last time that you had a bad day. How did you respond when someone asked you, “How are you doing?”

Honestly, most of the time my response has been to smile, and give with it a generic answer along the lines of, “I’m fine, how are you?” My goal was to appease them, so they wouldn’t ask me any more questions.

Once I realized that I was doing this, I saw the world in a different light. People come in and out of our lives and we don’t know them well enough to take the time to recognize when someone truly needs help; when they are feeling depressed; or if that smile is genuine and filled with happiness – or masks something that is troubling them. 

We often can’t see the struggle behind a forced smile, or a temporary smile. I’m not saying that no one ever smiles out of happiness, but I am saying that there can be a lot more behind every smile. 

In the last couple of years, I have known three people who committed suicide. Out of those three, I didn’t think that any of them would ever resort to taking their own life. 

But maybe that’s the point; I couldn’t see it. I assumed that all the smiles they had smiled meant that they were in a good place, and for the most part, were happy. 

What I’ve learned from this time in my life is that just because someone smiles doesn’t mean that everything is okay. I learned that I want to be that person that goes the extra mile in a conversation and who strives to know what else is going on behind a person’s smile.

During that tumultuous season in my life, I struggled to find genuineness in a person asking, “How are you?” It seemed that every time someone asked that question, it was more out of civility or the need to make small talk. 

It wasn’t until a lieutenant colonel with the wing staff stopped me in a hallway. She held both of my hands in hers, looked me square in the eyes, and asked me if I was doing ok; if I was finding a way to balance everything that I had going on.

Smiling as I always did, I responded with a polite, “Yes Ma’am, I’m fine.”

She looked at me, unfazed by my response, and continued by saying, “I think of you all the time; you remind me so much of myself, and if you ever need anything, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me.” 

In that moment, I was touched by a sense of honesty and tenderness that I hadn’t recognized in others that asked about my situation. I didn’t tell her all of the details of my struggles, nor did I change my answer. But her response to me stuck with me and gave me a sense that someone did care how I was really doing. 

I want to be a voice of change like she was for me on that day, and I challenge everyone to do the same. Be the kind voice that someone hears when they are having the worst day. Be the voice that shares their heart and who struggles openly. And be the voice that is genuine and concerned for others. A single, real conversation can make a difference, and the conversations that I have had with these two women has made a significant difference in my life. 

For my acquaintance and for the memory of her daughter; and for the lieutenant colonel who had a voice that touched me, I want you both to know that your voices do matter, they did make a difference in my life, and as I accept the challenge of your message and seek to share it more broadly to others, it can indeed change the world.

Editor’s note: If you are feeling suicidal, please immediately dial 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255 for free and confidential help.

If you are struggling, the 131st Bomb Wing has a host of resiliency resources to help you, including your supervisor, first sergeant or commander, as well as our wing chaplain – at (314) 724-6115 – or our director of psychological health – at (660) 687-7407. Even if you're not from the 131st, you can reach out to these resources and they will connect you with someone close to you.

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