3 out of 4 stars
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"I don't even know who I am." "I'm so tired of hurting." "I don't know what to do anymore. I feel lost and broken." These are just a sampling of the gut-wrenching "heart-cries" taken from countless letters received by Donalyn Powell from teens who have considered or attempted suicide, as well as the surviving family and friends of teens who have perished by their own hand. Powell has faithfully collected and lovingly answered these letters, compiling some of them into her book, Stepping Up: Finding Healing for Your Life and Hope for the Future. This book is the culmination of Powell's efforts to reach out to those who are considering suicide or mourning a suicide victim and to speak a simple, hopeful message into their bleak situations: "Suicide is not the answer; God's life in you is."
Stepping Up consists of letters to and from Powell; relevant poems by the author; short stories about people who have attempted or considered taking their own lives or endured the loss of a loved one to suicide; and well-placed, poignant photographs. The stories include that of Anna, who endured sexual abuse at the hands of her friend's father; Lisa, who returned home from a weekend trip to the devastating news that her boyfriend had killed himself; and a despondent mother at a loss about how to break the news of her son's death to her other children. Each letter received by the author is followed by a heartfelt, compassionate return letter from Powell, which are full of empathy, as she also went through a period in her life where she was suicidal due to a lengthy illness. She urges the hurting person that God loves them, that He has a plan and a purpose for them, and that ending their own lives would cut short the time for that plan. She patiently addresses each incident and concern described to her by the letter-writer, explaining why they should forgive themselves, forgive others, be honest with someone they trust, and seek the help of an intervention professional.
The stories and letters are an intense emotional roller-coaster. I ached with grief at the pained words of those mourning a loved one and asking that unanswerable question: Why? I trembled with fear while Amanda described the heartless beatings she endured from her father, a minister. I felt ill when Carmen described cleaning up the scene of her boyfriend's failed suicide attempt after he slit his wrists, because she didn't want him to have to see it when he returned from the hospital. I was most moved by the story of Candice, who bravely shares her botched-abortion experience with pregnant teenagers, urging them to choose life and adoption. I was surprised and pleased at the way Brad, a former drug addict, turned his life around. I rejoiced at Powell's letters full of encouragement and faith, conveying the love, forgiveness, and hope of God. While her beliefs and messages are decidedly Christian, she never comes off as "preachy" or judgmental.
In many cases, a poem separates the received letter from the response. I found these perfectly brief, relevant to the preceding letter, and they were were written in approachable language. Here is a portion of my favorite one:
"In His heart / there is a place / for every one of His children / where burdens are lighter / and every joy is greater. We are the children / He holds in the palm of His hand."
I love the unflinching nature of this book, both in terms of honestly presenting the painful situations faced by real people seeking meaning in their experiences and in terms of the Christ-focused answers Powell writes to them. Her advice is also practical. For example, when Anna admits that she has been cutting herself for over a year as an emotional release due to past sexual abuse, Powell provides a short list of activities to choose from next time she feels the need to cut, to redirect her mind and body from hurting herself. Also, almost every letter includes advice that is a variation of: "Asking for help means you care enough about yourself and your future to get better." It's never just a pray-once-and-God-will-fix-it answer, which is important.
The final chapter of this book features some disheartening statistics related to suicide, which illustrate plainly how much works like Stepping Up are needed. There are only two areas where I think this book is lacking. First, I found plenty of errors to cost it a star, like misspelled words ("Granniess" for "Grannies") and words in the wrong tense ("mentioned" for "mention"), missing hyphens and commas. Second, although the date at the beginning of this book was 2018, the statistics provided all date from the 1980s. The subject matter is too important not to update this information. If you are a preteen or younger or really sensitive, don't read Stepping Up. If you have considered suicide or are concerned that someone you love might be, I highly recommend this book. Fearless works like these are wonderful tools that tear down taboos and force us to really see what others are facing or that there are others who understand and want to help. For being part of the solution, I rate Stepping Up, by Donalyn Powell, 3 out of 4 stars.
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