Monday night, sitting on the couch, toiling with an article that wouldn’t end, the Olympics playing in the background, a long day winding down, when my friend Mark Hennig sent me an email. I cried for two girls. Madison Holleran, a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, committed suicide, jumping from a roof in Philadelphia January 17. She was 19. Taylor Hennig wrote and spoke the following as a tribute to her friend. We asked Taylor if we could share it, she said sure. Like she wrote, if it helps one person…and Taylor, I too, have sought professional help along the way.
Hi everyone. For those of you who don’t know who I am, my name is Taylor Hennig and I am a sophomore on the Track and Field team here at Penn.
I feel blessed to be one of the people here who was close to Madison Holleran, and could truly call her my friend. I will never forget the day I met her. It was last spring, the evening after Penn Relays and she was staying with my best friend, and her long-time friend Theresa Picciallo.
Leading up to her visit Theresa could not tell me enough about how awesome and fun Madison was and how she knew I would love her and connect with her immediately. Judging by how well Theresa knows me, I knew she would be right, and she absolutely was.
That evening we were all at a track gathering celebrating Penn Relays and Theresa told me she had to run home and get something and asked if I could keep an eye on Madison. Of course I said, “Sure, no problem!”
Being as striking and sweet as she was, as well as a soon to be new member of our team, everyone was talking to her and keeping her busy in a million directions so I asked her to give me her phone number when I went to the bathroom in case I had trouble finding her when I got back. On my way to the bathroom I texted her so that she would have mine too, and I immediately received an automated message saying that the number I was trying to reach was a landline number. I realized that she had by accident, in the midst of all the chaos and conversation given me her home phone number, which obviously wouldn’t have done me any good. I ran back and told her and we laughed while she profusely apologized for how dumb she was and how she couldn’t believe that this was the first impression I was getting of her. Little did she know it was that moment I knew she and I would be friends, because I knew that was something I could see myself doing, and her reaction to it was exactly what I could hear myself saying.
Upon her arrival on campus in September, our friendship was pretty immediate. We kind of just clicked. It didn’t take long for me to completely adore her in every way, just as it seems almost everyone who knew her did as well. There is pretty much no one I know more deserving of pretty much every positive adjective there is. Beautiful, smart, athletic, genuine, kind, caring, generous, fun, outgoing, engaging, talented…and so much more. Her overall aura and positive spirit spread to all those she touched, as well as the many who just knew of her. Sooo many people on campus would ask me about the “freshman, Madison on my team” that they had either seen, had a class with, or heard about who “was so beautiful and sweet and fun!” I would always respond the same way…”Yepp, she’s awesome. Most amazing girl I know, inside and out, and the best part is, she is so unaffected by it. So real and genuine. I’ll have to introduce you.” I had never been so proud to be able to call someone my friend and I continue to feel incredibly blessed every minute of every day to have known her.
But with that blessing came the burden of feeling like I was one of the people who could have stopped her, could have helped her…could have healed her. I felt as if I had failed her as a friend. The days and nights following her death were plagued by tears and what-ifs; self-blame and confusion on how I could have been so oblivious to a person’s pain who I held so close to my heart. However, as I leaned on my roommates, my family, my friends, my teammates, my coaches, and the amazing people across this campus and beyond who have all been more supportive than I could have ever imagined, as well as lots of prayer, I realized that in situations like this, things aren’t always black and white. They don’t always have answers, and all of the worrying and questioning in the world wouldn’t bring our beautiful Madison back. I realized that this was something that was going to impact me for the rest of my life, but that it needed to be for good, not for bad, because in the end that’s what she would have wanted. I realized that the best thing, and really the only thing to do is to do everything in my power to honor her and to become better because of this. So with that being said, there are two lessons that I have learned that I am going to share.
The first thing is to truly appreciate life more and the people in it. I know that may sound cliché, but I think it is more applicable to our generation than we realize. I think we live in a world where it has become second nature to, in ways, take life itself and the people in it for granted. We have become so accustomed to letting an Instagram caption, Facebook status, or Snapchat serve as our way of showing the people close to us that we care. While all of that is heart-warming and fine, I think we should challenge ourselves to really cherish each other and let the people in our lives know how important they are to us in whatever genuine way we choose, and that doesn’t always mean through words. This leads me to lesson number 2.
It is no secret that mental health is a serious issue, and it has been brought increasingly more to light in the past weeks. We are all in an especially fragile and vulnerable place in our lives, even on the best day possible. College is a time where we are constantly put to the test and pulled in multiple directions in various capacities: those we thought we had mastered yet have possibly unwoven through the intricacies of life here, and also in those that we have never encountered before. I think that these types of challenges are magnified at a school like this. We attend, arguably, the seventh best school in the United States of America. With that comes the pressure to keep up the perfection that got us here, but that is not a reasonable expectation. The fact of the matter is, no one is perfect. Perfection does not exist, and that is the wonderful and beautiful thing that makes us human. I think for a lot of people, including myself, this is a hard thing to accept and this often leads to a state of confusion, loss, or hopelessness, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. Depression, among other mental illnesses is more prevalent than most people realize. On a milder note, so is stress and anxiety. But there is help for these feelings. They are not a dead end, and they are not unfixable.
Take a look around you in this auditorium. There are hundreds of people sitting in this room in support of our beloved friend Madison, whether they knew her personally or not. I absolutely guarantee you, that if you have feelings I described, or that Madison possibly felt, there are this many people who are here to support you as well. Feelings of unexplained sadness, anger, anxiety or stress are not feelings to be ashamed of. They are not a sense of weakness and neither is getting help to overcome these feelings. While it was not for reasons like depression, I will stand up here and admit to all of you that I too have sought professional help for various areas of my life. I bet most of the people in this room who know me have no idea about that, and would maybe never guess that about me, and I think that’s the point. I’m not crazy or weird or insane, I’m just human. I’m not perfect and there have been areas of my life that I knew I needed to improve and that I couldn’t do it alone. I am not ashamed of that and I don’t feel weak for doing so either. I can only hope that if me standing up here and admitting that to 600 people can instill in even just one person the strength and confidence to seek help if they need it, then it was well worth it. I also hope that the stigma attached to this topic can disappear and that we can instead create an atmosphere that is aware and receptive to helping those who need it.
So when I said that, I challenge you to really show the people in your life that you care about them, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be in words, I meant it like this. Be there for each other. Listen to each other. Include each other. Embrace each other. You never know how far even the smallest acts of kindness will go. In the famous words of Madison, “Today is a day to be strong.” Be strong for each other. She will undoubtedly smile down on each and every one of us as we do so.
Madison. I will never forget the times we shared in our relatively short span of knowing each other. I will forever hold on to the dreams I had of our future together. I will always wish that whatever difference I made in your life could have been enough to keep you here. My only hope now is that you have found your paradise and that your beautiful smile will forever be a permanent feature on your face. I love you. I miss you. And I will forever hold you close to my heart, until we meet again.