WHEN you think of 16-year-old boys, the image that springs to mind is usually one of smelly socks, messy bedrooms, monosyllabic grunting, acne and raging hormones.
But, every now and then, while their peers are trying to figure out who they are and why they feel angry and isolated, a role model pops up – none brighter or shinier than Donal Walsh.
I'll admit I've been moved to tears by 16-year-old boys before. Once when one nicked my new bag, and another time when one was so rude to an old man at the bus stop that I ended up in tears of rage. And then, on Saturday night, I found myself incredibly moved while listening to Donal talking about dying. The teenager, who is terminally ill, was speaking about his wish that his death will make people appreciate life more.
In a heartbreaking interview on RTE's 'The Saturday Night Show', this extraordinary boy spoke about his illness. He explained how much he loved and appreciated life and how he hoped in some way to help prevent suicide among his young peers. Such courage is rare in anyone, never mind a teenager.
Donal pleaded directly to his fellow teens. "Please, as a 16-year-old who has no say in his death sentence; who has no choice in the pain he is about to cause and who would take any chance at even a few more months on this planet, appreciate what you have, know that there are always other options and help is always there."
The cancer-stricken teenager came to the nation's attention via a letter that he wrote revealing his personal battle with cancer and his quest to end the suicide epidemic plaguing this country.
"For these people, no matter how bad life gets, there are no reasons bad enough to make them do this – if they slept on it or looked for help they could find a solution and that they need to think of the consequences of what they are about to do."
Donal's acceptance of his fate is humbling. His ability, despite the crushing blow life has dealt him, to reach out and help others is inspiring. Having had to face the shattering news that there is no hope of a cure for him, the teenager spoke about seeing all the beauty in the world and his sadness at leaving his family and friends. But he said he has made his peace with dying.
One can only hope that teenagers around the country will read Donal's letter and listen to what he's saying. His message is simple. "I may be used as a symbol for other people to appreciate life more. It might not be just suicide in particular but just to appreciate life in general then I'll be happy to die."
Most adolescents feel misunderstood, unloved, unlovable and awkward. You're no longer a child but not yet an adult. But if we can get our teenagers to communicate and be open with each other and to support each other, then perhaps their feelings of being lost can be curbed. Perhaps by being honest with each other they can stop their emotions spiralling out of control where they see no alternative but to exit this world.
LISTENING to Donal's powerful words made me realise that we underestimate our teenagers. We should try to listen to them more. Because inside those balls of frustrated hormones, lie deeply sensitive, thoughtful souls that need to express themselves. And while most will never reach Donal's levels of eloquence and appreciation of life, at least they will feel less alone, less misunderstood and perhaps this will also help stem the surge in teenage suicides.
We should also encourage our teens to talk to their parents. Donal is a young man who clearly talks to his parents in an open and uncensored way. And what a wonderful job they have done in raising a brilliant son through such heartache. Perhaps they should also write a letter, explaining to parents how they managed to bring up such a thoughtful, kind and sensitive son despite so much adversity.
As Donal has shown us, the value of life lies not in the length of days, but in the use we make of them.