Sunday, November 9, 2014

2014.11.09 Suicide Prevention and Preventive Parenting

In the Nov/Dec, 2014 issue of Poets and Writers Magazine there is a piece by Kevin Nance about Charles D’Ambrosio, a writer who uses words to write with imagined sympathy about his father, who found no fathering within himself.  D’Ambrosio is the author of a new book of creative nonfiction essays called Loitering.

The article tells some of the painful story about a rejecting abusive father, two of whose sons attempted suicide, one succeeded the other survived. D’Ambrosio manages to conveys unimaginable yet imagined sympathy for a dad with whom he never could connect, despite efforts. The article revealed some information I had intuited, but not known, from an outside source about suicide dynamics and prevention. It also sent me a memory, one that told me I had an empathic heart—always a good thing to remember.     

I remember Bradford, the name I will give this cousin. He used to stand in a corner looking sad, if not gloomy, at the annual, command performance, family Thanksgiving gatherings at my grandparent’s home. I used to look forward to these gatherings. The food was plentiful, the grandfather of choice was there with his quiet chuckle and enormous cigar, and the variety of cousins were fascinating to observe. I was particularly observant of Bradford.

He was ten or more years older than I was. Even at young ages I knew he was moviestar handsome—thick black hair, dark brooding intensity, and large eyes. He was an amazing tennis player, I’d heard, and went to some prep school I’d never heard of. He was not approachable, at least by me. I was probably just as shy and introverted as he was, yet I didn’t feel as sad as he looked.

Bradford’s mother was what today we would call certifiable. She was an angry little woman, a jokster who thought nothing of tormenting her children with belittling remarks she thought were hilarious. I shudder to think how she might have been treated as a child. I also couldn’t understand why my uncle, whom I thought pretty decent and kind, did nothing to reach out to his son, at least that I saw.

One seminal story is enough. When Bradford was a teen his mother began to screech at the elevator operator in the  NYC apartment building to stop the elevator at once: “Stop, stop the elevator,” she shouted in front of several people. Then she turned to her son to say, “Bradford, we’ve forgotten your teddy bear.” Some personalities could slough this kind of humiliation off, but not sensitive Bradford who shrank from such assaults. It was cruel. I hated this woman. I refused to think of her as “aunt.”

We all grew up and life changed as it does. I didn’t think more about this until I heard from my parents that Bradford had committed suicide, in his late twenties I think. I remember my first nasty thought, something like “No wonder.” And I felt so sad, wishing I had tried harder to befriend him.

I know this is a small slice of life and I know few details. I know things were very much more complex than my own vicarious trauma for Bradford. I also know the family had a story and  a history that is not mine to know. Bradford’s siblings survived well enough. Now I’m sure that Bradford probably suffered from ongoing untreated depression, which, back in the 40s, was misunderstood and shamed, just as suicide was. Depression is a medical diagnosis but despair is not. It’s a spiritual diagnosis.

When Bradford died I had another thought I kept secret: “She won.” I don’t remember any funeral or further talk. I forgot Bradford, and I never forgot him. I hope he rests in peace in the vast embrace of God whose love, I believe, compensates for all the failings of human love.

The new information on depression and suicide I referenced above is relevant to Bradford’s situation. D’Ambrosio’s "killer" father tyrannized his household and created despair in his sons. But his mother taught him sympathy.

“Suicide is very often granting someone else that person’s wish. In this case I believe that to be true,” D’Ambrosio said about his father, to whom “the idea of family was heinous—antithetical, really to how he saw himself,” according to Jon Fontana who is married to one of D’Ambrosio’s sisters. Of course D’Amrosio’s father was terrorized by his own father, but does the beat have to go on?

According to the late Edwin Shneidman, a professor of thanatology at UCLA and the putative father of suicidology, “In one way, suicide is homicide to the 180th degree.” I thought of Bradford. I also thought of the book This Is How It Feels written from the inside of suicidality.

Of course this is only one perspective about the issue, but it is an important one to consider. Kudos to Charles D’Ambrosio for using his writing gift to write with such poignancy, authenticity, and, yes, compassion about the terrorism and tragedy he survived.

So what’s preventive here and where is the good news?

-I’m not planning anything rash, in case my interest in this topic alarms anyone.
-Parents always reject their kids to varying degrees; it’s usually not personal to the child.
-Schools address this topic with honesty. Promote mental health. Don’t wait for a tragedy.
-Consider preventive parenting/mindful parenting: If you are contemplating having children, disregard religious pressure and any literalistic interpretations or the biblical mandate to procreate. Rather, know yourself, and the mate who will parent with you, very very very very well, history and all— even if you need therapeutic help to accomplish this. Love isn’t enough. If you're not fit to parent in any way, be humble. Forget the Holy Family model—sweet, but dated.
-If you become a parent and can’t cope, don’t take it out on the child. To abandon is better than to destroy.
-Have conversations in church about the wisdom, or not, of setting up parental dynamics with God and clergy.  Is that really a healthy projection?  Jesus did grow up, remember.
-Pray for yourself.

I am filled with gratitude for my parents and all parents who do their very best, often against odds.  I give thanks for those who choose against parenting for good reasons, and with cost. I am grateful for myself, my former and present spouses, my children and theirs. Thanksgiving.