June 05, 2012

Suicide highlights need for community support

This is not how it was supposed to be. The death of my son Thomas last week, at the age of 24, has put us in a state of shock. It has also triggered an outpouring of support for my wife Jean, my son Michael and myself, for which we are very grateful.

Starting in Grade 9, Thomas suffered from depression and a personality disorder that made social interactions very stressful for him. He sought refuge in alcohol and drugs, but also in the study of philosophy, and in acts of consideration for his family and friends. The greatest of these were his many courageous attempts to carry on.

No parent should ever have to come home to find that a child has taken their own life, but this is what Jean experienced. It is a horror that I would have gladly accepted for myself, so that she could have been spared it.

Sometimes, I feel angry at Thomas for causing us pain. Both Jean and I have felt some peace in knowing that his ordeal is over. He was a good actor, and could portray an appearance of normalcy, at great cost to himself. Still, he did share his fears, seek our aid and help us understand partially what was happening inside.

For the times when he could not be completely honest, to protect himself and us, and for his final act, he is forgiven.

We are dismayed at the inadequacy of our mental health care system, both in staffing and scientific knowledge. Part of that failure was due to Thomas' inability to accept all the assistance being offered. Ten years of psychiatry, medication, counselling, rehabilitation programs and behaviour therapy did not enable him to live with his core problems. We do not blame anyone for his death.

People tell us we did all we could, but that is not strictly true. We could have done things differently, but knowing exactly what to do is very difficult, since the object is to help a struggling person take responsibility for themselves. Sometimes, the best you can do is travel a tough road together, and not give up. It is a difficult lesson in love.

The fabric of our family and community has been damaged. One regret is that Thomas' instinct, and ours, was to avoid telling people about his troubles. As a result, his suicide was an even greater shock to our broader family. If he had been attacked by an outside force, such as cancer, we would have felt comfortable in calling for immediate support, and not felt so isolated.

We should not fall into the trap of blaming ourselves – of thinking that Thomas could have been saved, if only we had said the right words, at the right time, or found him a different prescription. There are no magic pills, no words that could have made everything all right.

There is consolation in knowing that Thomas has already been saved. We have confidence in the mercy of our loving God – mercy that is freely available to everyone, even if they cannot draw strength from formal religion.

I am fortunate in being able to put my thoughts into words, as therapy for myself and to connect with others. Like most human devices, words are inadequate for the things we hope they might achieve, but some particularly helpful ones were said by our pastor, Fr. Joe Kelly, at the funeral on Friday. These can be read as a separate entry on this blog.

Thomas was a victim of mental illness, which made it difficult for him to find hope in an outrageously imperfect world. But his death was also a choice, considered by him for many years, for which he was willing to take responsibility.

It is a paradox to contemplate, that what could be seen as an act of cowardice, was also an act of strength. We may not understand or agree with his reasoning, but we must ultimately respect his choice.

In the past week, at least 15 people have reached out to tell me of similar struggles in their families. In Thomas' memory, let us work to remove the stigma attached to mental illness.

Let us be willing to ask for help when we need it, and accept it when it is offered. Let us reach out fearlessly to those in need, and be persistent in hope.

As we stood looking at the body which he has left behind, I heard someone say, "Such a waste." I understand that feeling, but it is not length of days that makes existence worthwhile.

Thomas was a valued child of God from the start of his life. He had many happy times and did many good deeds, and as we begin to heal, it is these that we will treasure.