Searching for understanding

Why did it happen? What drove him to do it? Impulse? Probably involved, but not enough by itself. Shame? Despair? Words like those get tossed out like so many epitaphs that fail to do justice to the dead. So again, not enough. The words that explain my son's choice have not yet been written. It is my hope that by going through the process of doing so, I can find some way to understand how to accept the results of his decision. Perhaps others will gain some insight into their own loss as well. Perhaps not. Either way I need to write - to think - before I can move on. To do otherwise is not an option.

Humans are hard wired to protect our children, and with good reason. Unlike most other mammals, our young are born helpless and would die within hours without our care. I've read that the reasons for this have to do compromising overall physical development for our abnormally large skulls. We need to get out before the skull becomes too large to fit through the birth canal. Nature giveth and nature taketh away, I guess. I know one thing - our abnormally large skulls have enough room in them for an incredibly complex brain. sadly, sometimes a brain that has to deal with a world that its own kind has created can't, despite all the internal real estate.

The human mind has often been referred to as a biological computer, and that sounds like a fair analogy to me. Computers can't compute everything, though. Some algorithms just can't be solved, no matter the size or power of the machine. The result is a catastrophic failure. Suicide is like that, in some ways. Anguish so overwhelming that it can't be resolved induces the brain to spiral down into a sort of cascading failure of logic so profound that it overloads the most powerful instinct we posses - the will to live. Unfortunately, for the survivors of a loved one's suicide, it's even more difficult than that to explain. We ask ourselves, "What could possibly explain our child's choice to die?", and find that what answers we get are general banalities and platitudes for the most part. They're meant to help, to provide hope. Without hope, why go on?

So what could possibly cause a person to utterly lose all hope? There are more answers to that question than I'm able to give, obviously. As many as there are people on the Earth, maybe more. One person's sad event is another's debilitating tragedy. It depends on culture and circumstance; an event that seems horrifying or repulsive in one culture might be seen as blase or acceptable in another, or even in the same culture during a different period in its history. Suicide is one of the very few acts seen as shameful and horrifying by almost all cultures. Like cannibalism, the condemnation of the act is nearly universal, but not quite. That says something about how profoundly deep the negative reaction to suicide runs in our species, and also about how widely varied people's perceptions and beliefs can be.

Humans are a social species, it's vital to our mental health that we have others to interact with. Without social interaction of the proper type during the appropriate periods in our development, we tend to end up unhealthy and dysfunctional. Some kind of healthy family and friend network is vital to our continued good mental health. The modern social media culture and our too-busy lifestyle have contributed to the reduction of the family interaction component of our society, while simultaneously emphasizing and mutating the friends component of that dynamic. All of this hasn't been helped by our culture's youth oriented, materialistic pop culture, which is contributing to a shallow, competitive set of values among our youth. If parental wisdom and guidance is lacking, something else will fill the gap.

Suicide has even been described as a rejection of the group, since a big part of the group's job is to help one and other. "Why didn't s/he ask for help?", is a very common question asked by those left behind. In my son's case, the well documented culture of silence among students certainly must have contributed to his reluctance to speak to us about his problems. It likely didn't help that the main source of his pain were feelings of being ostracized and alone. Those types of feelings often lead to victims believing that nobody - not even their own parents - can help. Even when he did finally tell us what was going on, he held back some of the worst aspects of his torment. We were left feeling that we'd done too little, too late. We had no idea of the extent of his abuser's vicious attacks. We discovered that the old advice to "turn the other cheek", ( which was one of our very first pieces of advice to him ), probably made things worse! The rules to bullying had already begun to change, but we were completely unaware of that back in 2006.

The world was about to see the advent of cyberbullying, but neither the word nor the concept had made it into the mainstream at the time. Cyberbullying's onset and its severe effects could not have been predicted in advance. The world had no clue that our kids were slowly becoming so deeply reliant on their on-line social network, often to the exclusion of other forms of interaction. Kids born onto the digital age often see things radically differently than our generation did. The common problem of so-called "sexting" is a good example of that. It seems outrageous to most parents, ( I can't even imagine doing such a thing even if it were possible thirty years ago ), yet to many kids today it's no big deal. Until it comes back to haunt them when somebody decides to publicize the pictures, or use them to threaten the kid with publicizing them. My point here is that as a culture, we're just beginning to understand the broad ranging and profound changes occurring in our world as a result of the information explosion, and the resultant effects those changes are having on our kids.

So while trying to understand our son's choice to end his life, I've come to realize that I can't look at suicide from the point of view that predates the information and instant communication culture of kids today. An act that has been viewed as extreme, ( and it still is extreme! ), appears to have somehow become more acceptable, or even seen as necessary by some kids today. What could possibly be that powerful? What could seem so horrifyingly impossible to live with that a child chooses death over dealing with it? It's almost like some part of childhood innocence has been bred out of us; that eternally optimistic part of us that used to help shield us against the worst of life's troubles. It's as if kids are looking at the world with a lifetime of cynicism behind them - like damaged adults. That kind of cold, hard world view in the impulsive, immature mind of a child certainly sounds like a recipe for disaster, doesn't it?

I will be posting further thoughts on this subject in future posts