Terra Knoble worked in the field of developmental disabilities prior to going back to school to study marriage and family therapy. She believes that all people are worth the same amount, that all people have something to offer, and that we should treasure each other. She believes that being kind is the important thing a person can do and that listening, without judgement, is a skill that takes continuous practice.
“Soldier’s Heart was what we called it.” My grandpa told me.
We were in his apartment researching our family’s history. My eyes followed his finger to a line in the family tree book. His uncle’s death, by suicide, was reported as an accidental drowning in order for his burial to be allowed in the community’s cemetery.
Isolated in life by the heartache of war, his uncle would have been shunned in death if it weren’t for the kind lies of family members.
The thought, in my ancestor’s time, was that a person who died from suicide had sinned against God. I think some people still believe this to be true, but the majority appears to have shifted to thinking that a medical illness causes suicide.
Mental illness is tricky to define. When you think about an illness, what comes to mind? Diabetes, the common cold, our current pandemic probably has a lot of us thinking about illness. The simplest point of view is that something goes wrong in the body and that wrongness is resolved by a medication or other interventions provided to the individual.
A systemic perspective means looking deeper into how the illness came to affect the individual.
Suicide has always been a cause of death. However, many of us do not understand the contributing factors that pile and mix together compounding down on our fellow human beings. When my father died from suicide, my sisters and I were told he had “a chemical imbalance.” The three kids in my high school who died from suicide were labeled as troubled, mentally ill, drug users. My grandfather’s generation was aware that some people were coming home from war with unexpected, continuing terror.
Why were the chemicals imbalanced? What causes a person to become troubled or ill or to use drugs? What is it about war that leaves a lasting mark?
My father was brought up in a culture of black and white thinking, so was I, and maybe you were too. Black and white thinking sounds like: You are good or you’re bad. You are hardworking or you’re lazy. You are worth what you are able to produce, and those that don’t produce are worthless.
Years afterward, I was a waitress, near my home. A man tapped me on the shoulder to say, “Your Dad was the kindest person I ever knew.” My Dad was the neighbor that lent you a tool and never asked for it back. He took things VERY literally. He was confused when the church told him that God was “infallible” but he also saw homeless people and the destruction of the environment. He was sad about the state of the world. People would tell him that he needed to take medication and he would feel better. And he did try that, but he didn’t believe that medication was the answer. He wanted things to be different, but concerned family and friends wanted him to be different.
It comes from a place of love, telling a person that you want them to get help/take medication. But the message can come through as, “You’re not right. We want you fixed.”
When kids, in my high school, died by suicide . Our school hosted a series of speakers, attempting to address the grief of the student body. Two of the kids were brothers. The speakers mostly begged us to consider the ones left behind, with an emphasis on not “choosing to die” and “to get help.” Again, this was well-meaning, but the message of blame was still at the core.
“Systemic perspective” is one way of saying that we are not isolated. We are in this world together. It’s also a way of seeing things as rich and complex, rather than black and white. It helps to study each part of the whole and to discern which of these parts we can help to change. There are many factors that contribute to mental health: nutrition, exercise, friendships/social support, safety, and engaging in meaningful activities. If we study present day conditions, as well as historical information, we can see who has access to nutrition, safe places to exercise, and opportunities to find meaningful work. It isn’t everyone. Not even close.
More recently, a childhood friend called me to let me know that her brother died by suicide. He was 42. As I listened into my phone, I just stumbled backward, and sat down on the lid of the closed toilet. My hands gripped the sides, cold and wet.
Sometimes, I hear something and it feels like a part of me stays there. Like I’ll always be a little bit hunched over that toilet, focusing on the coldness, thinking, “Why him? Why now?” I’m not what most people would consider a “happy person.” I have my moments of joy for sure, but in general I’m sad about a lot of what I see and hear and read about that goes on in our world. As a younger person, I often worried if I was built to last or if I would die like my Dad.
Given the risk factors, what has protected me? Why am I alive right now and others are gone?
I’m not sure if I’ll ever know for sure, but I want to keep learning. I believe that all things are caused. I recently heard a song, in my car, that said, “It’s okay not to be okay.”
What if we could accept our loved ones and ourselves in all our awkward sorrow?