There is a theme that has been running through my head and my heart recently: connections and community.
It started last year when a particularly grisly case was discovered in Slovakia. The only details necessary here is that a 3 year old girl died of physical abuse but her death wasn’t discovered for three years. Three years.
A bill was proposed to bring back the practice of social workers visiting the homes of all children under the age of three (when most children start going to playschool). These visits were carried out during Communism, and my mother in law said that those visits were nerve-racking.
I’m all for protecting innocent children but I also recoil at the thought of a stranger regularly coming into our home to check up on us. What particularly bothers me, however, is that the government cannot replace the role of the community.
I think back to that little girl and wonder how it is possible that no one noticed that she was missing for three years. Where were her relatives? Family friends? Neighbours? Where was her community, the people that were connected to her?
In many ways the idea of community gets buried under our celebration of independence and individualism. We’ve all had nosy old grumps or judgmental ‘friends’ who shame us for the decisions we’ve made. We get angry and hurt, and respond “mind your own damn business.” And it’s true – how many children we have, what food philosophy we follow, or what religious beliefs we adhere to (among others) are not up for other people to judge.
I know it’s utopian, both in the sense of ‘ideal’ and ‘not a place’, but what if we had communities based on respect, even if one person doesn’t agree with another person’s choices? Not a place where we all have to have homogeneous agreement on everything but a place where, despite not agreeing with somebody, we can still honour their dignity as a person?
Communities of such a kind, however, are based on personal connections. Brene Brown writes in Daring Greatly (although she first wrote about it in The Gifts of Imperfection) that “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection – it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.” (I’m currently reading Daring Greatly, about the courage to be vulnerable, and while I haven’t finished it I highly recommend it.)
My own lack of keeping up connections was brought painfully to my attention two weeks ago, when my cousin, one of my best friends growing up, passed away.
We grew up together in the same small village, part of a large extended family. Thick as thieves, especially during high school, my house was her second home and vice versa. She was the one I could tell those hidden secrets to, even though I sometimes grew exasperated with her. After high school life took us in different directions. Different colleges, different countries.
I knew that the last few years had been turbulent for her, but what did I do? The odd Skype call, an occasional Facebook message or email. We saw each other the last summer I was in Canada, for which I am thankful, with some good conversations and fun times.
But when she took her own life I thought of the pain she must have been in. I thought of all the letters I had meant to send, the calls I had meant to make. My daughters even made a gift for her, and it never got mailed. And I’m not the only one who had those same thoughts. Could my reaching out have lessened her pain?
It’s not that I necessarily could have prevented what happened. Mental illness is a complicated beast involving the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our broken human selves, and psychotic drugs are basically an experiment. I do wish I had said in actions more “Hey – I love you. I care. You’re important to me.” Even if she couldn’t have heard it or felt it.
The day after the phone call I packed up and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. In many ways, it felt like I was leaving too late. Nothing I could do could change her death. But it’s precisely because of connections that I’m so grateful I was able to go (big thanks to my husband for taking on all the children). That large extended family, mourning together and supporting each other. The ladies in town who were overabundantly generous with bringing food, setting up, and washing dishes. Family and friends traveling far out of their way to be there. A few people whose financial generousity to me brings me to tears.
After all the bustle has faded, life continues. Work to be done, children to feed, engagements to attend. And yet thoughts still swirl in a incoherent mess of memories, questions, regrets, sorrow, and the child she left behind. I think that I’ve got myself under control, and then telling a friend or hearing a song will bring on the tears.
Brene Brown distinguishes between shame (I am a bad person) and guilt (my actions didn’t match up to my values). Shame destroys, but guilt can be used to change future actions. Rather than feed the guilt I want to harness it to change my future actions. To say more often to those connections I hold so dear, “Hey – I love you. I care. You’re important to me.”
No Man is an Island
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Edited: A beautiful soul who I am privileged to know in real life shared her journey through grief when her mother died by suicide, as well as some words of encouragement/advice for those left behind a suicide and their loved ones.
“There is a fine line between knowing that the only way to end the stigma of suicide is to open the discussion up with others about mental health and suicide, and yet at the same time one has to find the inner strength to be able to have those discussions without being sent into an emotional tailspin.”