Finding solace and strength

Nov 5, 2016 by

Taming the black dog by [Donnelly, Dr Kevin]Finding solace and strength – published in the November edition of Melbourne Catholic.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and author of Taming the Black Dog, available as an e-reader at Amazon and iTunes and as a hard copy from Connor Court publishing.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill described it as his black dog and there’s no doubt that depression is increasingly widespread and impacting on more and more lives.

The Black Dog Institute suggests 1 in 5 children and adolescents suffer from mental health problems associated with depression and Beyond Blue estimates that 45% of Australians, at some stage during their lives, will experience depression.

Research also shows that depression is one of the main factors leading to suicide and last year Australia’s suicide rate climbed by 5.4 per cent compared to the previous year, making suicide the leading cause of death for those aged between 15 to 44.

It’s rare to pass through life without suffering depression one’s self or without seeing it afflict a loved one, colleague or friend.  Whether parents losing a child, a married couple suffering the death of a spouse or being struck by illness or financial worries the reality is that we are all vulnerable and susceptible to unforeseen events and fate.

Such was the case when our son, James, was killed in a hit and run accident and I, along with my family, were thrown into a world of grief, sorrow and pain.  While one can accept with sadness and regret the death of an aged parent or grandparent losing a child at a young age strikes one to the heart.

For me, in particular, James’ death brought back childhood memories of a violent and alcoholic father and the sense of hopelessness that comes from facing a hostile and cruel world where all appears bleak and without hope.

How does one cope and find the strength and resilience to overcome depression and to realise that all is not lost?  The challenge is especially hard as, supposedly, we are now living in postChristian, secular world where God no longer exists.

For many, life is narcissistic and ego driven where happiness and fulfilment are measured by material possessions, their number of social networking friends and the number of ‘likes’ on their Facebook page.

Luckily, for me when growing up during the sixties in working class Broadmeadows in a violent household such was not the case.  While my father was a member of the Communist Party and he had enrolled me in the Eureka Youth Movement mum was a devout Catholic and ensured Sunday mass, confession and communion were not ignored.

St Dominic’s Church in Camp Road was far from imposing or grand but the weekly ritual of prayer, listening to God’s word and communion provided a sense of calm and of belonging to something more lasting, comforting and reassuring than one’s day-to-day existence.

Weekly readings from the Bible and the realisation that God had become man and that while Christ suffered and died on the cross he rose again on the third day helped me understand that all was not lost and that God’s love surrounds us all.

As a child woken in the middle of the night with the chilling sound of abuse I found solace in holding on to a small statue of the Virgin Mary; praying for her intercession.  While our home was often violent and ruled by anger my mother had taught me that each of us has a guardian angel that protects us from harm.

To have faith is to appreciate, while we might never understand why things happen as they do and while life is often cruel and unforgiving, there is a greater reality that transcends this world and that offers salvation.

Half way through Year 11 at Broadmeadows High our father deserted us and we were evicted from our Housing Commission home.  But, at the same time, my prayers were answered in the form of some good Samaritans who took it upon themselves to provide the money and resources to allow me to complete Year 12 at Melbourne High School.

Years later, after getting married, starting a career and having children my faith was once again tested when James, our 20 year old son, was killed while walking back from a mate’s party late one winter night.

Made worse by the fact, given my own troubled and violent upbringing, that I had done everything I could to provide a loving and stable home environment.

The very things I had lacked as a child Julia, my wife, and I provided for our two children and then to lose one is such a senseless and violent way struck me as a cruel and made me question whether God was indeed just and merciful.

As a literature teacher King Lear’s reaction to the death of his daughter, Cordelia, came to mind: “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all?”.

How did I cope with the depression that inevitably followed?  A crisis can either destroy one’s beliefs or strengthen and renew one’s convictions about this world and the next.   For me and Julia the belief that we are all made in God’s image and that there is an eternal life after death gave solace and a sense that while loved ones are no longer physically present their souls live on.

I also realized while we might want to believe that we can construct a perfect life free from sorrow and pain, as the Bible tells us, the reality is that to be human is to be vulnerable to suffering and loss.

The ritual and prayers of the funeral Mass for James involving so many family, relatives and friends helped assuage the suffering and loss.  Each day I still pray that he is granted eternal peace and joy and that God’s perpetual light will shine upon him.

As taught by my mother many years ago when we visited at St Francis’ Church in the city lighting candles for those we have lost also provides a moment to acknowledge the loving bond that can never be extinguished.

The words of the Christian mystic, Julian of Norwich, that “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” helped me understand that while we might feel uncertain and empty there is also the “peace of God, which passeth all understanding”. Julia of Norwich’s words “let nothing dismay thee, let nothing disturb thee, all things pass, God never changes” also offer solace and the belief that while there is great loss, there can also be great love and great joy.

It’s common for media commentators, when interviewing those who have suffered the pain and distress of losing a loved one, to talk about ‘closure’.  The reality is that there is no closure as each day brings new challenges and moments of anxiety and uncertainty.

At the same time, for me, the journey since that fateful night has taught me that along-side sadness and loss can exist hope, light and optimism.  As noted by Austin Cooper in the preface to Julian of Norwich: Reflection on Selected Texts, the belief that there is darkness in the world should never overwhelm the realisation there is also light.

A light signifying love and acceptance that overcomes adversity and pain, Cooper writes: There is an interplay of light and darkness in ourselves and in our world. We are faced with conflict and division within, and the conflict between good and evil in the cosmos. There is need for mercy and healing.

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