The Unknowability of Others’ Suffering

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He’d tell me again every Christmas Eve if he was late. Eight-year-old PJ had stepped on an old box that cut off his shabby shoes. Tetanus infected the puncture wound — fatal even now in 10 percent of cases, much more so, in rural Ireland in the middle of the century. The nearest hospital was hours away, and no one had a car in my father’s fishing village. Finally, a rich man came to ride PJ, but it was too late: In the backseat, his body already stiff and his jaw locked, PJ was dead, straight, lying on my 13-year-old father’s lap.

Whenever my father told the story, I would find myself looking through his eyes at his dying little brother, who was only 8 years old. PJ’s body had become his coffin. This must be very scary. My father must have felt so helpless.

From a helpless boy, my father has grown into an intimidating man, partly with determination. He had no control over PJ’s death, and not much over my mother’s either. Yet the anger that stemmed from his powerlessness turned into a motivating energy that turned into physical strength. He managed to study so hard and consistently, being so dedicated and committed to saving money that it paid my way through an Ivy League college.

He may have demonstrated most of his strength in the way he has endured physical pain for so long. In his 70s, he was constantly and unpredictably sidelined by a stomach or intestinal condition that no doctor could adequately treat or even diagnose. The stubbornness of their sickness should have made me more worried about him. Instead, the wolf became the crying father. I could not or did not want to put myself in his suffering body; and the more I put myself into his mind, the more I decided that his illness was exacerbated by his brooding tendency.

Something I didn’t learn until after my father’s suicide is that depression can cause chronic gastrointestinal distress, just as stress can cause back pain or sadness can cause tears. I doubt any doctor has adequately explained this to my father. The idea that his suffering might have a “psychosomatic” element led him to protest that what had happened to him was not “in his mind.” Of course not. Yet the brain is as much a part of the body as the gut. Not only does the brain perceive physical pain, it can also help trigger painful bodily responses.

If my father had a better understanding of the mind-body connection, would that have saved him? I can not say. But while I could imagine his emotional or psychological pain, I resisted physically empathizing with him. As I stared at his dying brother, I could immerse myself in his vision. But I resisted his aching body. And maybe that’s why I tried to force him to change his perception – because we think too much about depression, which can also be in flesh, blood and organs. In all this pain, I should have pushed his body for better medical attention.

Maura Kelly is working on a memoir about her father. Encourages anyone experiencing a mental health crisis to go to the emergency room, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), or visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness site (nami.org).


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