Keeping The Conversation Going


When Robin Williams committed suicide back in August, a friend predicted that everyone would post obsessively about depression awareness for a week before forgetting about it and moving on. Apart from the duration – the posts lasted for two weeks – her prediction was dead-on.

Three months after the death of Mr. Williams, Facebook and Twitter posts about mental illness had all but disappeared. Then a woman named Brittany Maynard started trending on social media when she chose assisted suicide over a horrible death from cancer.

Reactions to her death have been all over the place. There are those who believe Brittany’s decision showed courage and strength of character, and there are those who are convinced that she is burning in hell because of her selfishness and disobedience of God.

I want to make it clear that I am in no way equating the deaths of Robin Williams and Brittany Maynard. Robin Williams fought a long battle with depression. He felt desperate and hopeless, and when he looked into the future all he could see was a bleak, desolate landscape. Brittany Maynard was not suffering from depression, and she did not want to die. She simply knew that her death was both inevitable and imminent, and she wanted to spare herself and her family the ravages of brain cancer.

The only thing the two deaths have in common is that both individuals chose to take their own lives.

Whether or not terminally ill people are obligated to see their diseases through to the bitter end is a matter of personal opinion, and that’s another debate for another day. The thing that I took issue with after Brittany died was a comment posted by one of my Facebook contacts on a link to the story.

“Anyone who commits suicide is selfish.”

I was certain that I had seen the commenter’s name crop up in one of the discussions following the death of Robin Williams, so I started digging around in the bowels of her newsfeed. It took a while, but I found it: a statement to the effect that people really shouldn’t judge those to take their own lives without walking a mile in a depressed person’s shoes.

I’m not usually one to start a fight, but one thing I cannot stand is hypocrisy, and as an advocate for mental health awareness, I couldn’t just let it go. So I went back to the Brittany Maynard discussion and replied to her comment, reminding her of what she had said when Robin Williams died. She didn’t respond. Unfortunately, her comment about suicide being selfish was far from isolated.

I am left feeling somewhat disheartened. Did we learn nothing from the Robin Williams tragedy? If, three months later, people are spouting those cruel stereotypes that they previously vowed to help fight, how are we ever going to move forward? Will we ever be able to continue the discussions, or are we going to keep having to start the same discussions over and over again?

I don’t expect everyone to start posting endlessly about mental illness, but I would love to see it consistently treated with the same respect that is given to physical illness. I would love for people to feel able to talk about their experiences with mental illness without fear of embarrassment or shame. I would love to see the judgments and blame replaced with understanding and support.

And I would love to see more meaningful conversations that are not triggered by tragedy.

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. Photo credit: Victor. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.


What Do You Tell A Child When Another Child Dies?




Last weekend, I received word that a friend’s seven-year-old son, Luke, was in ICU after a near-drowning incident. I kept near-constant vigil at my computer during my waking hours, anxiously waiting for updates, and when I got the news that Luke had died, I took it very hard. As a human being, as a parent, as the mother of a seven-year-old boy – this tragedy hit very close to home.

As I have tried to make sense of the emotions that have been swilling around in my head all week, I have grappled with the question of what to tell my younger son, James.

The concept of death is not new to James. He got a rude introduction to it in Kindergarten, when his teacher died of pneumonia. The teacher had been very popular among the kids; James had absolutely adored him, and had a hard time understanding that he’d never see him again.

In the three years since then, he has developed a reasonably healthy attitude to the fact that people die. He asks about his grandfathers and how they died, and he talks about angels and souls and stuff like that. He is sad when people close to us die, but he accepts that it is part of the circle of life.

This is different, though. Old people dying is part of the circle of life. Children dying is an idea that just doesn’t fit. The mere thought of it has a jarring effect, as if you’re listening to soft classical music and hear a sudden blast of ear-splitting heavy metal. I wasn’t sure if James was ready to be introduced to this concept, especially since he had never met Luke.

Just as I had decided not to tell him, he came up to me as I was looking at a picture of Luke that his mother had posted on her Facebook wall. He asked me about the little boy in the picture, and I found myself telling him that Luke was now an angel. This led to a discussion that was hard for both of us.

For all his bull-in-a-china-shop approach to life, James is a sensitive child with a natural sense of empathy, and he was genuinely sad as he looked at Luke’s picture. He talked about how he’d never get to play with Luke, and he expressed concern for Luke’s mother.

“She must be so sad,” he said. “Is she going to be OK?”

I told him that yes, Luke’s mother was very sad, and I assured him that she had lots of people around her who would make sure she was OK.

There was a pause, and then he said, “Mommy, if I died, would you be OK?”

I couldn’t answer him. I was too busy trying to hold my rapidly dissolving composure. I just held him as close to me as I possibly could.

A few minutes later, his little voice piped up again.

“Mommy, I’m scared. Kids can die, and there are so many ways to die.”

This was a tough one. How was I going to strike the balance between realism and reassurance? I couldn’t say, “Don’t worry, it won’t happen to you or your brother”, especially since this whole discussion had arisen from an unexpected tragedy. And I couldn’t say, “Yes, accidents can happen at any time”, because that would freak the poor child out and make him afraid of leaving the house.

And so I decided to focus on probabilities. If we only cross the street when the pedestrian light is green, there’s far less chance of being hit by a car. If we don’t answer the door to strangers, they won’t kidnap us. If we eat the right foods and run around in the back yard every day, we will get sick less often and we’ll get better faster.

In other words, staying safe and healthy does not guarantee that something won’t happen, but it does vastly improve our chances. It’s good to be cautious and mindful of potential danger, but we have to live our lives.

As I spoke to James, his fears seemed to ease. Since then, he has returned to the topic a few times, and as hard as it is, I am glad that the original discussion opened a door for him to talk about a subject that is important.

Later on that day, James came up to me and said, “Mommy, I’m still sad for Luke’s mommy, but I’m not so worried about her anymore.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“Because Luke is still alive in her heart, and he can hug her from the inside.”

This is an original post by Kirsten Doyle. The picture of Luke is reproduced with the kind permission of Janice Zimmerman.



My Message To Runners


To my fellow runners,

There are no words to describe how I feel following the events in Boston yesterday. It hits very close to home for us runners. Our beloved sport – our refuge and escape, the thing that keeps many of us feeling safe and grounded when things are hard – has been targeted in such a violent way. This has affected the entire running community – not only the runners themselves, but race organizers and volunteers, and those people who make races truly special and memorable: the friends and family members who stand on the sidelines cheering us on as we race for the finish line.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for those of you who were there in Boston, running the race. To those of you who crossed the finish line, I hope that amid the chaos and the sadness and the shock, you can hold onto the fact that you accomplished something incredible. Don’t let the perpetrators of this terrible act take the victory away from you.

To those of you who were forced to abandon the race, I hope you will be able to return another day to finish what you started. The Boston Marathon will be back – I hope you will too. Claim that victory that you so richly deserve.

To those who were injured, whose loved ones were injured, who are now having to say goodbye to friends and family members who lost their lives, my heart breaks for you. You are all in my thoughts as you try to rebuild your lives, recover from the injuries and adjust to a whole different life.

The people who did this want us to be afraid. They want us to either abandon our races or approach finish lines with fear. They want us to give up.

Clearly, they underestimate our ability to band together  and fight back. They forget that we train our bodies and minds to accomplish great things no matter what obstacles lie in our way. They don’t factor in our stubbornness, our absolute determination to get ourselves across that finish line, no matter what.

Afraid? Don’t be ridiculous.

Let’s come back from this stronger than we’ve ever been before. Let’s train harder, race stronger and celebrate more joyously when we cross the finish line. Let’s make it clear that we will not let anyone bully us into hanging up our running shoes. Let’s make sure every race is full to capacity.

My friend Phaedra, who ran the Boston Marathon yesterday, said this: “A marathon is supposed to be about the triumph of the human spirit, not about senseless violence.”

We can and will make the human spirit rise up and lift us above this tragedy. The people with the bombs are cowards. We are the ones with the strength and courage.

And we are the winners.

Just another runner


How A Different Mindset May Save Lives

Everyone, it seems, has an opinion on what is or is not to blame for the Sandy Hook shooting.

I have seen arguments and statistics on both sides of the gun control debate. While I am not personally a fan of every man and his dog having a gun, I have to remind those pushing for gun control that this year we had two shooting sprees within a month of each other. In Toronto. Where there is gun control. On the other hand, countries with gun control do have fewer mass shootings than countries without it.

Then there’s the religion argument. Apparently, “keeping God in the schools” would solve the problem. I don’t mean to sound cynical – not much, anyway – but do proponents of this view really believe that saying the Lord’s Prayer before class every day would have stopped the perpetrator from doing this? Let’s also consider the fact that shootings of this nature rarely happen in secular countries where there is strong separation of church and state.

The shooter “may have” had autism and OCD. Really? Well, the shooter “may have” had hayfever. Does this mean we have to start perpetuating discrimination against people who have hayfever? Yes, the whole idea of autism being to blame is that ridiculous.

We need better access to mental health care. With that one, I think we’re getting closer to the root – or at least one possible root – of the problem. There are some people who are just inherently evil, and nothing we do short of incarcerating them or killing them will stop them from committing unspeakable acts. But there are people who are genuinely sick, who do not get the help they need, and who end up doing things like this. I am in no position to say whether the Sandy Hook shooter fell into this category – I am just making the point that mental illness, when left unchecked, can have terrible, tragic consequences.

Mental illness is like just about every other illness or condition on the face of the planet. The earlier it is detected and treated, the better. We could talk all day about how mental health facilities need to be more easily available to those who need them. Few would argue the validity of helping people who need to be helped.

But the challenge begins before the mentally ill person even gets to the point of discovering that the help they need may be hard to come by.

We live in a society that, say what you like, is not very accepting of mental illness. I mean that in a very literal sense: there is a deep-seated reluctance in many people to acknowledge that there is such a thing as mental illness. I have a list of mental health issues, including no less than four different kinds of depression. When I have tried to enlist the support of those around me like the websites say you should, I have been hit with stuff like this:

* “You’re depressed because you’re dwelling on the past.”

* “All you need to do is change your attitude.”

* “You need to have more consideration for your family.”

* “You need to choose to be happy.”

And my personal favourite:

* “You need to snap out of it.”

When people with mental illnesses are bombarded with messages like this, what are the chances of them actually being motivated to seek professional help? If someone has depression, anxiety, PTSD or any other mental illness, the last thing they need is for a doctor to tell them they are imagining it, or that they are somehow to blame. Many people in that position do not seek help because that is exactly the response they fear.

The truth is that mental illness is very real, and very frightening to those who experience it. It is not something that can be fixed through a simple change of attitude. You cannot just “snap out of it”. People who commit suicide are not, as many believe, “just thinking of themselves”. They have simply reached a point where they cannot see a way forward.

Just over a decade ago, when I was a new arrival in Canada, Toronto news was full of a terrible story about a woman who had leaped into the path of an oncoming subway train while holding her six-month-old baby. The baby died instantly, but the mother hung on in hospital for a while before succumbing to her injuries. The public was outraged. How could this woman have deprived her child of life? What kind of monster was she?

The story unfolded to reveal a woman who was so desperate that she didn’t know what to do. Following the birth of her child, she was caught in the grip of post-partum depression. She did not receive the help that she needed in spite of having told her nearest and dearest that she was depressed and frightened. They just didn’t understand the depths of the problem, and in all likelihood, she was too ashamed to go to a professional.

Do I condone what that mother did? No, of course not. I never think it is OK for someone to kill their child or anyone else. But having gone through post-partum depression (which, by the way, was untreated for over a year because I felt too ashamed to seek help), I can appreciate just how scared and depressed and absolutely hopeless she probably felt.

People with mental illnesses need to be encouraged to seek help for their conditions. In order to accomplish that, we need to change the way we think about mental illness. People who have mental health problems need to stop being told that it is “all in their head” or that they have the power to change things under their own steam. They need to be given the message that help is available to them and that there is no shame in seeking it out.

Reducing the stigma surrounding mental illness would not fix everything that is wrong with the world. It would not eliminate all tragedies. But there is a very good chance that it would save some lives.

(Photo credit: Steven de Polo. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


A Letter To My Sons


My boys, my heart, my life

To my dearest boys,

I was going to start this letter by telling you about the things that happened today, but it will be easy enough for you to find out if you are so inclined. Just Google today’s date – December 14, 2012 – and “Connecticut”. I am afraid that if I try to describe the events for you here, I will drown under the weight of my own sadness, and I won’t be able to tell you the stuff that you really need to know.

When you were newborn babies, I held you in my arms and promised you that I would give you the best life I possibly could. I would provide for you, support you in whatever you wanted to do and help you reach your full potential, whatever that might be. I would keep you safe and warm, and I would do everything I could to protect you from the uglier side of life.

But sometimes the uglier side of life kind of forces itself on us. People do things that are so unspeakably terrible that the effects penetrate to the deepest parts of our souls. It reminds us that sometimes we cannot protect the ones we love – sometimes we just have to do the best we can and then go on faith.

Today I feel like the luckiest mom in the world. When I got home from work today, you both came running at me, and I wrapped my arms around you and held you as close as I could. You hugged me back, kissed me on my cheek and told me you loved me. Right now, there are some parents who will never feel the warmth of their children’s hugs again.

We all spent some time romping around on my bed, telling jokes and wrestling with each other. I scolded you when you started jumping on the bed, all the while feeling immensely grateful that you are here for me to scold.

We went out to dinner, the four of us. We went to our usual restaurant, sat in our usual booth and ate the food we usually eat. We were all together – an intact, whole family. I thought of the families who have new gaps at their dinner tables and in their hearts.

As I sit here now, I am thinking about how tomorrow, I will finally get around to putting up the Christmas tree. I will be doing it with you boys, but instead of bossing you around about how to decorate the tree like I usually do, I am going to let you do it however you want.

You see, I get to decorate the Christmas tree with you. I will get to give you the Christmas presents I have bought you, unlike some families who have gifts hidden in their closets that will never be opened.

Right now as I write this, you are both in bed. You are supposed to be asleep, but one of you is trying to play with Lego quietly, and the other has a colouring book and crayons under the blankets with a flashlight. In a little while, I will go into each of your rooms and tell you to go to sleep.

While I am there, I will hug you tightly and tell you I love you.

With all my love, with all my heart, with everything I have.



Not All Facebook Shares Are Funny

I have something to gripe about today. What can I say? I woke up feeling cranky this morning – it seems like the perfect time for me to vent about something that’s actually been bothering me for a few days now.

Unless you’ve been orbiting outer space along with that thing that just landed on Mars, you will know that on July 20th, a man walked into a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado and opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 58. Although I know the name of the perpetrator (sorry, alleged perpetrator, to satisfy any legal-minded readers), he will forever remain nameless on my blog. Identifying him by name would feel too much like acknowledging him as a regular person, and I don’t feel inclined to give him that level of respect.

Yes, I know. Innocent until proven guilty and all that. But come on. The guy rigged his apartment with explosives with the intention of killing whoever happened to walk in. I keep hearing talk of possible mental illness, and stories about how everyone including the perpetrator had unrealistic expectations of him and made him snap. So what? Am I supposed to feel sorry for him? Let me just mention something to put that idea into perspective.

12 people dead. 58 people injured. God alone knows how many people who will struggle with heart-wrenching grief and/or PTSD for the rest of their lives.

Anyway. I find myself digressing from my original gripe before I’ve even gotten to it.

The media published pictures of the perpetrator making his first court appearance. We all remember the shot: a dazed-looking man with inexplicable hair seated beside his public defender.

That picture does not bother me. However, the knock-off picture that has started making its lightning-quick rounds on Facebook does. In this picture, the perpetrator is Photoshopped out, and a children’s character with standing-up red hair is Photoshopped in. As troublesome as the picture are all of the “LOL”-type comments that have been added to it.

I’m sorry, is this supposed to be funny?

It probably would be funny if this guy had shoplifted, or been involved in a protest, or been caught driving down the highway at 200 miles an hour.

But he didn’t. He killed people in cold blood.

Here’s the thing about Facebook: just about everyone is on it. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that most of the people who were in the theatre that night have seen that picture. So have friends and family of the deceased.

What goes through their minds when they see what amounts to a caricature of the person responsible for causing such devastation in their lives? How does it make them feel to know that people are seeing said caricature and having a giggle over it? Sure, it could be argued that the laughs are at the expense of the perpetrator, but I wonder if the people affected are capable of seeing it that way.

What do you think of all this? Am I right in thinking that this is all somewhat insensitive to people who have already lost so much? Or do I need to just lighten up a little?

(Photo credit: B.Frahm. This picture has a creative commons attribution license.)


Life And Death: No Laughing Matter

People are already making jokes about it.

The first news stories about the untimely death of 27-year-old musician Amy Winehouse started circulating less than an hour before I started writing this post. Within about ten minutes of me first hearing the news, fan pages started to pop up on Facebook.

Amy Winehouse is dead, at least theres enough drugs about for everyone now (with a smiley face emoticon at the end)

Police say that winehouse’s death was unexplained LOL, at that point they were probably stoned on the drugs in her <profanity>

Screw Amy Winehouse, she was a druggy and had death lined up for her

Amy Winehouse is dead…..HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH

Now, I don’t know much about Amy Winehouse. I don’t exactly fall into the demographic that stays up-to-date on popular music. However, I do know that she was insanely talented, even though her music wasn’t really to my taste. I know that she was plagued by substance abuse problems. I know that she was young and had a lot of life ahead of her, and that she had tons of potential within her.

I know that her death is unspeakably sad.

These jokes that are circulating, these fan pages that are being set up, and the derision with which some people are treating this story, is a sad statement about how people have become so desensitized to tragedy that they can have a good laugh about it before the deceased has even started to cool down.

Or maybe it’s nothing new. This is not the first time I’ve heard jokes about a tragedy soon after its occurrence: the space shuttle Challenger disaster, and the death of Mozambican president Samora Machel in a plane crash, both of which happened in 1986, are cases in point.

I wonder why this is, why there are people can make light of events like this. One theory is that they just don’t know how else to deal with news of tragedy. There is some credence to this idea, and I saw it in action on the day my father-in-law died. There was a mix-up that resulted in the wrong funeral home attempting to collect his body from the hospital, and when my mother-in-law heard about this, she made a joke about the funeral homes fighting over her husband’s dead body, and she laughed heartily. I believe that allowing a chink of humour into the day was a way for her to cope with the initial shock of being widowed after almost fifty years of marriage.

In the case of more widespread disasters, I believe that sometimes people make jokes simply because they don’t know how else to process the information.9/11. Hurricane Katrina. The tsunamis in Thailand and Japan. The Haiti earthquake.

Sometimes, though, people are just plain insensitive. They don’t feel any empathy either for the deceased or for the newly bereaved loved ones. Or  – and Amy Winehouse’s death is an example of this – they somehow rationalize that because the person lived in a certain way that they do not agree with, it is OK that he or she died.

Here’s my thought on all of this: Yes, Amy Winehouse was a celebrity – a colourful one with a controversial life, at that – and therefore her life was, to an extent, public property. And yes, she seems to have died in an Elvis-like manner that is bound to attract a lot of attention and speculation.

But above all, she was a human being with hopes and dreams and feelings and loved ones. The fact that she had substance abuse problems does not mean she deserved to die. It does not mean it is OK that she died. Her life – and her death – deserve the same respect as anyone else’s. Her family and friends should be able to grieve for their lost loved one without the world making public fun of it all.

I hope against hope that we as a society can somehow regain some of the humanity and compassion that seems to have eroded.

(Photo credit: