Grief, loss, and hardship unaddressed can often lead to serious depression and illness.
“It’s a matter of not giving up. So literature for me has been one of the foundation stones on which I’ve had to work through, losing my son James, and also working through growing up as a young boy in a violent household,” Dr Kevin Donnelly confessed.
Kevin was discussing his book about depression, ‘Taming the Black Dog’ in which he reveals his personal experiences following the death of his only son James in a hit and run accident. He also talks a little about his tough home life.
Kevin, one of Australia’s leading education authors and commentators who appears regularly on radio and TV, spoke on Vision Radio’s 20Twenty program recently about his battle with depression following the loss of his son.
Three strong words dominated Kevin’s first comments – depression, self-harm and suicide. Essentially Dr Kevin Donnelly’s approach was to focus on the problem of depression and its impact on boys and men.
“There’s a real risk especially for young boys and men not able to cope with adversity, loss or suffering,” Kevin highlighted before commenting on how people respond with typical one liners such as, ‘we need to be more resilient, bounce back, or get on with life’. Not true.
“But after losing James in a hit and run accident nearly 15 years ago now, I really started to think it’s not as easy as people like to make out,” Kevin stated.
“For me, being a Catholic and raised as a Christian, I realised that drawing on the Bible and a small book by Julian of Norwich I was able to start to work through the issue.”
“In the book Taming the Black Dog, apart from being a Catholic and having faith, I talk about literature, music, art, and the love and companionship of family and friends, because grief is something we can’t do by ourselves,” Kevin admitted before reflecting on his working class upbringing.
Dr Kevin Donnelly said the backgrounder to Taming the Black Dog began when he was attending Broadmeadows High School in Melbourne. He said his dad was an alcoholic and quite violent at times.
“There was some domestic violence but the education at school provided an avenue where I could start to deal with the issues associated with suffering and loss,” Kevin said, as he revealed his fondness for fables, legends and myths.
“Whether it was Greek fables, legends about the Vikings, or The Iliad and The Odyssey, it was American writer Joseph Campbell who said that in that literature you’re able to encounter adversities, difficulties, and suffering.”
“But through the journey of the hero you identify with that person, whether it’s a man or a woman.”
“And as Joseph Campbell points out you start to understand that no matter how bad things are, if you have the strength and the resilience to fight on it’s possible to overcome adversity,” Kevin shared, confirming it was through literature he was able to understand that to be human was to be prone to suffering and loss.
“But again it’s a matter of not giving up. So literature for me has been one of the foundation stones on which I’ve had to work through losing James, and also working through growing up as a young boy in a violent household,” Kevin Donnelly confessed as he expressed his love for language and his vocation as English teacher, which enable him to write the books.
“Writing the book Taming the Black Dog in a way was therapeutic as well. It might be a caricature that Australian men don’t show their emotions. But when I read history and look at the Anzacs, my father’s generation and what they went through, the Second World War and The Depression, there is an element in the Australian male character that can be sensitive and emotional,” Kevin said.
“The danger for many men is they don’t recognize that or allow it to be seen by others, so writing the book was one way I could demonstrate that it’s OK to be sensitive and emotional,” Kevin testified, admitting he almost called the book Broady Boys Do Cry.
Dr Donnelly explained what he meant by balance in the light of the growing numbers of males today who are pouring out their hearts on the internet via the likes of Instagram, Facebook or UTube.
“We need to balance that with having the inner strength and not to over indulge by being too sentimental about it,” Kevin said.
Kevin Donnelly shared about his own personal grief fifteen years ago when his son was killed in a hit and run and whose body was abandoned on the side of a road. His immediate reaction when told about the tragedy was one of physical shock.
“In a sense you haven’t had time to process what’s happened. So for us, Julia, Amelia and I, we sat down, we were shocked, we were overcome by a sense of fear, uncertainty, of not knowing why, or where, or when,” Kevin said, as he described the awful discovery of his son’s death.
He said the physical reaction can be from hours to a day or two.
“But then to see James in the hospital and having to identify his body, you then understand it is real, it has happened and there’s nothing that can be done to change that,” Kevin said, before mentioning he was really moved when their daughter Amelia quoted a line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, ‘May angels sing thee to thy rest’ and said they felt a sense of prayer.
“We also felt that James, whose body was obviously there before us, but his soul had moved on to a world that we would hope was one where he would be with God.”
“Then when we had the funeral service there was a very strong element of grief there as well,” Kevin recalled.
“In terms of grief there are different stages. Physical, loss, numbness. Then refusal, not wanting to accept it, then a sense of anguish and grief, we cried a lot, we comforted one another a lot, and over time, anger against the person who committed the crime in hitting James in the hit and run accident and leaving him by the side of the road,” Kevin said.
“And after some time working through the legal system, wanting to get justice and a sense of retribution against the person who had caused that was also made to suffer the consequences,” Kevin stated before admitting that over many years came a sense of acceptance and that life has moved on.
“The loss will never be resolved or forgotten. The memory of James is with us every day. But that initial burning of pain and grief mellows with time, and also with prayer, and an understanding that if you’ve not suffered you’ve won the lottery, and it is part of life,” Kevin said.
Dr Kevin Donnelly said that all people generally at some stage in their life will have to deal with grief.
20Twenty host Neil Johnson noted 11 points Kevin made in the book Taming the Black Dog, of how grief can potentially lead a person into depression with the different stages of loss. These include shock anger denial anguish weariness resignation and acceptance.
Kevin said it makes a great deal of difference handling grief if you have a strong faith. He then told a story that’s written in the book.
“My father was in the communist party of Australia and on Tuesdays he would take us to the Eureka Youth Movement. This was the young communist party,” Kevin informed, saying thankfully his mum was a very good Catholic.
“It was mass on Sunday, baptism, communion, confirmation. And as a young boy we’d go to mass then every night we prayed.”
“I knew enough about the Bible. That Jesus suffered for us and to be human we were born into a world where there is suffering and loss. And there is evil frankly and there’s temptation,” Kevin declared, saying his mother taught him that you have a choice in life, to either listen to the bad angel or the good angel.
“Although that may seem childish, it was a very powerful message because it teaches each one of us that we do have choices in life, that we are made in God’s image and that we can draw strength through that realisation.”
Dr Kevin Donnelly AM taught for 18 years in government and non-government schools after attending Broadmeadows High and Melbourne High and graduating from La Trobe University in 1974.
He is one of Australia’s leading education authors and commentators and Director of Melbourne-based Education Standards Institute.
Kevin writes on a regular basis for Australia’s print media, including: The Australian, the Herald Sun, the Courier Mail, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. He also appears regularly on radio and TV.
Previous books include Why our Schools are Failing, Dumbing Down: the Impact of the Culture Wars on our Schools, Australia’s Education Revolution and Educating Your Child: It’s Not Rocket Science.
Kevin has also contributed chapters to a number of books on education and public policy issues including: What if?, The Greens: Policies, Reality and Consequences, Really Dangerous Ideas, Future Proofing Australia and Turning Left or Right: Values in Modern Politics.
After growing up in Broadmeadows Kevin now lives in Surrey Hills (Victoria) and is married to Julia and children include James and Amelia. Pastimes include travelling to Indo China, enjoying Australian wine, shopping at the Victoria market, walking with Julia and reading biographies and making homemade pasta and pizza.