When a Suicide Attempt Hits Close to Home

A column by Adrian Jawort about the attempted suicide of his stepdaughter.

The reasons one would take their own life_especially when they’re young—is an area I hope to bring awareness to so others may not have to deal with the anguish of having a loved one pass away by their own hand.

A few days after Father’s Day and a week after her birthday, my 14-year-old daughter tried to take her life. Fortunately, she was taken to the hospital in time and was saved.

Looking at baby pictures when she was smiling with all of her little heart because she was next to Daddy, one couldn’t help but wonder how she could come to such a drastic decision stemming from feeling so hopeless.

Statistically speaking, the northern Montana reservation she resides on is frequently rife with some of the highest suicide rates in the nation. So figure the initial suicide impression that clouded her brain stemmed from the reality that she’s likely known others who’ve tried or committed the act.

Most suicides and attempts by young people are usually impulsive decisions, and 14-year-olds can certainly be impulsive. Other typical theories of why there are high suicide rates on Indian reservations are substance abuse, historical trauma and extinguished thoughts of a better future that come from living in a poverty-stricken rural area. No individual case of child suicide is ever so readily explained though. Intellectualized theories of suicide causes and speculations about statistics certainly weren’t on my daughter’s mind as she struggled with her own personal demons.

I can’t be naïve to myself and pretend to not personally know some reasons why she didn’t consider that tomorrow would be a better day. Like perhaps many parents of suicides, I can’t help but take some blame, so I write this with a heavy heart.

I’m not her biological father, but I was there for her since the day she was born. She was 4 when we took a DNA test, and I was a 22-year-old student. When lab results confirmed she wasn’t scientifically mine, I cried myself to sleep that day. The relationship between her mother and me never did work out, but we maintained an agreement to have dual custody. But after a custody disagreement arose a couple of years ago, I was left with little to no guardianship rights because she wasn’t mine biologically.

Nevertheless, she’ll always call me “Dad,” and I’ll always be honored when she does. Single mothers have told me there are too many so-called fathers out there who don’t even care to be there for their own children—let alone someone else’s. They admire that I so readily consider her my own. To me, it’s simply the Cheyenne way to never abandon our little ones, no matter what tribe or color they are. Although I didn’t personally create her, the Great Spirit did it for me as a gift.

I strive hard to be a positive influence and always fret about her education, but being 250 miles away hasn’t made it easier. She started getting into legal trouble last year, and wanted to stay with me to get away from some of the negative influences around her. It was a cry for help, and only her daddy could protect her. It just wasn’t feasible for her to live with me legally, however, and I felt powerless as I could only pray for her from afar.

So when I heard she tried to take her life, my darkest subconscious concern related to her depression had finally manifested. Maybe I should’ve called her more just to make her laugh and let her know Daddy loves and thinks about her every day. I should’ve stayed in better touch with her mother so we could’ve eventually organized more-frequent visits. Perhaps she felt displaced after the arrival of my new daughter three years ago, and I should’ve reassured her more that she’ll always be my baby girl, too.

People tell not to dwell on self-defeating “should’ve” scenarios. Just be thankful she’s okay. They’re probably right. But being only human, the remorse I didn’t do all I could to protect my baby lingered until I re-read a poem she wrote awhile back:

I’m the sweetest thing that

Ever happened in my parent’s life

If I didn’t have my Dad I wouldn’t have that German name Jawort

It’s in my blood and I’m proud of who my Dad is….

What a blessing and precious girl she is. Reading those words gave me renewed strength in knowing we’ll all work through this episode together and come out a stronger family. It is in our blood. In the meanwhile, hug your children extra tight right now and make sure they know how much you love them.

A lifelong Montana resident, Adrian Jawort is a freelance journalist, writer, and poet. A proud member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe, he is a frequent contributor to Indian Country Today Media Network as well as Native Peoples, Cowboys & Indians, and many other publications. He also has a novel due out later this year.