Several years ago I was invited to speak in a psychology class at SDSU on youth suicide. At the time, suicide was the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds.
I personally doubted that statistic as traffic accidents were in second place and those often seemed to me to be the result of self destructive behavior. Nevertheless, the rates were extraordinarily high compared to earlier ages. They have only gotten worse since. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in that age group.
This SDSU psychology class was a large one held in one of the largest lecture halls at the university. I decided to begin my presentation by polling the class. I asked how many of them, if they were contemplating suicide or had a friend who was expressing suicidal thoughts, would contact a counselor. One or two hands went up. How many would share this with a teacher? One or two hands went up. How many would tell a parent or other adult in the extended family? One or two hands went up.
How many would share this with a member of the clergy? No hands went up. How many would tell a friend or classmate? Almost the whole class, some eighty persons, raised their hands.
So here we had a group of people, almost all in the 15 to 24 year age group, saying the only people they might share suicidal thoughts with were others in their same age group, perhaps struggling with similar issues. Where were the adults in their life?
Serving a small rural church in South Dakota for many years, I was able to observe and appreciate the intergenerational relationships in that community. The children who didn’t have a grandmother at home had one at church.
Many had an aunt or uncle just down the street or at a farm within walking distance. The whole town turned out for high school graduation and all the adults present knew all the young people graduating. They had taught them in church school, watched them play basketball, worked with them helping a sick neighbor bring in the harvest, sat next to them at a community potluck. This was an intergenerational community where young and old lived, worked and learned together.
My grandmother lived with us. She was the child-care person in our home when both of my parents were working or needed to be away. She was always available.
She was always caring and welcoming. She was a listening ear and a caring hug when I was not happy with my parents, usually because they were not happy with me and my behavior. She was a confidant who I could trust with personal issues I might not feel comfortable sharing with my parents. Living in an extended family, under the same roof, offered me some benefits as a child and as I became a young person.
Through the ages and in many different societies, the grandparents have been the culture carriers. They have passed on to the grandchildren the important precepts and traditions of the past, helping prepare the grandchildren for the future. Otherwise, how would the children know where they were going if they didn’t know where they had come from?
Kent Nerburn has written a little book called “Voices in the Stones.” In it he has a chapter called “The Feast.” He’s at a Native American feast where he watches several young girls prepare plates of food for the elders present and serve them first. The young keep their eyes on their elder throughout the meal, making sure they meet the need for a coffee cup refilled or a second helping. He reflects on how in the Native American culture the young and the old need to be honored, as they are both “closest to the Creator.”
The young and the old have a lot to share with each other. One Native woman tells Nerburn, “We look to the children to learn what we have forgotten and to the elders to remind us of who we will become.”
Especially in our time, when many families consist of working parents and latch-key children, extended family relationships can be critical. In some urban and suburban settings, we hear of families building cottages in the back yard for aging parents, They have a separate space but ready access to grandchildren. Many could benefit from such relationships and the extended family is one option for intergenerational bonding.
Another option is organizations like the Brookings County Youth Mentoring Project. It pairs adults with young people, one on one, who might appreciate that intergenerational relationship. In other communities there are Big Brother, Big Sister organizations.
The point is, we can encourage and provide child and elder relationships. There are so many who need them and so many others who would benefit from them. As Tina Ambani says, “I was the youngest of nine siblings ... I lost my father when I was just 13. For me, the elders have been my gods.”