Friday, August 21, 2009

Surviving a Child's Suicide

I don't know whether anyone who reads this blog has lost a child to suicide. (If you have, I wish you would identify yourself as a reader, even if only anonymously, and/or only by email.) I do know that at least one person has lost a beloved cousin to suicide, and several others have children who have died due to other causes.

Not being too sure about the audience, I think I may be posting the following mostly for myself, although any parent who has lost a child will recognize at least some of it. Much of it I have mused about in my own words (for instance, in the Five Things posts), but it's helpful to see it all in one place. And perhaps that helpfulness extends to family and friends who may wish to know more.

I have been thinking about how few people approach me directly irl. I am hard pressed to explain the fact that I go to seminary, an educational institution in which I am surrounded by pastors and would-be pastors, and I can count on the fingers of my two hands the number of people who have taken the initiative to speak to me about my son. I suppose I am a scary person. Either I am a totally crazy and horrific excuse for a person and a mother ~ how else to explain the lost child? ~ or I am just what I seem and just what most of my peers and professors are, a reasonably nice person, an ordinary combination of good and bad, a mother who could not help herself from passionately loving and conscientiously attending to her children ~ an even more frightening possibility, because that would mean that this could happen to anyone.

At any rate, some possibly useful information:

Surviving Your Child's Suicide


The suicide of a child of any age presents unique circumstances that intensify and prolong the mourning of parents and family members. Suicide is a reaction to overwhelming feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and depression. It usually occurs when a person´s pain exceeds his or her resources and ability to cope. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 10-14 year-olds, the third leading cause among 15-24 year-olds, and the second leading cause among 25-34 year-olds.

While mental illness plays a role in many suicides, not everyone who dies by suicide is mentally ill. Many families endure the frustration caused by the child requiring years of hospitalizations and medications. Other families encounter only brief periods of conflict or worry, while some experience none at all. Sometimes there are warning signs of the person´s intentions. However, clues may be so disguised that even a trained professional or counselor may not recognize them. Occasionally there are no discernible signs, and the child´s suicide becomes a catastrophic decision that can never be understood or resolved.

One change now occurring is in the language of suicide. The terms "died by suicide," "died from suicide," and "died of suicide" are being adopted rather than the harsh "committed suicide," the language of an earlier era that carries a stigma of criminality so often offensive to families whose children have taken their own lives. Denial and feelings of shock, guilt, anger, and depression are often a normal part of grief reactions, but are especially heightened when a child has died by suicide. Though difficult to accept, it is not unusual to experience feelings of relief if the relationship with the child was stressful or destructive to the family unit.

The suicide of one´s child raises painful questions, doubts, and fears. The knowledge that your love was not enough to save your child and the fear that others will judge you to be an unfit parent may raise powerful feelings of failure. Realize that as a parent you gave your child what makes us human -- the positives and the negatives -- and what your child did with that information was primarily your child´s decision.

It isn't uncommon for newly bereaved parents to express thoughts of suicide, regardless of how their child has died. Remember that suicide is not inherited. Be patient with yourself and your family, and seek professional help and family counseling if necessary. The stigma often associated with suicide is the result of cultural and religious interpretations of an earlier day. You will find it difficult to progress in your bereavement unless you confront the word suicide, difficult as it may be. Keeping the cause of death a secret will deprive you of the joy of speaking about your child and may isolate you from family and friends who want to support you. Rather than focusing on the stigma surrounding suicide, concentrate on your own healing and survival.

You may feel anger. It may be directed at your child, those you believe failed to help your child, God, those who try to help you, or just the world in general. You may be angry with yourself because you were unable to save your child. It´ s okay to express anger, a common emotion when a child has died by suicide. Sometimes healing cannot begin until this anger is confronted and expressed. However, a healthy expression of anger does not include hurting yourself or others.

Feelings of guilt following a child´s suicide are normal-for parents and family, friends, classmates, and even coworkers. "If only" is a phrase you may find yourself repeating frequently. You may need to feel guilty for a while until you begin to understand that you are not ultimately responsible for the decisions and actions of another human being, including your child. Sometimes you need to go through a feeling to get beyond it. Believe in yourself. You are human-accept your limitations.

Some parents feel a need to ask "why?" Often, of course, there are no clear answers, which often proves highly frustrating for parents and other family members. After some time you may reach a point where you begin to realize that there are some questions about the death of your child that will never be answered.

Lack of energy, sleep problems, inability to concentrate, not wanting to talk with others, and the feeling there is nothing to live for are all normal reactions in bereavement. Situational depression, as opposed to clinical depression, should eventually wear off. You can fight this type of depression with moderate physical activity, plenty of rest, and a good diet. Allow family and friends to take care of you. You don´t have to be strong. Maintain contact with persons you value. Talking with others who have been through a similar situation may help you to cope. You may even learn from them that it is okay to laugh and smile, even though this seems impossible now. If the depression does not appear to lessen over time, you may want to talk with a qualified professional who can determine how best to help you.

Often parents find themselves in a spiritual crisis and question their beliefs or feel betrayed by God. Religious concerns about the hereafter also surface. "Why did God let this happen?" is a question we can no more answer than all other questions about imperfections in this world. Talking about spiritual and philosophical questions with other parents who have experienced a suicide may be helpful. For those with concerns of a spiritual nature, do try to find a gentle, nonjudgmental member of your faith and open yourself to that person.

As a family, talk about the death with one another; discuss your loss and your pain. Talk about the good times you remember, as well as those times that were not so good. All family members will be grieving in their own manner-don´t criticize because of these differences. Remember that it is better to express feelings than to internalize them and that crying is healthy and therapeutic. You may find it helpful to write out your feelings or to write a letter to your dead child, expressing all the things you were not able to say before the death. For many, this is a good way to say good-bye. Allow friends to help. When they ask what they can do for you, don´t be afraid to tell them of your needs and what will help you. It will also help them.

Consider becoming involved with a self-help bereavement group such as The Compassionate Friends. Through sharing with others who have walked the same path, you may gain some understanding of your reactions and learn ways to cope. Seek professional help and family counseling if necessary. Give yourself time, time, and more time. It takes months, even years, to open your heart and mind to healing. Choose to survive and then be patient with yourself. In time, your grief will soften as you begin to heal, and you will feel like investing in life again.

© The Compassionate Friends, USA - All rights reserved


Anonymous said...

There is another phase that adds additional layers--"police assisted suicide".

Joan Calvin said...

For me, anyway, I don't know what to say. Yes, I am a pastor, I should know. Would it be helpful to talk? Would it be helpful not to talk? Is it helpful to even ask?

I am thankful that I have grown to know you. I am thankful that you have shared your journey with me. I am sorry you are on this journey. I am sorry that your son is not physically by your side.

Presbyterian Gal said...

While not the horror you experienced, my corner of life ick has shown me that bad things happening to good people is not pretty. And most people want to deal with only what is pretty on a daily basis. And so they don't help by talking with you about it. I could be incorrect in this, but it's happened so often from fine, decent people that I have no other deductions.

You are brave and good for sharing these things with us. And it certainly confirms, IMO, why you are going to be a blessed pastor. Why, you already are.

karengberger said...

This is very helpful. Thank you.

I can't see how anyone could judge a death by suicide in any way but with compassion for the one who has passed, and for his family, who live on with the pain and the questions. The death of any child is horrific, no matter their age. Sending love to you.

Karen and Joe said...

I am so glad you wrote this today. There is a dearth of information on this subject, and an unhelpful silence in the culture at large. It's hard enough to educate people on the long-term impact of grief, and the suicide side of it carries even more ignorance. It truly needs to come out of the closet.

Those in the helping professions (pastors and me,too) are generally untrained and are disappointingly unaware of how to support a family through grief, let alone the added layer of suicide. So the word needs to be said, and we all need to grow to understand the specific suffering that attends the loss of a beloved child in this way.

Gannet Girl, you are blessed with a double dose of courage, and you are good at speaking truth in love. Because of that you, as a by-product, help that cause just by sharing your thoughts and feelings and experience. I am here to learn. I thank you for being a teacher even while you are learning your way through the most tragic and personal subject of your life.

One thing I just need to say is that neither you, nor your precious family, are to blame for your beautiful boy losing his ability to see. It's a broken world-- it can happen to anybody.

My heart hurts so much for you and I pray for you all every day.
Love, Karen

Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

It is generous of you to post this to try to reach others dealing with this horrible grief.

Rev SS said...

I have not had children of my own ... I have lost a very close friend, and a member of the youth group that was under my supervision to death by suicide, and have witnessed the behavior you mention, and so agree with above comments. Prayers continue.

Daisy said...

As Ruth noted in an above comment, you are generous to share this information, GG. Thank you again.


Carol said...

Thank you, GG.

Anonymous said...

my cousin committed suicide when I was 20... it shocked me because we had just seen each other at Thanksgiving...

and now my best friend's daughter (who has tried twice) is back in a ward where they are trying once again to "fix" her meds. And all I can do is listen and weep with her.

I have no wise words. Just tears.

Law+Gospel said...

I have not lost a child to the grief of suicide. I have lost three friends and two uncles, the most recent being my mother's twin. I have followed your journey and give thanks for your gift of communicating the many emotions and questions. Your writing has been in many ways a grace and for you I offer the deepest prayers- some way too deep for words.

Anonymous said...

I feel so terribly sorry for your loss. I am on the verge of relating. I am the mother of a 17 year old who has been threatening suicide since she was 13. It's been an on going battle with doctors, therapists and psychiatrists. She is an amazingly bright and gifted child who has big dreams and aspirations but completely lacks the discipline to work towards them. She begs for my help and as always I help and all that comes from my help, even when I do exactly what she asks, is how I have continued to ruin her life. All of the weight of blame rests on my shoulders. She takes zero responsibility. So here I sit, each day waiting for her to follow through with her threat, so worried and feeling like a failure that I too often contemplate ending my life just to stop the relentless misery she inflicts upon me.I don't know how a parent survives the self inflicted death of a child, all I do know is that I will not be one of them.

Gannet Girl said...

Dear Anonymous Mom of 17yod: I hope that you see this. Not because I have brilliant words of advice, or even useless words of advice, because I have none. I just want you to know that your pain and frustration and fear are heard. That is the only thing that has helped me -- to be really heard -- and so I know that all I can do is try to pass that particular gift on. And to urge you to try to be one of the survivors.

Anonymous said...

I have recently found your blog and I am so grateful. I too lost my son to suicide four years ago. He was just 21 years old. Every day since then has been a struggle to go on, trying to find a reason to keep breathing. I'm not sure I've had a coherent thought for four years. I do know that I don't let a day go by without saying his name out loud to someone, anyone who will listen. Thank you for your words, thanks for listening.