I recently passed the one year anniversary of my 19 year old son’s death by suicide. In that time I’ve experienced the rollercoaster of emotions you would expect someone in my shoes to endure.
This journey has been complicated by the creation of a mental health awareness initiative inspired by my son’s efforts while alive. By being so open about his struggles (and the fact that I was so clueless about them), I have welcomed a slew of invited and uninvited conversations with other parents who are also grieving the loss of a child to suicide or struggling to support a child who has attempted suicide.
Further, I have discovered many more families who are suffering that I don’t know or have not been able to reach out to. In some cases it’s just a matter of there being too many of them and too few of me. In others, it’s either too soon for them or too painful for me. Yet there is so much I want to say and share with them.
That is why I’m writing this particular post. It’s for all you parents who are grieving the loss of a child to suicide or those who are attempting to support grieving family and friends. If I don’t have the chance to speak to you personally, here’s what I want you to know.
A Letter to Parents Surviving a Child’s Suicide
There Is No Timeline
The first bit of insight I wish to share is that there is no timeline for this journey that you’re on. If you’re a planner, throw that attitude out the window. If you’re looking for an agenda of what to expect, when, and how to do it, you’ll be disappointed.
Understand that you’ve been put on a journey that has no end but it will continue to move forward. Each day will bring new challenges, new surprises, and new moments of clarity and even joy. Yes, even joy.
Don’t set yourself up for further anguish and frustration by expecting to do this on a timeline. Know that you’re on a journey unique to you and that while it may be rocky, each day does gets a little better.
There Is No Right Answer
“Why did this happen?”
If you have not asked this question yet, you will.
If you knew your child was suffering you’ll want to know why you couldn’t stop him from taking his life. If you didn’t know, you’ll want to know why she did it or why you didn’t recognize it. There are probably many other questions you’re seeking answers to.
Simply put, there’s no right answer.
Know that people who have been diagnosed with depression or who have attempted suicide in the past have died by suicide. Know that those who have been seeing a counsellor and taking various medications have also taken their lives. So for those of you who did not know your child was suffering, know that even if you did, you may not have been able to prevent the tragedy.
So for those of you who did not know your child was suffering, know that even if you did, you may not have been able to prevent the tragedy.
On the other hand, there are those who have attempted suicide once, twice, or more times that have never attempted it again and live seemingly happy, normal lives (although often aided by medication and/or counselling).
The point is there is no answer to those questions. It’s OK to ask them or feel the frustration but don’t beat yourself up thinking you could have done something to prevent it. You may have or you may not have – you won’t know.
Understand that people who died by suicide were ill and that the illness eventually took them. It’s similar to having a child suffering from cancer; even when it’s detected and treated, you can’t guarantee that they won’t eventually lose their battle with the disease.
I Give You Permission
I give you permission to smile or laugh if you find something that encourages you to do so. I also give you permission to cry and shout if that’s what you’re feeling at that moment.
For quite some time I was conflicted by the mixed emotions I was experiencing. The day after I learned about my son’s death someone recounted a story that was quite funny and I laughed out loud among a room full of people somberly mourning my son’s passing. I immediately felt embarrassed for the outburst; how dare I laugh at such a time.
In the weeks and months after his death, I would talk about or share a picture of me going about my life, be it enjoying a soccer game or taking a needed vacation from life. In a few instances I felt guilty for allowing the public to see that I went on living or guilty that I was living. That guilt was compounded by others criticizing me for doing so – or for doing so publicly.
What took me a long time to realize – and what I want you to know – is that while I felt that I needed permission from others to laugh, cry, or live my life, I really didn’t. If you’re feeling that way, I’m giving you permission. As a survivor, I give you permission to smile, laugh, and live – if you feel like it.
Walk Your Path, Accept Your Spouse’s Path
There a number of studies that point to the fact that a majority of couples who experience the loss of a child end up in divorce court. Some point to the feelings of guilt or isolation, the inability to resolve the loss of their child with the perceived “natural order of things” or, most often, the inability to manage the complicated trauma and grieving process each parent experiences.
The key is to quickly understand that each parent will experience the grief differently and his or her reactions will be unique to them. If you look at your spouse and think “how can he do that?” or “why isn’t she doing this?” understand that they’re thinking the same about you.
You must experience the journey in a way that gives you the peace of mind and therapy you require and he or she must do the same. That journey will be completely different for each of you and more often than not, may seem at odds with one another.
Give yourself permission to deal with your grief and mourning in your way and give him or her latitude to follow their journey without judgement or timeline.
Be Kind to Yourself
I felt like I needed to be there for my wife, my daughter, my parents, my son’s friends, and everyone else. I needed to “be normal” for my daughter and keep working for the sake of my business and employees. I had to be strong.
What I discovered quickly is that I could be of no use to anyone without first allowing myself to be kind to me. I needed to allow myself some personal time to simply enjoy something – anything – that would give my brain and heart a break from the pain.
For me, it was something as simple as allowing myself to take the time to do something that I loved but rarely did, like attend live soccer matches or watch my favourite teams play on television. I embraced a passion I had my entire life but rarely allowed myself the time to enjoy. That was just a few hours each week but it made a difference.
Within 6 months my wife and I took an unplanned quiet vacation to Jamaica, again, in order to take a breather from everyone and everything. Some thought it odd that we could vacation while mourning our son but it was a necessary kindness we afforded ourselves that helped us along our journey.
Find a Support Group
My wife and I have experienced our grief differently, yet there is one thing we will agree to: Joining a support group of peers who have experienced the loss of a family member to suicide was one of the best things we could have done.
We met with grief counselors immediately after our loss, which was OK but did not have a lasting effect on moving us along our journey. We spoke to friends who were all genuinely trying to help us – and we appreciated them – but could not find the release we required.
It wasn’t until we joined a suicide survivor’s support group that our healing began. Being surrounded by others who truly understand the myriad of emotions unique to the survivors left behind in a suicide is amazing therapy.
Listening to others share their journeys can be difficult but also cathartic. Sharing your own story is never easy but when you look into the eyes of other parents and see that they *really* understand you; a feeling of calm comes over you…and you’ll find yourself wanting to share more and more.
The loss of a child to suicide is so unique that even you’ll find it difficult to relate to those who have lost their children to physical illness or accidents. In fact, many like us don’t want to speak to others for fear of judgement. I get it.
Bereaved parents support groups are useful but where possible, find a support group of suicide survivors.
Being “OK” is Exhausting
At some point you’ll go back to work. You’ll eventually start participating in group activities, you’ll be out in public again. People will ask “how are you?” but you will know they don’t really want to know the answer. They care and they want to help but they don’t wan’t to hear your answer, you’ll see it their eyes or how they fidget when they see you coming. It’s not that they don’t want to help or listen, they just won’t know how to respond.
You’ll not share what you’re feeling when you want to crumble into their arms and cry for half an hour.
So you’ll say you’re “OK” when you’re the exact opposite. You’ll not share what you’re feeling when you want to crumble into their arms and cry for half an hour. You’ll go on with your day, pretending to be OK.And when you get home from work at 6:00 PM you’ll be ready for bed, utterly exhausted and spent. Being OK is freakin’ exhausting. It has been one of the most emotionally taxing experiences for me this entire year. Even now, over a year later, when I give a 15 minute or 60 minute presentation to kids or parents about mental health, I need to sleep for 18 hours to recuperate.
Allow yourself the time to rest, you’ll need it just from being.
Celebrate the Life of Your Child on Special Occasions
As you can imagine, I didn’t look forward to my son’s birthday, Christmas or Father’s Day. However, I learned that my fear was caused more by the multiple warnings I received from well-meaning friends and family than the reality of the event.
“Oh wait till Christmas, that will be a very hard time for you.”
“I can’t imagine what you’ll be going through on Father’s Day….be strong.”
I discovered that I did not miss my son any more or less on those special days than I did the day before or the day after. I realized that I was allowing others’ perceptions to guide my expectations of these days and how I would ultimately experience them.
I discovered that I did not miss my son any more or less on those special days.
I had a revelation on Father’s Day; it’s not a day to mourn the fact that I’m no longer a father to my son but a celebration of the fact that I was honoured to be his father for 19 years. His birthday is not a day for me to mourn the fact that he is no longer here to blow out the candles but to celebrate the joy he brought to my life and that of our family and friends in his 19 years.
To help, look for rituals that make you feel better or support your beliefs. We’ve started a tradition of lighting and releasing Japanese lanterns by the lake on occasions like his birthday or the anniversary of his death. With each release we give thanks for him and celebrate his life.
That small change in attitude – with a little planning – has made these celebrations more meaningful and helped us to move along that journey instead of getting stuck on it.
Your Child Did Not Do This to You
Among the unending variety of emotions you’ll experience, anger and/or guilt will be two of the strongest.
“Why did he do this to me?”
“What did I do wrong?”
“I should have prevented this.”
What I’ve discovered from speaking to many teens and young adults who are suffering with depression is that at their lowest moments, they are not thinking of you – or anyone for that matter. They simply can’t think or experience any reality beyond the pain and anxiety they are feeling at that moment.
In lucid moments, they may have the perspective to see their struggle but when depression or whatever mental illness they’re suffering from takes hold of them, they don’t have that perspective.
A student suffering from depression recently said, in response to the adage that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem: “You don’t get it, depression ISN’T a temporary problem! It’s a permanent problem.
They simply don’t have the option out, just like they don’t have the option out when they’re involved in a fatal car crash or when an embolism explodes in their brains.
The point is, when their illness takes over, it’s like any physical illness that we seem to be able to reconcile. They simply don’t have the option out, just like they don’t have the option out when they’re involved in a fatal car crash or when an embolism explodes in their brains.
As survivors, we must find a way to accept that this was not a rational choice. The illness of depression took that choice away from them.
They did not die from suicide…they died from depression. The choice was not theirs.
One phrase that was shared with me while chatting with my suicide survivor’s support group was “lean into the pain.” It is meant to encourage you to not avoid the emotions you are experiencing, no matter how difficult they may be. Grief – and all the emotions that it pulls – is just an obstacle on the journey. Avoiding it will prevent you from getting to where you need to be.
Similarly, I’ve discovered that you must also lean into the joy and happiness when it presents itself. If you have the opportunity to enjoy a moment in life, lean in and enjoy it. You’ll definitely have bad days in the future but enjoying a moment of happiness or joy will neither prevent nor induce that bad day. The reverse is also true; allowing yourself to experience the pain on a bad day won’t prevent a good day from coming.
Each will happen and each should be welcomed as a necessary part of the journey.
It Won’t Be OK but It Will Be Fine
I’m sorry to tell you that it will never be OK. It’s simply not possible to lose a child to suicide and ever be OK. However, you will be fine.
There’s no pain or experience like losing a child to suicide; however, you – like so many other parents before you – will eventually discover a new normal, a new way of living. It’s not perfect, but it will allow you to continue your life in order to celebrate the life of the child you lost, support and love the children you may still have to care for, and/or contribute positively to your friends’ lives and those of your community.
Don’t get stuck in the mindset that you’ll never be able to deal with the loss. You will not get over it but you will find ways to manage it. The speed at which you progress through this journey is in part determined by an acknowledgement that you’ll never be the same but that a new normal will eventually set in.
You may have noticed my constant reference to a journey in this letter. That wasn’t by design. It’s a fact that you’ll come to realize if you have not done so already. Whatever you’re experiencing, you are on a journey and one that is truly unique to you.
Embrace the journey; like life itself, it will be riddled with highs and lows and each must be experienced to become the person you are.
Lastly, you don’t need to walk this journey alone. There are support groups, professionals, and individuals who can help. My experience has been that my peers – those who have also lost a loved one to suicide – are the best support.
Reach out to them. Reach out to me if you wish. Just reach out.
Join the conversation and support. If you have experienced the loss of a child to suicide and wish to add to this list of experiences or perspectives, please add your thoughts in the comments below. It’s important that those of us who can speak out, do speak out.