There are 39,000 deaths a year by suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the United States among 19-14 year olds and 15-14 year olds, and the second leading cause among 25-34 year olds. Spanning the ages, each of those who have taken their lives is someone’s child.
On hearing of the suicide of her 18-year-old son, singer Marie Osmond shares, “I thought someone had run a knife into my heart.”
The agony of losing a child by suicide is complicated by a number of factors:
The Need For A Reason
Primary to these factors is the need for a reason- Why Did This Happen?
Beverly Feigelman co-author of Devastating Losses, says of the suicide of her promising filmmaker son, “The question of ‘ Why’ haunts you. It stays in the forefront of your mind and only with time slowly moves toward the back.”
For many parents this question is underscored with self-blame, confusion, anger and shame. Central to the role of parenting is protection of offspring. As such, the feeling that somehow as a parent you could or should have prevented this is crushing.
With time, many parents can ease up on the self-blame when they learn that over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death—with untreated depression being the number one cause for suicide.
At the beginning, however, a parent may hear this but be unable to emotionally register it. Often the bereaved parent asks:
How Did I Miss This?
- While suicide prevention is important and knowing the signs of potential risk can be life saving, the reality is that for many young people, depression and unhappiness are well hidden or masked.
- Sometimes risk taking behavior, drugs or alcohol abuse are in the forefront creating contention between parents and child and sabotaging efforts toward help.
- In addition, vulnerability for suicide can also be caused or exacerbated by traumatic life events like a childhood history of sexual or physical abuse; social isolation; victimization or bullying; cumulative combat stress, or a family history of someone dying by suicide.
But We Were Getting Help!
There are many parents who were aware of their teen or adult child’s depression or difficulties and were pursuing help for their child. They are tortured with the thought of how much more they could have done or what they might have done incorrectly. They are bereft and they are bewildered.
A Working Answer
While there is no magical answer to these painful questions of “Why” it helps some to consider suicide expert, Edwin Shneidman’s definition of suicide as a misguided solution to unbearable psychic pain. When there is unbearable psychic pain, a person’s thinking becomes constricted. There is tunnel vision that precludes judgment. Most don’t want to die—they act to end the pain.
Resonating with this, Dan Bilsker and Peter Forster (2003) who also define suicidal thinking in terms of a crisis of pain, describe it in terms of “ The Three I’s”–pain that is perceived as Intolerable, Interminable and Inescapable.
The most endorsed position for dealing with in a traumatic death, like the death of a child, is encouraged connection with familiar networks of support. Research finds that such positive connection is very important for those who have lost a child to suicide because it not only buffers their grief; it supports the needed connection with the other parent and children which helps all cope with the stigma they often feel and fear from others.
- In a study that included 490 parents who lost a child to suicide, close to half reported closer relationships to their children, spouses and close friends with two-thirds of these group offering helpful responses and children being most accepting.
- When compared to parents who had lost a child by illness or other traumatic events, however, those whose child died by suicide were the only ones subjected to blame of themselves or blame of their child from others—sometimes painfully from grandparents and close friends.
“ Didn’t you see it coming?”
“ Why didn’t you get him help?”
- Often suicide deaths overlap with deaths by drug overdose in which case there is pain, doubt and a search for evidence that could point in one or the other direction.
- In either case, however, there is a sense of disenfranchised grieving for parent survivors. Instead of moving in with compassion, people avoid or step away.
- Some judge both the child who has died as involved with immoral or criminal behavior and the parents as—“at fault.”
- When studying the report of parents whose child’s death involved drug overdose, half found one or more of their close relatives failing to offer the support they expected. The blame they expressed exacerbated the survivor’s grief.
- While there is clearly judgment and lack of support from some in the aftermath of a loss by suicide, many people fail to step up, support or help the grieving parents because they “ Just don’t know what to do.”
- Experts suggest that this reflects “ social ambiguity” because there are no norms for behavior in a situation like the violent loss of a child.
- The ambiguity and lack of clear-cut rules cause a psychological discomfort that people avoid.
- Self-stigmatization, or the assumption that everyone is condemning can add to this mystification or ambiguity if it causes the bereaved to hide.
One single parent purposely attended the school meeting not only for the sake of her younger children who she wanted to return to their lives; but to make herself available to those who did not know what to say but stepped up to hug her.
One neighbor didn’t know what to say to the parents who lost their son to suicide, so she organized other neighbors to bring over food—it was a powerful message.
Finding a Way To Move Forward
Notwithstanding the shock and haunting question of “ why’ that parent survivors face, the complication of feeling stigmatized instead of embraced and the social ambiguity that creates hesitation and avoidance by those grieving and those responding, there are steps that can soothe the way.
Join With Others Who Have Made This Journey
People heal in groups. There are many suicide survivor groups that offer valuable support and resources: American Association of Suicidology, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, TAPS for Suicide Survivors.
To sit with groups of survivors at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Day, and witness those who have suffered help new parents make meaning, feel entitled to grieve, find the words to speak to others and feel the blame lifted off them is to witness a response to stigma and a place to heal.
Create a Family Narrative of the Suicide
A powerful antidote to shame, blame and the feeling of “unspeakable” loss by other family members is to create a family narrative. It invites every child and adult to share their impressions, bear witness, expand understanding, support each other and memorialize a loved one.
A single dad brought his three children to my office in the aftermath of the suicide of their oldest brother. He wanted help in talking as a family about what happened. The different perspectives, the permission of the children to talk without fear of upsetting him or each other and the mutual love they shared for their brother was gift to all.
Heal Through Social Action
- Consider a way to keep alive the best of your child through Social Action.
- The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide offers valuable educational material for parents, teachers, families etc. What are most powerful are the videos of parents telling their stories—in the hope of preventing the loss of another parent’s child.
- Working with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), those who have suffered loss can train as volunteers who go to a survivor’s home in the aftermath of suicide as a compassionate voice and presence.
- Teaching others about Suicide Loss and Suicide Prevention by inviting them to a public event like “ Out of the Darkness Walks” is valuable in healing and removing stigma and social hesitation. Many report just being there changed their perspective and eased doubts and pain.
Live On With Love For Your Child
- Robert Neimeyer, bereavement expert who lost his father to suicide reminds us that in someone’s life, the final line is not the whole story.
- Live with the love and memories of all that your child was throughout the years. Live with knowing that some pain we just cannot understand or prevent.
- Embrace and carry the essence of your child as you go on with life.
Listen in to Psych Up Live to hear Dr. Joanne Cacciatore discuss her important book, Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief