by Todd Woodfill
My heart is filled with love for all of those that I get the honor to speak with, encourage and help but right now there is pain that has taken up residence in that same heart. The most recent youth to succumb to the temptations of suicide was close, he was family. As I sit praying for the parents, talking with my own children, and sharing thoughts and feeling with my wife, I keep thinking about his parents. The pain, the questions, the grief… what are they to do?
Throughout my journey I have discovered that with over 44,000 suicides a year in just the United States, there are many families struggling with the same question. They were never supposed to lose a child and most certainly not in the way they did. How can the parent survive what is clearly the worst season in their life they have ever had to endure?
So for you parents who are grieving the loss of a child to suicide and to those of you who are working to support grieving friends or family, here is what I can offer you.
You will have so many questions and there is no right answer. “Why did this happen?” “Why didn’t I see the signs?” “What did I do wrong?” If you have not asked these 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 he did it or why you didn’t recognize it. There are probably many other questions you’re seeking answers to.
Questioning is part of the journey you are travelling, but understand there are no “right answers.” It’s OK and normal to ask the questions, to feel the frustration of not having the answers, and to experience the pain of wondering, “what if,” but don’t beat yourself up thinking you could have done something to prevent it. You may have or you may not have – you just won’t know. Dr. Kameroff says, “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.”
You also need to understand that there is no timeline for the travelling on this journey. Don’t look for an itinerary or agenda of what to expect, when, and how to do it. Everyone’s journey is different and although it has no end, it does continue to progress. Sam Fiorella, a parent who lost his son says, “Each day will bring new challenges, new surprises, and new moments of clarity and even joy. Yes, even joy.” While you are in the midst of the worst sections of the journey it is hard to believe that you will ever experience happiness again, but remember that you will. 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.
You are on a journey and so is your spouse but those journey’s will likely not look the same. The death of a child completely shatters you. You’re the same people, but at the same time, you’re really not. Everyone changes throughout the course of a marriage, but it’s rarely so sudden and complete. So you have to get to know each other again in one of the most harrowing circumstances imaginable. No two people grieve the same, even when they’re grieving the same loss. One partner might be very vocal about how he or she is feeling, while the other is quiet. One might express grief in “traditional” ways (crying, etc.), while the other does things his or her partner finds odd. You’re also rarely grieving on the same “cycles,” so to speak. Sometimes you resent your partner for bringing you down when you’re having a good day. Sometimes, you feel guilty for bringing your partner down.
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.
There are times in grieving when you want to be — need to be — selfish. You don’t want to consider somebody else’s feelings, only your own. You want to be taken care of, and you want to believe what you’re going through is the worst and no one can possibly understand how much you hurt. But you do have someone who understands, and it’s both a blessing and a curse. A blessing not to have to walk the path alone. A curse because some days it’s all you can do to help yourself survive, let alone someone else. Shutting down and shutting out becomes a defense mechanism.
You’re also forced to address difficult situations and emotions that you might otherwise be able to ignore. It would be easy to ignore the complicated things if you were grieving solo — you could just say that no one understands, and leave it at that. But with a partner in grief, you’re really forced to examine painful concepts and memories if you ever want to possibly rebuild your life. Sometimes you have to do that at someone else’s pace, and it’s frustrating.
The key is to quickly understand that your spouse will experience the grief differently and his or her reactions will be unique to them. What seems natural or right to you, may seem foreign to them in this season of grief. 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 your way ultimately resulting in the peace of mind and therapy you require and he or she must do the same, but in their own way. That journey will be completely different for each of you and more often than not, may seem at odds with one another. Ellen Topness says to, “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.” The tragedy of suicide doesn’t have to tear relationships apart. Family can pull together more tightly, and friendships can become deeper as you cling to each other in the face of how hard life is.
An important theme I have heard from many parents helping other after experiencing this loss, is to give the grieving parents permission. They tell them they have permission to smile or laugh if they find something that makes them feel that way. They tell them they have permission to cry and shout if that is what they are feeling at the moment. Sam Fiorella explains that for quite some time he was conflicted by the mixed emotions he was experiencing. The day after he learned about his son’s death someone recounted a story that was quite funny and he laughed out loud among a room full of people somberly mourning his son’s passing. He immediately felt embarrassed for the outburst; how dare he laugh at such a time.
Sams continues to say that in the weeks and months after his son’s death, he would talk about or share a picture of himself going about his life, be it enjoying a soccer game or taking a needed vacation from life. In a few instances he felt guilty for allowing the public to see that he went on living or guilty that he was living. That guilt was compounded by others criticizing him for doing so – or for doing so publicly. What took Sam a long time to realize – and what you should know – is that while he felt that he needed permission from others to laugh, cry, or live his life, he really didn’t. If you’re feeling that way, parents who have gone before you are giving you permission. As survivors, they give you permission to smile, laugh, and live – if you feel like it.
A support group, consider this a beautiful rest stop along the road of your journey. Joining a support group of peers who have experienced the loss of a family member to suicide is one of the best things you can possibly do. Pastors, counselors, and therapists can be important if not critical steps, but the majority of grieving parents have found that their greatest healing begins once they are in a suicide survivor’s support group. Being surrounded by others who truly understand the myriad of emotions unique to the survivors left behind in a suicide is amazing therapy. I personally love and care for you, I happen to know all the statistics associated with suicide, I grieve and hurt with you for your loss and yet I will be the first to tell you that a support group is likely to help you in your healing journey much more than I ever could.
Parents’ state that 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 will find it difficult to relate to those who have lost their children to physical illness or accidents. Bereaved parents support groups are useful but where possible, find a support group of suicide survivors.
Emily Maryone writes, “You can only imagine how much I dreaded holiday’s following my daughter’s suicide. Her birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Mother’s Day, those were dates I anticipated with terror. I was surprised to find that my anticipation and fear were created more by the warnings of others than the reality of the events. Well-meaning people would tell me, ‘Oh wait until her birthday, that will be such a hard time for you. I’m so sorry.’ or ‘I can’t imagine what Christmas will be like, call me if you need to talk.’ They meant well, but they helped my dread build. The surprise was that I discovered that I did not miss my daughter any more or any 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.”
The special days are not days to mourn the fact that you are no longer a parent to your child but rather a celebration of the fact that God honored you with the opportunity to be the parent for the years that you had. “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,” says Sam Fiorella. He also offers this insight, “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.”
The three most repeated statements from grieving parents are why did he do this to me, what did I do wrong, and I should have prevented this. These questions typically build on the emotions of anger or guilt and many times both. You need to understand that from your child’s perspective at their lowest moment, they weren’t thinking about you or anyone at that time. They simply couldn’t think, reason, or experience any reality beyond the pain they were 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.
As survivors, you 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 when they were in the moment and unable to see any choice.
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.
The family of a suicide victim carries a special grief. One mother whose teenage son took his life compared it to carrying a book bag loaded with boulders. The book bag may be filled with regret one day, feelings of failure the next, and guilt the next. But no matter what's in it, the book bag always weighs her down. Parents, I offer you my prayers, love, and support as you begin to reshape your lives and travel this journey.
You are not alone in your journey and have a God who loves and cares about you to travel it with. God is not naive to the realities that drive someone to suicide. Nor is he naive to your struggle with grief and pain. It is in the middle of these hard realities that your faith and trust in God grows. God explains it this way, “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”(Jeremiah 17:7-8)
Jeremiah is talking about living in a desert where life is hard and brutal. The desert in the Bible is the place of death— there is no water, no food, and it’s full of poisonous snakes. It is the place where your faith is tested. Do you feel that your grief and confusion has brought you into a spiritual desert? As you deepen your trust in God, your desert will become the place where you find God’s living water of hope, mercy, and blessing. God’s living water is His presence. He says, “I am with you.” He is the only one who can reassure your heart. Even though you are feeling alone and abandoned, He is with you. His presence means that even in the darkest of circumstances (including the suicide of your child), you can be unafraid.
Let me say it again. He is with you. He is with you. He is with you. He is with you. Because God is with you, you will be fruitful, even in the aftermath of heartache and perplexity. There is no magic pill that will make the memory of your child’s suicide lose its pain. You must constantly remind yourself that the eternal God is with you, and He is bigger than death. He promises that one day death will be ended and all sorrow, sighing, and tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4).
Your journey is a long, arduous trail but it is my prayer that you are able to one day feel whole again. To carry the burden more lightly, to feel happiness and the warmth of Jesus on your face. I end this post differently than most, as this is not my typical advertisement closing but rather an offer and a promise. Parents on the grieving journey, if you need to talk or need help getting connected with a support group, please reach out and I will do everything I can to help you. If you are and adult or a teen and at your low point, if there seems to be no way out, if suicide is a consideration, please reach out. There is help available! Reach out and get immediate help, call 1-800-273-8255. If you want, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I WILL respond. I love you and I care about you.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.
*****This information is based on personal experience with grieving families along with input from other experts and parents who have endured: Sam Fiorella, Lynn Keane, Ellen Topness, and Lianne Waters.