This excerpt about when a child dies by suicide is from of Emotional Healing (Pegasus), by Dr. Harry Barry. Purchase it on Amazon.
When a Child Dies by Suicide
Those left behind in the wake of a suicide are sometimes called “suicide survivors”. This confusing term suggests that the person survived the attempt but in practice relates to the person or persons left behind following their death. It is no coincidence that the term survivor is used here as a description, for “survival” is the best that most parents can aim for, in the months and years that follow losing their child in such a manner.
Grief specialists agree that the concept of suicide bereavement counselling, with evidence from research that lives can be saved by assisting those left behind to develop better coping mechanisms. There is also a higher incidence following such suicides of related physical symptoms such as cardiovascular incidents, especially heart attacks, some of which may prove fatal. There is also an increased risk of depression and, worryingly, suicide itself, as a coping mechanism to deal with the loss of a loved one.
Surviving Parents are At Risk
Parents who survive the death of a child by suicide form an especially high-risk group for self-harm or suicide, due to a combination of guilt, self-loathing, intense sadness, depression and a longing to be with the person who has died.
There are several observations and insights that parents who have lost children to suicide have shared with me, which you may find helpful:
1. Many parents mention the emotion of shame, which hangs around them and their families, like a miasma or cloak. The society name for this is “stigma”, but the reality is that many parents do believe that they are being judged negatively for not protecting their child.
Special Quality of Loneliness
2. Parents whose child dies by suicide also discuss the special quality of loneliness which follows in the wake of the death of their child. This loneliness is not just related to the absence of the child they loved, but to the uniqueness of the experience for the parents who survive. Only parents who have experienced such a loss could come even close to understanding the depth of emotions unleashed and the enormity of the emotional pain experienced.
3. Some parents describe how the intense sadness and pain they have experienced comes in waves which threaten to overwhelm them. How this pain and sadness never leaves, how they feel as if they are going mad, how they fear their lives will always be filled with pain.
Birthdays and Holidays After the Death
Some parents whose child dies by suicide worry that festival periods and birthdays may become an ordeal to be endured rather than joyous occasions, reminding them of the way life used to be when their child was alive. My message of hope is that over time you will begin to adjust and adapt to your new situation. Joy and laughter will once again be part of such occasions, even if tinged with sadness as you remember your loved one.
Some parents have shared with me that they have kept up traditions which their loved ones would have been involved with at such times, and sense their presence more as a result, and find this quite comforting. Others find it helpful at such occasions to set a place at the table for the loved one who has died as it assists them to sense that their loved one is present and sharing the occasion with them.
You must find what works for you and your family at such times. You cannot change what has happened, but you can learn to adapt to the changed situation which their loss has introduced into your life.
Spirituality After a Child Dies by Suicide
4. Some parents may become increasingly religious or spiritual, for example, whilst others may become increasingly agnostic. If the former, then hopefully this will bring some solace and meaning into your life as you grieve, as you may look forward to meeting them in another existence and time.
Your belief may also inspire you to become actively involved in assisting those struggling with their mental health. If the latter, where you may not believe that you will see your child again in another life, it is equally important that you discover meaning and purpose following on from such a loss.
You must find your own road. It is so important to find meaning as it is the engine which drives us on to continue positively with our lives, despite the tragedy which has struck us. I sometimes call this “healing through meaning”.
Guilt Over Not Preventing the Suicide
5. It is impossible to explain just how guilty the majority of parents feel that they somehow failed to prevent the death, even if they had no sense that their child was so distressed. Deep down, these parents know it is irrational, but they still cling on to this unhealthy emotion.
6. Another unspoken thought relates to the intensity of the desire to be with the child who has died. This can be intensely powerful for mothers but also for some fathers who are struggling with the loss. I have known situations where only the presence of other children has kept a parent from taking their own life. Therefore it is essential to have this discussion as to how best to cope with such a loss.
7. Some parents talk of “time standing still” in relation to the child who has died. They describe it as if the child is now frozen in time at the age at which they died. It is why some mothers are unable to change or move anything in the bedroom of the child or get rid of their clothes because they can still smell their presence.
Mothers Have Particular Vulnerabilities
8. Mothers especially discuss how the fabric of their families will never be the same again. How their lives and hearts are broken into small pieces and that these pieces cannot ever be “glued together” again. How everything has changed forever. This insight is important as you may be feeling like this right now.
You are not alone. I have never met a mother who did not feel like this. For emotional healing to occur, you will have to accept that this is one of the changes which the loss of your child is going to introduce into your heart as well as your home. If I can find meaning by ensuring that you are there for the other important people in your life, such as your partner or other children, you will find it so much easier to cope.
This insight will assist you to emotionally self-heal. Think of it as if a precious item of porcelain has broken into pieces, with one of those pieces shattered completely. You can gradually put together the pieces which remain to make a new, if incomplete, version of what you have lost. It may not be perfect, but over time, you will learn to accept what is created anew.
Fathers Struggle with Grief in Public
9. Another common admission is the difficulties that parents, especially men, experience when meeting friends and acquaintances, subsequent to the suicide of their child. These conversations can be incredibly hard for all parties. It is hard not to break down into tears on some occasions, and many parents will now see themselves as “different’ because of their experience, in the eyes of those they meet.
How often they wish that the conversation could revert to normal daily topics rather than discussing their pain and sadness. This is an important insight which you may find helpful.
Firstly, you are not alone if experiencing such social interactions. Secondly, it is the situation which is abnormal, not you, so be kind to yourself and stop rating and judging yourself as “abnormal” or “different”. Finally, do not be afraid to say to friends or acquaintances that you are struggling with your loss if you are crying in their presence.
The Haunting Question: ‘Why’?
10. Apart from the intensity of the grief process, the one common denominator that unites most parents who have experienced this loss is their question as to “why”’ their child made this decision. I have seen this question almost destroy some parents. They remain locked in a world of unhealthy negative emotions. They are unable to uncover an answer that allows them to emotionally heal.
My first message is that this question has the capacity to destroy your peace of mind and inner calm. It is closely related in my clinical experience with the emotion of guilt, which we have explored in some detail. Sometimes there may be an obvious answer, such as the child was suffering from some significant mental illness.
Don’t Expect a Clear Answer
But in a significant number of cases, the reasons underlying their action are more likely to remain hidden or uncertain. My own explanation to parents is that we usually decide to take our own lives when we encounter some problem (either a life-crisis situation, mental illness or both combined) which we deem impossible to resolve by any other means.
My second message is that tormenting yourself to answer a question which may have no answer, is only going to hurt more. For emotional healing to occur, you will have to accept that sometimes human beings make such decisions, for whatever reasons, and that we must learn to accept that this is a reality and that no amount of introspection will change that reality.
My third message is that focusing solely on this question will tend to block you in dealing with the sadness and emotional pain which are the core essence of grief when your child dies by suicide. If you can learn to accept these three messages and absorb them into your psyche, then emotional healing will follow.
Read more from Dr. Harry Barry on 10 Ways for Coping with Grief Sadness – Open to Hope.
My son ended his life in Oct. 2016, three weeks before his 23rd birthday. I set a grief goal, please transform my longing into gratitude. It may seem odd, but this goal gave me the patience to know that my grief and intense longing, which never departs, can be endured and is a process of adjustment to life with a son who exists on another plane. The isolation and stigma became unbearable when my living son chose to drown his grief in alcohol and mask his emotions with fentanyl. Again I was faced with accepting each of us are free to choose how we respond to life events, and that some of those events lead to death. As time has passed so has my logic. At first it was easy to say, oh he had a mental illness, and now I see it as a many headed hydra. Each head is one of the many reasons that lead to his illness and choice. Many of those reasons are why my living son has chosen a self-destructive path. I hand both of them and my broken heart over to a power greater than me. I will never know why it turned out the way it did and can only focus on living today. I know that it is only my conceit that tells me I can predict the future, and being present with what is happening today is more important to living. For nearly a year I heard that it was my duty as a mother to prevent my living son’s addiction. He is 33 years old and extremely dangerous to himself and anyone who tries to exert any control over his life. He has given himself over to chaos and will physically harm anyone, including me, who opposes his path. In the end, I find myself moving from grief of my living child to gratitude that we had time to be mother and son. I hope he finds peace and am willing to accept his peace in whatever form it is, sobriety or premature death.