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?
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.
“ Didn’t you see it coming?”
“ Why didn’t you get him help?”
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
Live On With Love For Your Child
Listen in as Beverly and Bill Feigelman, authors of Devastating Losses, share the story of the loss of their son to suicide on Psych Up on Cosozo Radio. CLICK HERE
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From Psych Central's website:
The Loss of A Child to Suicide: Complicated Pain – PsychCentral.com (blog) | Depression Help (January 14, 2014)
The Loss of A Child to Suicide: Complicated Pain | My Blog (January 14, 2014)
From Psych Central's World of Psychology:
Best of Our Blogs: January 17, 2014 | World of Psychology (January 17, 2014)
What do you say to your child after the death of their friend? (January 27, 2014)
Last reviewed: 14 Jan 2014