Monday, March 28, 2011

Ways to Survive a Child's Suicide - Eight So Far

It has occurred to me that I have a tab up there into which I should toss some of what I've learned over the past 2.5 years.  The following eight things are what come to mind off the top of my head.  They should be read with The Lovely Daughter's  remonstrance in mind: "Mom, everyone is not you."  She's right; I only know what works and doesn't for me.  Some of these probably apply to anyone whose child has died, in whatever way, or to anyone who's suffered any kind of death at all. Other ideas? ~ add them to the comments.

I've passed scripture and theology and worship and polity and exegesis ordination exams. Not one of them asked anything about what I really learned during my seminary years, about how to live beyond your child's death from suicide:

1. Ask everything you can think of to ask; look at whatever there is to look at.  Or not.  My primary sources of information after my son died were the woman who ran his apartment building,  the detective who investigated the "case,"  and my son's girlfriend. I asked what I could ~ which wasn't much ~ at first, and later I peppered the detective with questions and asked him to show me everything that he could.  I talked to the coroner and to the funeral home director and to the crematorium personnel.  I saw my son's body, touched him and held him, and accompanied him to the crematorium.  My husband did not do any of those things, and as far as I know is glad he didn't. 

2. Learn what you can about suicide.  Read, go to groups, look around online.  You will probably be surprised by how little you know and how much there is to learn about this taboo of all taboos.  It will make you sick at first, but gradually you will get used to horrific words and pictures and concepts.  My husband doesn't do this either.

3.  Do your work, whenever you can and in whatever increments you can.  Or find something else, perhaps an activity or event to memorialize your child.  My friend Karen G does amazing work, all kinds of it, with respect to children and cancer.  People told me that it would help me to go back to my seminary and spiritual direction classes, and it did.  (For the record, I thought at the time that they were showing signs of extreme delusional thinking.)  I could not have gone back to teaching energetic and hopeful high school students, but I could return to the fairly controlled and solitary life of a graduate student. 

4. Expect bodily stress, and expect no doctor to inquire about it.  Weight gain, weight loss, headaches, joint aches, sleeplessness, exhaustion, intestinal messes, cognitive dysfunction.  I am just starting to address this particular arena, and I know that I have a great deal to learn.  I have to re-learn how to eat, how to move, and how to sleep, and I am guessing that all of those challenges are inter-related.

5. Find someone with some expertise who will listen to you.  For a long time. Years. A therapist, a spiritual director, a pastor, a rabbi.  This will not necessarily be the person or people whom you expect it to be.  Friends get tired and experience hurt of their own (see below).  Many experts and professionals have little or no experience with the profound grief raving lunacy of bereaved parents, or of anyone who has experienced the death of a loved one by suicide.  Many pastoral types are fearful or feel threatened by people who are intensely angry or feel deeply betrayed by God, or who have completely wiped their hands of God. Very few people have the stamina and creativity required to be present to a parent who has lost a child to suicide.

6. Recognize that your most genuine relationships will change.  Family and friends will disappoint you and you will disappoint them.  People really, really hate it when you become healthy enough to state the obvious and the true: that the "Before" life is over.  They want you to be who you were, and have no way of understanding the courage and fortitude it takes to become the person who lives with and despite this new reality.

7. Make new traditions.  New holiday places.  New places to go out to dinner.  New vacation spots.  My friend Karen J has instituted a wonderful tradition of Monday night extended family dinners: They help her busy daughters, bring the warmth of family to her sons-in-law, offer her grandchildren the security of a loving circle (and the opportunity to improve table conversation and manners - Karen leaves no stone unturned!), and assuage some of her own terrible grief.  But ~ all this newness takes tremendous energy.  And so:

8.  Take your time.  It, whatever it is, takes however long it takes. 


  1. Fabulous advice. And yes, it applies to other causes of death. (I love the fact that you tell the truth about life as it is now - it's so empowering!)
    I would add to the physical symptoms: literal, physical heart-ache. I've heard that lots of people think they are having heart attacks, and it is pain in the heart. My heart hurt for a long time after Katie passed.

    Massage therapy helped me a lot - and I'd add that suggestion, too: Move physically, gently, any way you can, whether in yoga, Pilates, massage, walking, running, lovemaking, kickboxing - whatever you can do. The rhythm of walking and moving the arms (naturally, or on a NordicTrac-type of thing) is supposed to be good for PTSD. And I'd add that: a lot of us have symptoms of PTSD, including severe, NEW anxiety. No, we are not going crazy; our lives have taken a crazy turn.
    Robin, you are a gift. xoxox

  2. This is so, so important. Thank you for sharing it. It is something I will return to, again and again.


  3. It takes what it takes and you will be who you are, not who you were, all along the way.


  4. This is another masterpiece; an essential part of the essential guide to surviving suicide...the book you will write that will help soothe countless broken hearts. For all the cognitive breakdown caused by the death of a child, I am glad you are still able to get out these profound words that also validate my own case of "raving lunacy". You are a gift to us all and I am always thankful for you being in my life. Much love and comfort.

  5. as per your comment "she leaves no stone unturned". I had to smile. My poor grandkids have to bear with my ferocious grief-driven over-mothering, and they all do it with such sweetness. They really are getting to be wonderful conversationalists too. A marked improvement from when we began and I would shake my head in dismay after dinner!

  6. Even when the child was not my own but a beloved cousin who I cared for for several years the impact of his suicide was shattering. Even now fifteen years later some days are just bad but I am able to allow them to be.

    And so I now know that they are what they are and that they pass. Simply some days are worse than others and some days are better than others and most mercifully some days are just kind of ordinary. And so now on bad days I can just be gentle and kind to myself and not expect too much of myself.

  7. So true. All of it. And as I'm accompanying a friend on her journey this past year I say yes, yes, yes.

    In whatever way one can continue to be present for that friend - ever seeing her (or him) in love and acceptance as they discover how in the world they can live in this new world, do it.

    The depth of friendship is a miracle.

  8. Our son took his life 2 1/2 yrs ago, it feels like yesterday. Remind people to take each second, minute, day, as they come, look for small things to be happy about or find beautiful. When a wave, large or small comes crashing down on me I have to pull those images of what is good in my life now to keep me going.

    It also help not to play the blame game with your spouse or other children, it is distructive and will end badly. My husband and I are a stong couple, we never went there.

    For any other parent out there living through this nightmare, I wish you strength and hope you find peace.

  9. Annon, thank you so much for your comment. I am so sorry for your crushing loss, and hope that Mother's Day tomorrow brings with it more in the way of good memories than sorrow.

  10. I lost my son to suicide 7 months ago. He was 26. He had put himself through college, and after many things that happened- couldnt find a job, etc his self esteem was so low. I am utterly devastated. I believe people have this unsaid expectation that I should be moving on now. They are unwilling to talk about it. Mothers day was hard. He was my eldest- I became a mom when he was brought into the world. I wouldnt wish this type of grief on my worst enemy. Thank you for putting into words what any parent having to deal with the death- the death of a loved one- in this way- has had to face.

  11. Dear Anon,

    I am so deeply sorry for your terrible, terrible loss. No, no one should have to endure what you are enduring. I think around six-seven months is a particularly horrific time, as some of the shock begins to wear off and some of the reality sets in. I hope you'll come back.

  12. i lost my daughter,Mackenzie,6mo ago,and i am filled w/so much regret,a post messy divorce and an ex who manipulated my kids w/money and lies,we were always so close and so much alike,but I missed many things w/her due to my ex's manipulation w/them,and now she is gone.We had talked on the phone everyday,sometimes 2/3times aday the past 2mo before she died,she was so sad and suffered from depression,but yet she was the top of her class,honor student,basicly the one you wouldn't of expected,but all she wanted was her dads approval and she snapped one day and after threatening to jump off the roof at her dads,she went back to college and killed herself.The police say that "he washed his hands of her",he's a dr. who sees people w.depression. He never called me to ask for help,knowing she was talking to me multiple times daily,i miss her so much, and now he has told my other 3 its "moms fault",they haven't seen the police report or know all of the story,my heart is broken.Life doent seem to be getting better,i'm trying,but do you ever really move on?...thank you for your encouraging words

  13. Michelle, I am so very sorry for your loss. Six months is just the beginning; of course your anguish is almost unbearable. I hope that both you and your ex-husband can let go of the blame game, of each other and of yourselves; it's completely pointless and just adds another layer of pain, when you are already full up. And I hope that you have or will find a counselor of your very own. You do "move on" in a strange kind of way, which is to say that you get used to life always being incredibly difficult and to pain erupting out of nowhere. With three others, you do have three reasons to stay alive, even if it doesn't always feel that way.

  14. Robin;

    Thank you very much for this site. I'm so sorry for those before me that lost their child. I could feel my pain for you in my heart and soul.
    I just lost my daughter exactly 1 month ago. Just finished nursing school, top 3 in her class and seemed so happy and so in love with her husband. I am numb, sad, heartbroken, hurting all over my body and just feel physically terrible. Whenever she needed something (money, talk, dinner, etc.) she would call and I would run. This time I didn't get a call from her, instead, I got a call from the State Police who found her, her husband and two dogs. They're calling it a murder-suicide.
    My wife has been a rock for my ex-wife, my two other daughters and myself.
    I HURT SO BAD and have MANY questions, but very very few answers.
    Robin, please pray for me and my family and the souls of my Daughter and Son-in-Law. Thank you for your help with this site and the 8 things I'm going through and how to deal with them.
    GOD bless you and my friends on your site.

    1. Anon, I am SO sorry for your devastating loss. I will keep you all in prayer. I hope that you have found or will find someone wonderful who will listen to you, and that you and your wife and ex-wife and daughters are able to cling to one another.

  15. How will I go on.....
    My beautiful son shot himself in the head 3 weeks ago in his bedroom after a argument with his girlfriend. I was just heading downstairs to talk to him when I heard the gunshot. I was to him in seconds and after I kicked his door in I saw him laying there with his eyes wide open and my brain somehow blocked out all the blood and I thought he had just fallen backward and I was confused.... but then I saw the gun by his hand and understood what had happened I just screamed for my husband to call 911 and my legs collapsed and I lay on the floor screaming his name next to him. My arms wouldn't work as I tried to roll over to him to help him. I flopped around on the floor I guess in shock for just seconds and then I got to him and was able to do cpr screaming his name the entire time my son was a volunteer fireman and when his pager went off it just made my scream more because it was for him. My husband (my sons stepfather) never came down to help me, he knew it was bad and wanted to be by the door to let the police in. I'm fighting for my son's life alone in a house full of people, crazy. When the police came I fully expected them to keep doing cpr until the paramedics got there but instead he dragged me out of his room. I fought two officers hard to get back to my son all I wanted them to do was continue cpr until the paramedics got there. I was then taken to the police station and locked in a little room for 5 hours they took pictures of me in my bloody clothes and made me strip off my clothes and they put them in paper bags for evidence. I went crazy in that room because all I could see on the floor was my son laying there with the color drained out of his beautiful eyes and blood. When I was finally released to my husband 6 hours later I had to go home to face my horror. My beautiful son is gone and I will never understand why! His wake was attended by 650-700 people and he had friends from every walk of life. I found out he helped hundreds with their battles with life but did not know how to help himself. I only want to lay in my bed but still cannot sleep. I can't wait for the day that family and friends tire of bothering me to get up and go on with life and just leave me to my reality of my life without my child my pride and joy my heart and soul my guilt and despair my heartbreak and loss my 20 year old beautiful son is gone forever how will I go on....

    1. I am so very very sorry for your tremendous loss. I know that the words are meaningless and the idea of going on without him is terrifying and unbearable. If it helps at all, please know that many many mothers have been where you are, have seen terrible things and have had months and years of sleepless nights. You are not alone and neither was your most precious and beloved son. I am sure that now he lives in a realm of pure love.

      Have you found someone to talk with -- an SOS group, a therapist, a religious leader, a good friend who can really listen?

    2. I just lost my beautiful son 3 weeks ago ,he was brilliant and had a job waiting for him at Goldman Sachs in may .I have never known the depths of such grief .Still don't know why ,it could have been a girlfriend .I feel your pain and am so sorry for both of us .Sorry you had to see all the blood ,I got to see my son at the morgue the next day ..

  16. my beautiful son, nicknamed "soup" in high school for being "super" just shot himself in the head 2 weeks ago, and I found him...he was mentally ill...nothing matters right simply go into a deep dark state...and constantly try to pull yourself up...but the sorrow keeps reminding you on an hourly basis of the coulda woulda shoulda mentality...the worse pain in the world doesn't even begin to say how a mother feels...