The suicide of a child of any age presents unique circumstances that intensify and prolong the mourning of parents and family members. Suicide is a reaction to overwhelming feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, helplessness, hopelessness, and depression. It usually occurs when a person’s pain exceeds his or her resources and ability to cope. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the United States among 10-14 year olds and 15-24 year olds, and the second leading cause among 25-34 year olds.
While mental illness plays a role in many suicides, not everyone who dies by suicide is mentally ill. Many families endure the frustration caused by the child requiring years of hospitalizations and medications. Other families encounter only brief periods of conflict or worry, while some experience none at all.
Sometimes there are warning signs of the person’s intentions. However, clues may be so disguised that even a trained professional or counselor may not recognize them. Occasionally there are no discernible signs, and the child’s suicide becomes a catastrophic decision that can never be understood or resolved.
One change now occurring is in the language of suicide. The terms “died by suicide,” “died from suicide,” and “died of suicide” are being adopted rather than the harsh “committed suicide,” the language of an earlier era that carries a stigma of criminality so often offensive to families whose children have taken their own lives.
Denial and feelings of shock, guilt, anger, and depression are often a normal part of grief reactions, but are especially heightened when a child has died by suicide. Though difficult to accept, it is not unusual to experience feelings of relief if the relationship with the child was stressful or destructive to the family unit.
The suicide of one’s child raises painful questions, doubts, and fears. The knowledge that your love was not enough to save your child and the fear that others will judge you to be an unfit parent may raise powerful feelings of failure. Realize that as a parent you gave your child what makes us human—the positives and the negatives—and what your child did with that information was primarily your child’s decision.
It isn’t uncommon for newly bereaved parents to express thoughts of suicide, regardless of how their child has died. Remember that suicide is not inherited. Be patient with yourself and your family, and seek professional help and family counseling if necessary.
The stigma often associated with suicide is the result of cultural and religious interpretations of an earlier day. You will find it difficult to progress in your bereavement unless you confront the word suicide, difficult as it may be.
Keeping the cause of death a secret will deprive you of the joy of speaking about your child and may isolate you from family and friends who want to support you. Rather than focusing on the stigma surrounding suicide, concentrate on your own healing and survival.
You may feel anger. It may be directed at your child, those you believe failed to help your child, God, those who try to help you, or just the world in general. You may be angry with yourself because you were unable to save your child. It’s okay to express anger, a common emotion when a child has died by suicide. Sometimes healing cannot begin until this anger is confronted and expressed. However, a healthy expression of anger does not include hurting yourself or others.
Feelings of guilt following a child’s suicide are normal—for parents and family, friends, classmates, and even coworkers. “If only” is a phrase you may find yourself repeating frequently. You may need to feel guilty for a while until you begin to understand that you are not ultimately responsible for the decisions and actions of another human being, including your child. Sometimes you need to go through a feeling to get beyond it. Believe in yourself. You are human—accept your limitations.
Some parents feel a need to ask “why?” Often, of course, there are no clear answers, which often proves highly frustrating for parents and other family members. After some time you may reach a point where you begin to realize that there are some questions about the death of your child that will never be answered.
Lack of energy, sleep problems, inability to concentrate, not wanting to talk with others, and the feeling there is nothing to live for are all normal reactions in bereavement. Situational depression, as opposed to clinical depression, should eventually wear off. You can fight this type of depression with moderate physical activity, plenty of rest, and a good diet. Allow family and friends to take care of you. You don’t have to be strong. Maintain contact with persons you value. Talking with others who have been through a similar situation may help you to cope. You may even learn from them that it is okay to laugh and smile, even though this seems impossible now. If the depression does not appear to lessen over time, you may want to talk with a qualified professional who can determine how best to help you.
Often parents find themselves in a spiritual crisis and question their beliefs or feel betrayed by God. Religious concerns about the hereafter also surface. “Why did God let this happen?” is a question we can no more answer than all other questions about imperfections in this world. Talking about spiritual and philosophical questions with other parents who have experienced a suicide may be helpful. For those with concerns of a spiritual nature, do try to find a gentle, nonjudgmental member of your faith and open yourself to that person.
As a family, talk about the death with one another; discuss your loss and your pain. Talk about the good times you remember, as well as those times that were not so good. All family members will be grieving in their own manner—don’t criticize because of these differences. Remember that it is better to express feelings than to internalize them and that crying is healthy and therapeutic.
You may find it helpful to write out your feelings or to write a letter to your dead child, expressing all the things you were not able to say before the death. For many, this is a good way to say good-bye.
Allow friends to help. When they ask what they can do for you, don’t be afraid to tell them of your needs and what will help you. It will also help them.
Consider becoming involved with a self-help bereavement group such as The Compassionate Friends. Through sharing with others who have walked the same path, you may gain some understanding of your reactions and learn ways to cope. Seek professional help and family counseling if necessary.
Give yourself time, time, and more time. It takes months, even years, to open your heart and mind to healing. Choose to survive and then be patient with yourself. In time, your grief will soften as you begin to heal, and you will feel like investing in life again.
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The current printing of this brochure was sponsored by
Ron and Janice Haynes
in loving memory of their son,
Thomas Andrew Haynes
TCF brochures may be purchased at a nominal cost through The Compassionate Friends by calling 877-969-0010 or by going to theResource Section of The Compassionate Friends national website. You can sponsor a brochure printing through our Brochure Program.