How does it feel after losing a loved one to suicide? How to bear the grief, guilt and unanswered questions as we rebuild our lives? I invite you to walk the mourner’s path with me and see where our paths may cross. Please comment on posts or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And check out my book, "I'll Write Your Name on Every Beach: A Mother's Quest for Comfort, Courage and Clarity After Suicide Loss" (2017). IF IN CRISIS, PLEASE CALL THE NAT'L SUICIDE PREVENTION LIFELINE AT 800-273-8255.
No, I did not do all I could to help my child and prevent
this catastrophe. I thought about this a lot in the early weeks. People tried to reassure me without even knowing what I did or
did not do. Of course, they were trying to make me feel better. The rabbi’s
eulogy urged us mourners, if we must think about the “what if”s," to go there as
little as possible. But especially in the first couple months, and still sometimes
now, I need to dwell there; I need to grieve the enormity of my sense of guilt
and opportunities missed. It is still too soon for me to set all that
A doctor suggested making a list of what I did and what I
didn’t do to try to help my son. Here is a short version for the last weeks of his life:
WHAT I DID:
-Helped him leave a stressful situation and come
-Gave him a list of psychiatrists; encouraged him
often to call
-Cooked for him; tried to interest him in cooking and doing simple things
-Gave him space, let him rest
-Tried to talk with him about his feelings
I made a similar list 6 weeks ago, it seemed paltry--way too little, way too
late. The only way I can live with this list is to know that I can keep adding
to it, going back in time to all the good things I did for and with my child.
I feel compelled to take account of and list all I failed to do, to admit my helplessness. My
confession to N and the world. As my husband says, “It was so hard to know how
to help him.”
WHAT I FAILED TO DO:
-Ask him if he was feeling suicidal
-Recognize warning signs like social isolation, talking like this was the end, etc.
-Recognize that he was incapable of making those
calls to psychiatrists
-Bring help to him if he wouldn’t get help
(professionals we know)
- Bring friends to him if he wouldn't call friends
-Read up on major depression to see how it can be
a terminal disease
-Hang out with him just to be together, whether
he wanted it or not
-Hug him every day, tell him I love him, tell him
it gets better
What did I fail to do, to model or instill, years ago that left N so unprepared for this crisis? I can't face that list yet.
My therapist says, “You did the best you could with what you knew at the time.” I can
accept that idea a little better than a blanket pass of “you did all you could.” Maybe what I can learn to eventually accept is my limitations. No parent does all we can; there are always constraints.
The limitations of what we know and understand about the person and about the
mind. The limitations of our personality, our relationship with the child and how we interact. The limitations of not wanting to rock the boat and provoke someone who was already fragile.
The limitations of our imagination—living in denial, assuming the child
would eventually follow the healing script we have for them, never imagining they would take their
life. The inherent limitations of what any person--even a loving parent--can do for another.
My son’s birthday came too soon after his death. Yesterday he
would have been 22. We should have spent the week preparing for a pool-side BBQ
with his favorite foods, like in other years. Instead, we marked the day
without him, with moans and tears. We went to his favorite taco and donut places,
without him. We still cannot believe there will be no more birthdays for our
My husband visited N at the cemetery. But I don’t feel that his
spirit is in that horrible box in the ground. I wanted to try to commune with
his spirit at the beach, by the ocean he loved and surfed. I haven’t felt his
spirit anywhere yet; it is hard to know how to reach someone who so adamantly
did not want to be reached, who violently quashed his spirit without a goodby.
We went to the sea to meet my cousins, to a sweet spot where N learned to surf. I was immediately caught up in the vast expanse, the power
of the waves. I could cry out, “N, where are you?” and no one would hear. There
were young men in wetsuits paddling out, all expectation; N should have been among
them, face to the wind. The young men were trying to stand, flipping over,
trying again, diving under when necessary—why couldn’t N treat his troubles
like an oncoming wave? Scanning the gray horizon, it was all possibility and
adventure—or it was all desolation and oblivion. By the end he could see only the emptiness.
My son's cousin is convinced N is a dolphin racing the waves, one
with nature. I wish I could see it. All I saw, fleetingly, was a glint of
evening light on the water after the cousin sang a song that made me cry. I'm still
looking for a sign. A sign of N’s enduring presence in our lives. A sign of how
we should mark all the birthdays to come.
I took on this job without being asked. I fell into it, as
if it were meant to be. I became the curator of my son’s legacy, his
spokesperson to the world now that he can no longer speak for himself. This
task has often consumed me in the past three months, giving me something to do
that keeps me connected to N but at times overshadowing the grieving process.
It started within a day of his death when I copied a passage
from Kay Jamison’s book on suicide, about how love for and from others is no
match for the inner demons of mental illness, and showed it my fellow mourners.
People were grateful; we all needed an explanation of a senseless, inexplicable
act. I would later come to regret this hasty grab for explanations that labeled
my son as inevitably mentally ill, and to question whether Jamison’s description
represented N’s experience. But I was already framing his life and death for
It happened again a week or so later in dealing with N’s friends
and staff at his college, when they were planning a memorial service. I was
fielding dozens of e-mails a day: Would we allow the college to name the death
as suicide, to quell rumors and allow the community to deal with it honestly?
(Yes, absolutely.) Did we want the Jewish mourner’s prayer as part of the service? (Yes, we
were reciting it daily, though it had no meaning for our son.) Was
there a quote or poem for the program? (Only the simple Jewish saying: May his
memory be for a blessing--again more from our world than his.) Where would we like to direct donations in N’s
memory? (Two organizations that reflected his interests plus one for suicide
prevention research.) Students kept me posted on plans to create a slide show,
an exhibit, a dumpling dinner, a web site; I dutifully e-mailed them my thanks
not only for their efforts but for being N’s friend. I felt the need to say
something reassuring to everyone, given than N hadn’t said goodby to anyone.
And then there were the long weeks of trying to reconstruct
a fuller picture of N’s history by talking with his close friends and therapists
in three cities and perusing his personal writings--private jottings never meant to be seen by others, much less a prying parent. With everyone, my husband
and I had to represent our son’s personality, his relationships and habits in
the fractured way of parents who increasingly knew less and less about their child.
As curator, I dutifully compiled N’s history in a six-page chart of life
events, behavior, therapy/treatment, and excerpts from his writings so
we could show it to professionals for a psychiatric autopsy. Like any curator,
I had to know my subject and make choices of what to include and what to leave
out. Will I regret these decisions, too, later when I see things differently?
How N would have hated his mother speaking on his behalf and
crafting a story of his struggles. He was a 21-year-old desperate to be
independent. But when they leave us like this, it’s the needs of the living
that take precedence. They have obliterated their pain; it’s we who are left
with pain and longing for the rest of our lives. It’s not about how N would
want to be remembered; we can never know that. He left no note, no instructions;
after all, he sought oblivion. Now it’s how we the living need or want to remember him.
So in choosing paper for his memorial scrapbook, I look
first at the bold, geometric prints that he might have liked. I think he
might not have liked any of them and would have just opted for plain white
paper or even black and white designs, which feel too stark to me right now.
Then I realize I’m the one who will be making this book and looking through it
the most. I choose mostly papers in the softer colors and subtler patterns that I
It is not about gaining something but rather needing to know
as much as we can about our child and his mental state, now that he can no
longer speak for himself. My husband and I will never fully understand what
happened, but we definitely understand more now than we did at the time of N’s
death. There are fewer missing pieces of the puzzle, even if the overall
pattern remains somewhat murky. This comes from talking with N’s therapists and
friends; looking at documents like medical records and the coroner’s report;
and reading his personal writings—all massive invasions of privacy that would
never happen in the normal course of a young adult’s life. Each new bit of
information could be unsettling, for sure, but ultimately we needed to know
about the things he never told us--his shame at the prospect of medication, his
fear of anxiety attacks, how he and his college buddies thought they were “bulletproof”
and self-sufficient. We will never have a chance to know our child as a living
adult, so at least we can try to know him better now than we did in the last
period of his life. This makes us feel closer to him.
Well-meaning folks question why we are doing this because “what’s
done is done – it won’t change anything.” But in fact, the search for clues has changed our view of our child and
his struggle, allowed us to see a little deeper into and visit just a little
longer in his world. It has allowed us to piece together a meaningful narrative
based on as much information as we could muster. We have been compelled to do this. No doubt people want to spare
us further pain. We are already in the deepest pain; there is no fresh pain to
add. We couldn’t protect our child from his demons but we could dedicate
ourselves to this search as the least thing we could do for him--to accompany
him and try to sense his voice through the stages of his struggle.
Researchers Kari Dyregrov et al. write in After the Suicidethat the need to know and to search for clues
is a natural impulse for suicide survivors as part of the grieving process; it
is OK to leave no stone unturned, they say, as long as this does not become a
My husband and I met yesterday with a psychiatrist for a
psychiatric autopsy based on our son’s history. I had been impatient for this
day for weeks, yet I found myself dreading it. The meeting was gentle and informative,
though as expected, not definitive. With this, we have come to the end of the
road for the moment—another ending, a communing with N at a close.
What will we
do with our time now? How will we continue to feel a connection with our son? Will we revisit the puzzle years from now and see a fit among
the pieces that eludes us today?