Losing A Child to Suicide

suicideLosing a child is an unspeakable traumatic event; however, when that death is by suicide, the pain becomes even more perplexing. With suicide being the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds in the United States, each person who has taken their lives is somebody’s child.[1]

The agony of losing a child is further complicated by a number of factors. First being the need for a reason.1 Why did this happen? This question haunts parents, stuck in the forefront of their minds.1 For many parents, this question comes lined with self-blame, confusion, anger, and shame.1 The role of parenting is mainly the protection of offspring; therefore, the feeling that somehow, as a parent, more could or should have been done to prevent this is absolutely crushing.1 However, it is important for parents to remember that over 90 percent of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death—mostly untreated depression.1

Therefore, parents often ask: How did I miss this?1 The truth is, for many, depression and unhappiness are often well hidden.1 The signs of potential risk are masked.1 Other times, risk-taking behavior, such as alcohol or drug abuse, take over the forefront, creating tension between the parents and the child—hindering the efforts for help.1 Also, suicide risk is often increased by traumatic life events, such as a childhood history of sexual or physical abuse, social isolation, victimization or bullying, or a family history of suicide.1

Even parents who were aware of their child’s depression or difficulties, pursuing help, can be left tortured by the thought of many other things that could have been done.1 There is no magical answer to these questions of “Why?” However, it helps to consider suicide’s definition, according to expert Edwin Shneidman, as “a misguided solution to unbearable psychic pain.”1 When such pain exists, a person’s thinking becomes constricted, and the tunnel vision causes many to act to end the pain.1 Dan Bilsker and Peter Forster define suicidal thinking in terms of “The Three I’s”—intolerable, interminable, and inescapable.1

The best way to deal with traumatic death, such as the death of a child, is by connecting with familiar networks of support.1 A positive connection is very important for those who have lost a child to suicide, as it not only buffers grief, but supports the needed connection with other parents and children to help cope with the stigma they often feel from others.1

In fact, a study of 490 parents who lost a child to suicide, approximately half reported that a closer relationship to their other children, spouses, and close friends made up their most supportive network.1 Oftentimes others avoid the parents and step away, instead of offering compassion, as friends and family often do.1 Unfortunately, many blame the parent for being “at fault,” which is often not true.1

For the family specifically, creating a family narrative of the suicide is a powerful healing tool.1 It invites every child and adult to share their impressions, bear witness, expand understanding, and supporting each other while memorializing their loved one.1 The final line of a person’s life is not the whole story.1 Living with the love and memories of what your child was throughout the years is best.1 Some pain we just cannot understand or prevent.1

[1] Phillips, S. (2014). The Loss of A Child to Suicide: Complicated Pain. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 14, 2014, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2014/01/the-loss-of-a-child-to-suicide-complicated-pain/

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