I recently got a text from a friend whose co-worker’s daughter committed suicide. When I told my husband about it, he said, “I don’t understand why anyone would commit suicide. Why would someone not want to live? Why would they want to die?” Joe is a very black and white person, while I have always been a person who sees both sides of a coin. When Joe was a young boy, his grandfather (the person for whom Joe was named) committed suicide. Suicide has never been something that he could get his head around.
After sitting there for just a moment, I told him that I could understand why someone wouldn’t want to live any more. Sometimes the pain is so great that it reaches a point where it seems no longer bearable. I told him that, right after Jason died, there were a few times when I just wanted to drive in front of a semi truck to end the extreme, crushing pain in my broken heart. I told him there were also a few times when I had to specifically and determinedly take just one sleeping pill that the doctor had prescribed and intentionally put the pill bottle away, because, when the pain and agony of losing Jason were so great and so overwhelming, I really wanted to take the whole bottle. I could hardly stand the pain of Jason’s death. It just crushed me. I had to specifically, determinedly, intentionally choose to live when the pain was so great that I just wanted to die. I realized that dying was not an option for me. Dying may have ended my pain, but I would have passed it on exponentially to those I loved and that was one thing I could not do.
I had to focus on living. There were days when remembering Jason, the wonderful, beautiful person he was and his love of life were the only things that got me through. There were days when only the thought of our daughter, Jenna, got me through. There were days when I had to find something of beauty to focus on. There were some days when I struggled to find something to focus on, but I kept on trying.
When I told these things to Joe, he said, “I didn’t know that. Why didn’t you tell me?” I didn’t tell him because I didn’t want to add to the burden of grief he was already carrying. I don’t like feeling like I’m a burden. It’s taken me 16 years to actually say these things out loud to him.
I know that I am not the only bereaved parent who has had the thought of wishing to die following the death of their child cross their mind, whether it’s just a passing thought or actually becomes a struggle to choose to live. It’s just not something we talk about.
No one tells you that you may want to die. No one tells you that you may lie in bed and pray for your heart to stop. That even your most cherished and beloved children and husband may not be able to rouse you from the depths of your sorrow. That even the breathtaking sunrises and majestic shooting stars above won’t give you pause.
No one tells you this.
(Although written about the death of a sibling, this is equally true – if not more so – about a parent whose child has died.)
Parents of children and adolescents who die are found to suffer a broad range of difficult mental and physical symptoms. As with many losses, depressed feelings are accompanied by intense feelings of sadness, despair, helplessness, loneliness, abandonment, and a wish to die . Parents often experience physical symptoms such as insomnia or loss of appetite as well as confusion, inability to concentrate, and obsessive thinking . Extreme feelings of vulnerability, anxiety, panic, and hyper-vigilance can also accompany the sadness and despair.
Research on the impact of bereavement as a trauma has emphasized significant negative psychological and health outcomes. For instance, Stroebe, Stroebe, and Abakoumkin (2005) found that bereaved persons, especially those with extreme emotional loneliness and severe depressive symptoms, are at risk for suicidal ideation. Li, Laursen, Precht, Olsen, and Mortensen (2005) found that bereaved parents, especially mothers, were at increased risk for a first psychiatric hospitalization as compared with nonbereaved parents. In fact, maternal risk of hospitalization remained significantly elevated 5 years or more after the death. Using Danish national registries, these investigators also found that mortality rates were higher among bereaved than nonbereaved parents, particularly for deaths due to unnatural causes (e.g., accidents and suicide) within the first 3 years after the child’s death (Li, Precht, Mortensen, & Olson, 2003). Bereavement was associated with long-term mortality due to illness (e.g., cancer) for the mothers, presumably because of stress, a weakened immune system, or poor health behaviors (e.g., smoking, alcohol consumption).
Now, I’m not saying that all bereaved parents (or even some) are going to want to die or will have to be committed to a mental hospital or anything like that. What I am saying is that it is not an easy thing to do, this figuring out how to keep on living and finding meaning in life when your child has died. Besides my own experience, I can give three examples from my own life of people I personally knew who struggled following the death of their child.
- The first is a woman whose children were part of the homeschool group when our kids were in grade school. Among other things, they were in a grade-school choir with our children. I lost track of her after we moved to the north end of Seattle and our kids grew up. After Jason died, I heard that her son, as a young adult, committed suicide. Not long after his death, she chose to end her own life.
- The second is a woman whose son died when he was struck by a train the year after Jason died. At the time, what I remember people talking about is how, in their opinion, she was drinking way too much alcohol. This was less than a year after Jason died, and I remember thinking it was so unfair to judge her for drinking and that, if I had been so inclined, I probably would have been drinking too much, too. I don’t remember hearing sympathy or discussions of ways to help; I only heard judgment.
- The third is a woman from the homeschool group we were in when our kids were in junior and senior high. Her son was born the same year Jason was and was in some homeschool classes and activities with our kids. He came down with aggressive pancreatic cancer as a young man – 21 years old, married with two small children – and died after a short, horrific illness. Going to his funeral was so incredibly hard for me. I sat in the back row in case I needed to leave in a hurry. Four and a half years after he died, his mom came down with a similar and equally aggressive cancer, dying within a few months after diagnosis. Both of them are buried a stone’s throw from where Jason and Alina are buried. (Because I had written the earlier article following the death of the young man hit by a train, after this young man died of cancer, I heard from several people how helpful a resource it was in their efforts to support his mom.)
The loss of a child is widely accepted as one of the most profoundly painful, intense, and devastating types of bereavement. It has been associated with heightened risk for various poor psychosocial and physical health outcomes, including psychiatric illness, existential suffering, marital problems, and even mortality…Grief also tends to persist longer among bereaved parents than for other bereaved populations, often lasting in some intensity for the remaining duration of the parent’s life…This longevity of suffering largely may be due to the struggle parents frequently encounter in making meaning of their untimely loss. Prior studies have in fact demonstrated that parents’ difficulties with finding meaning often persist for years, and for those who initiate a search for understanding but fail in their quest, the risk for poor adjustment increases considerably…
Following the loss of a loved one, individuals are often driven to search for meaning in both the loss and their lives…The loss of a child can be especially disruptive to one’s meaning structures; it is often perceived as “senseless” …and can rattle a parent’s sense of understanding about the way the world works and his or her purpose in life. Forced to transform their identity as a “parent,” a bereaved mother or father frequently faces a unique existential crisis…A large proportion of these parents must somehow reconcile an event that challenges the expected order of life events and threatens their sense of identity, purpose, and legacy as well as the very meaning of their child’s life…
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3745996/ – Please see original for citations; removed for readability purposes.
The fact of the matter is that every day we have to find a way to choose to keep on living. We may struggle to try to find some sense in the senseless act of our child’s death. Perhaps we find that elusive “meaning” or “purpose.” Perhaps we simply do the best we can with what we have and live our lives as best we can.
No matter what the circumstance, if you are struggling with finding a reason to go on, I hope and pray that you realize that you are not alone. Talk to someone – a pastor, a friend, a counselor. Call the national suicide prevention line (1-800-273-8255).
If the first or second or third person doesn’t really hear you, keep on trying. There are a lot of uninformed/misinformed, fearful (of deep grief) people out there, professionals included. I talked to a counselor (no idea how to deal with deep grief, not every counselor can be an expert on everything), I tried to talk to friends (yeah, a lot I could say there). I went to a Compassionate Friends meeting (awful experience, never went back). I called and left a voicemail for Jason’s soccer coach (who had lost two children in a fire, no reply). I eventually stopped trying, although I really wish I hadn’t. It’s a very lonely walk when you feel like no one wants to walk with you.
If you are one of those people who a bereaved parent reaches out to, don’t be “that person” who turns a blind eye or deaf ear or just disappears. Read books or articles on how to help. You may not be equipped or know how to respond or help. Be honest. Ask how you can help. Listen. Don’t give advise; listen! Do something! If the bereaved parent doesn’t respond right away, try again later. And then try again later. And then try again. Don’t give up. And if the parent asks for help, do what you can to actually help or try to find someone who can help. If you say you are going to do something, then actually do it.
You have no idea how much effort it takes for a bereaved parent to actually reach out and ask for help. No matter how scared you are, the bereaved parent is afraid of this journey, too. No matter how exhausted you are, the bereaved parent is exponentially more exhausted. No matter how much you are affected by the death, the bereaved parent is affected more than you could ever imagine. It’s a long, difficult, lonely, scary walk. Don’t let them feel like they are going it alone.
You are in my thoughts and prayers. You are not alone.
© 2018 Rebecca R. Carney