On Suicide Loss

Summer 2012:  It's been nearly four years, and suddenly there have been a series of calls and emails: more young people lost to suicide.  Consequently, I've been remembering the first weeks.  Here's what I have to say about how to survive them:

Do the next thing.  Sometimes that means: Take a shower and go back to bed.  Sometimes it means: Make a sandwich.  Sometimes it means:  Engage in a real phone conversation, about your work or about the estate or about something else that can't wait another day, in which case the next thing after that will most likely be: Go back to bed.

Four years later I can say:  It doesn't really matter what the next thing is; just do it.  

Or, if you can't, then don't. 

Summer 2011: How to be of help to someone who has lost a child to suicide:

1.  Show up once in awhile.  Listen.  Say the name of the beloved child out loud.

2. If you can't resist saying something, make it something like, "What have you been remembering?" or "What's the hardest thing these days?" 

3.  Things not to say:

I know how you feel.
I can't imagine . . .       .
S/he's better off . . . 
It must be God's plan/will/whatever.
You have other children.
You should be over this by now.
You have to make up your mind to be happy.


12/22/10 ~ It's three days before Christmas and I've just learned of the suicide  this past week of another young man in his early 20s.  I just want to say . . . it's hard.  So impossibly hard. I am not sure that there is a more searing form of pain in this life.   Although I was able to write of hope in my blog tonight, we are leaving town tomorrow for the third Christmas in a row, and I expect to be be scattering ashes into the Atlantic on Christmas Day.  I am writing this so that you know, if you are a parent or other loved one reading this because your Christmas season has just been ripped away, along with the rest of your life, that there are others who accompany you.  We may grow into hope, and into lives we never expected or wanted, but we remain heartbroken, and we know, as you do, about things no one wants to know.  There is a light that the darkness does not overcome, but the darkness is very dark indeed.  May you know that the love to which you once gave birth still flows outward and envelops your child, and may you be surrounded by people who will hang onto to you through the darkness.


The term "suicide survivor" is generally used to refer to those of us, family and friends, who have survived the completed suicide of a loved one.  It describes my journey for the past 25 months.

Since my experience has been that most people have no idea how to respond to the news that someone has experienced a loss to suicide, I thought I'd start adding some bits and pieces here.

In addition, as some of the fog burns away, I am becoming more interested in suicide prevention.  Our son's death was completely unexpected, and when a friend asked last fall (2009) whether I would like her to accompany me on a suicide prevention walk, I responded that I did not see the point.  "How can you prevent something you have no idea is a possibility?" I asked.

But our having no idea does not negate the possibility, nor the opportunity to prevent a senseless tragedy.  A professional in pastoral care has said to me several times that you cannot prevent someone who is determined to end his or her life from doing so.  But from what I have read, that's not always, or perhaps even often, the case.  And so as I learn more, some of that information will start to show up here.

In October  (2010), that friend and I did go to the suicide prevention walk, along with another friend from our church who a year ago lost someone to suicide.  There were presentations and speeches and many references to the "proven" program for addressing suicide prevention in high schools.  I questioned one of the leadership team about the word "proven," and she said that their surveys indicate that the programs are effective in encouraging young people to talk about themselves or their friends to people who may be able to help, or help them find help.

My October retreat director is a Jesuit whose field is psychology and who has spent time with many people who have been suicidal, including seven who have completed.  I asked him if he thinks that suicide can be prevented and he said yes, "with time and medication and counseling."

Of course, you have to know that there is a problem before you can provide the time and medication and counseling.

For those who survive the suicides of their loved ones, the guilt and the sadness over a death that need not have been are among the worst of the repercussions.  Oh, hell.  All the repercussions are the worst.

If you are looking for companionship in your loss, you are welcome to visit my blogs Search the Sea  ~ the relevant posts begin in early September, 2008 ~ and Desert Year, which I began the next January, when I realized that the weight of my grief was about to sink the Sea itself. (These blogs are now private, but you are welc0me to email me for an invitation to read them.)

And if you want to know what to say to someone who has lost a child to suicide?  It's really easy.  "Tell me about your child."  And then listen.

Spring 2011 (originally posted on March 28; you might want to read the comments as well):
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 at or feel deeply betrayed by God, or who have completely wiped their hands of God. Many people will not be able to hear your words if they are "God is gone." 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.