Today is the fourth anniversary of the suicide of my only child. Since Toran’s death, I have been involved in 9 government enquiries into the circumstances that led him to end his life including an inquest that spanned 3 months.
During the inquest I learned techniques for numbing myself. I had to. How else do you survive listening to a pathologist describe what happened to your child’s body and brain when he hanged himself? How do you not become homicidal when a psychiatric registrar smirks at you and says that two weeks after he prescribed your child Prozac, when told of the suicide, couldn’t recall your child’s face or name?
Despite this ability, the tributes posted to my son on facebook this morning and the text messages of love and support left me curled up and wailing like a wounded animal. As I write this, I am in so much pain I can barely breathe.
I want to write it though because one of the things I must steel myself against today are the well-meaning but ill informed comments I will receive from friends and supporters. I am speaking on suicide tonight at a meeting of the New Zealand Association of Counsellors too and while I know they will be kind I also know they will make all sorts of judgements based on the DSM and grief literature.
Suicide kills over one million people every year. That means that it is likely that anyone reading this blog will have had contact with someone bereaved by suicide in their personal lives and some will be involved in supporting suicide survivors professionally.
Here are some things I would like you to know about the impact your responses to grief may have on someone who has lost a loved one to suicide.
I wonder how many of you use the phrase committed suicide?
This is of course a relic of the quite recent past when suicide was a crime. For many families this term is really offensive and upsetting. Saying ‘died by suicide’ is much more sensitive and much more accurate.
On days like today, people often tell me how proud they are of me for doing so well. I’m not. I’m not doing well at all. When they say this, I experience it as minimising the pain I experience and rendering my pain invisible. Often the people who tell me this are those I have learned it is not safe to be honest with. The people I put on a brave face and pretend for. It’s much better to ask me how I’m doing than to tell me what your take on it is.
Please, please don’t talk to me about recovery. I will live with my child’s suicide for the rest of my life. I will never be ‘healed’ or ‘recovered.’ My right arm has been cut off, my heart has been ripped from my chest. No one will ever call me Mum again. My son will never get married to his beautiful girlfriend or have a daughter as he planned.
Don’t talk to me about closure or moving on. Where would I go without my child? How would I close off the part of my life that my son lived with me?
Don’t tell me everything happens for a reason. My son’s death was the most senseless event in the universe. Nothing good came out of it. It served no purpose. I am not a better person because of it nor is the world a better place because his death led me to do the work I do. What might I have accomplished with him alongside me? How might he have changed the world? His death is a tragedy, the senseless loss of a beautiful young life, please don’t try to define it as anything else.
I read a piece of research on grief and suicide survivors recently which said “The majority of survivors spoke about needing and wanting to find meaningful ways of continuing to love the deceased youth” and “maintain healthy and continuous bonds with deceased individuals.”
This is my reality. You do not stop loving your child because they die. You don’t stop wanting and needing to be their parent and have them in your life. You just have to find different ways of doing it. This is not an adjustment disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated grief or major depressive disorder. Don’t pathologise my grief or characterise my response to it as some kind of personal deficit.
Telling me to let go of my son and the relationship I have with him is like telling me to let go of myself and my life. I loved him before he was born and it would take more than death to sever our bonds. I long for his physical presence. What I have now is so much less than that but it is something and I can’t imagine letting go of the little I have left.
I know you have read that we feel angry with the child who died and that we feel guilty for feeling this anger. You are being kind when you say you understand our anger and urge us not to feel guilt over it. The thing is though that I have never felt a moment’s anger at Toran. How could I be angry with a child who ended his life to escape the torture of prescription drug induced akathisia? How could I be angry that he did the only thing he felt was possible at the time?
Don’t avoid talking about my child for fear of making me cry. I’m crying not because you reminded me he’s dead (like I could forget that for a minute!) but because he is dead. Giving me the opportunity to talk about him is such a gift and sharing your memories of him with me is the closest I get to Christmas. I want and need to talk about him and need you not to be afraid of my tears.
My experience of my child’s suicide is not a universal experience although the issues I have raised strike a chord with most of the families I work with. Others will undoubtedly want and need different things from their friends and family and the professionals involved in supporting them and have a different ‘don’t list.’
My plea is not that you adopt this list of don’ts as definitive or representative and change your response to suicide survivors accordingly, but that you challenge your own beliefs around grief and suicide and allow your responses to be guided by those who have experienced this loss, rather than by the DSM or grief literature which doesn’t include survivor views.
Ask us how we feel. Tell us you don’t know what to say. Understand you can’t fix us. And that we will resent your attempts to try.