The unbearable tragedy of a parent bereaved by suicide

To be bereaved by suicide is widely accepted as being one of the most difficult bereavements to cope with. There are so many unanswered questions and endless possibilities for blaming yourself.

To be bereaved by the suicide of one of your children is exponentially worse. As a parent you want the best for your children. You want them to be happy, to be healthy. You want to protect them. You want to take care of their needs. And it might seem with their death you have failed utterly.

I write this from experience, as a parent bereaved by suicide, and also from observation and interaction with other parents similarly bereaved.

Admitting to ourselves what has happened is often one of the first hurdles we must climb. And then there is telling other people. Although it shouldn’t be like this, suicide still has a certain stigma. I went on a charity walk organised by a hospice, carrying and displaying a picture of my 30 year old daughter. Chatting with other bereaved parents on this walk, there seem to be an almost unspoken assumption that the young woman pictured had died of something such as breast cancer. How could I tell them it was suicide? Well, I did, and sometimes the reaction was an awkward silence.

Parents and children

The desperation of wanting to turn the clock back to the minute, hours, days or weeks before your child’s death is overwhelming but futile. I remember feeling like I was losing my mind as I replayed the final conversations in my head. I read what I found on my daughter’s phone over and over.

Just as we can’t turn back the clock, neither can we fully comprehend the state of mind that causes someone to take their life. The factors that drive people to suicide are multi-layered and complex. Even if we think we know what someone is going through or what is bothering them, we all have a private inner space that nobody else can enter. That can be tough for us as parents, but the reality is that from the moment of their birth our child is their own person.

Our children are not just “ours”. They are individuals in their own right. They make their own decisions, just as we have done. When I was 15, I sat in school, bored and daydreaming, waiting for the magic time of 3:40 pm when the school day would be over. My parents had got me to school just fine. They fed me breakfast, provided the school uniform and gave me my bus fare. But they couldn’t make me pay attention. That was my choice to do or not.

That is the story of being a parent. We do the very best we can for our children but ultimately they make the life choices – in small matters and in large – that are theirs to make.

Of course, as parents we have a duty of care for our children, especially in their childhood and teenage years. Later on, they’re still our children even if we’re 75 and they’re 50. No matter their age, we care about them, love them and want the best for them.

But the point I’m making is that they have autonomy, especially once they reach adulthood. They will choose their friends, their lovers and perhaps a partner. They will choose a job and a lifestyle. They will make many large and small choices, just as we have within our own life times.

How do we cope when life hasn’t turned out as we expected?

So how do we live with their decision to end their life? It’s not easy. When my daughter died, it felt as though my heart was being ripped out of my body. The grief was so intense it was physically painful. I couldn’t see how I was going to survive and not even sure that I wanted to. If you’ve been bereaved in this way you’ll know what I’m talking about.

What I would say now to the newly bereaved parent is that it’s going to hurt really bad for a really long time. In fact, it’s going to hurt for the rest of your life, but it won’t always be as intensely painful as it is right now.

You might seek for answers, but this search will be unsatisfactory no matter how much information you discover. Thinking we know why something happened doesn’t change the fact that it happened.

You are probably on somewhat of a rollercoaster emotionally. Perhaps you can’t stop thinking over and over again about what happened and about what went before. It won’t be like this forever. You might well find that the more you can face into your grief and express it, the less you are overcome and defeated by it. But it’s a long road ahead.

You might find yourself unexpectedly lonely. Friends and family members won’t always know how to support you in your grief. They might be too shocked by what’s happened and not know how to react. You might benefit from talking with a counsellor or going to some support group of other parents similarly bereaved. There is a solidarity and comfort to be found in the companionship of others in similar circumstances.

Take care of yourself, so that you will also find the strength to take care of your child’s memory. Not the memory of how and why they died, but the big picture of their life and all of the good things and the love you shared together.

You have survived this far. You can get through today, just as you will be able to get through tomorrow.

Support and resources

Top resource for bereaved parents: The Compassionate Friends

Read more: After suicide (a TCF leaflet)

General support for those bereaved by suicide: Survivors of bereavement by suicide

If you feel like you can’t cope: Samaritans – call free on 116 123

Finding hope and courage to keep going into a future that you didn’t expect is one of the main themes of my Living with Loss retreats. Find out more here

There are lots of ideas for coping with grief and maintaining a connection of memory with your loved one in this blog. Keep scrolling down from the home page and you’ll find more to read, or go to the index here

The path ahead may look very bleak. But it won’t always be like this
Another day in Glen Affric (Scottish Highlands)

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