Suicide of a Son and Complicated Grief

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

I lost my son Charles a few months ago to suicide.

Charles  lost both his babies 4 years ago. Their first baby was a miscarriage and the second was born with a rare cancer and only survived two and a half months but lost his battle and passed on. This broke my son and the 4 years after losing his babies was a roller coaster ride for him. He became suicidal and tried everything to get rid of himself.  This included overdosing on drugs, hanging himself on a tree in our garden, cutting himself to inflict pain on himself and the list goes on. I saw a young man full of life with a vision and a dream and part of his dream was to be a dad and have his own family. This however never happened for him. We went through so much as a family and lost our home twice because of my son’s unstable lifestyle and behavior after using drugs. Unfortunately nothing we tried to do was ever enough to save him.

I am taking it one day at a time as each day comes with its own set of challenges trying to deal with the loss of my son.

My question is that throughout Charles’s life I always connected with him on a spiritual level and could feel when something is wrong or when he was in trouble but for the life of me I didn’t feel any connection the night he passed on. This has left me angry and I sometimes feel robbed. My life revolved around my boys and I vowed to take care of them and be there for them whenever they needed me. I feel like I have failed him. He used to tell me how lost and alone he felt and that he was empty after losing his children. I beat myself up thinking that I heard what he said but I didn’t listen to his cry. I see the sadness in his eyes every time I think of him. The other thing that haunts me is that I found him in his place hanging and when I close my eyes this is the last picture I see of him. How can I get through this?

He promised me that he would never try to hurt himself again but yet he left me. Is God punishing me for not hearing the cry of my son?  Will I ever forgive myself for not being able to save him? How do I move on if I wake up with thoughts of him and go to sleep with thoughts of him? I know that he knew that I loved him and prayed for him more than I did for myself, yet still I feel I could have or should have done more. Why am I unable to connect with him in my dreams like I use to?

Loretta

Dear Loretta,

Yours is indeed a complex loss, in which the death of a child before that of the parent is compounded across two generations.  In the years following the death of your grandchildren you helplessly observed your son’s complicated grief and his tragic attempts to mitigate it through the use of drugs, and now following his completed suicide you struggle with a complicated grief of your own. And surely every parent who reads of your anguish in not being able to love him through these losses can identify with that painful sense of insufficiency, which leaves you, like him, on the brink of despair:  neither of you could save your own children from a tragic death.  The critical difference is that, however great the pain you describe, you are reaching out earnestly for more adaptive ways to cope with this trauma.  To the limited extent I can in a brief typed reply, I want to join you in that reaching.

The urgent questions embedded in your letter deserve my best attempts at answers, so let me offer a response to each:

“The thing that haunts me is that I found him in his place hanging and when I close my eyes this is the last picture I see of him. How can I get through this?”  Horrific events like discovering the body of your dear son leave indelible and intrusive memories in their wake, and indeed, this is one of the hallmarks of PTSD.  Recognizing this, it is important to understand your reaction as involving not only profound and pervasive grief, but also classic symptoms of traumatic stress.  Indeed, witnessing the violent death of a loved one has been established by research to be the single strongest predictor of PTSD.  And this means that you, like countless others before you, are likely to benefit from trauma-informed treatments that feature compassionate support as you slowly review or revisit the terrible scene and gradually accommodate the hard emotional reality, probably across multiple sessions of treatment.  Evidence from many different therapies that share this feature of “prolonged exposure” to the scene (such as EMDR, Complicated Grief Treatment, Restorative Retelling and various cognitive-behavioral protocols) suggest that this “strong medicine” can make a huge difference in reducing the power of such images to ambush you, and eclipse your memories of Charles’s life with this single brutal scene of his death.  Look for a specialist in trauma therapy, or better still, trauma-informed grief therapy, to take the first steps toward liberation from this repeated nightmare.

“Is God punishing me for not hearing the cry of my son?”  The most deeply religious people often share your sense of spiritual struggle in the aftermath of tragic loss, questioning God’s intentions, power, or love.  Indeed, our research and my clinical experience suggests that this sense of rupture in relation to the divine is strongly associated with complicated grief, as a once firm and meaningful faith is shaken or shattered by traumatic loss.  While it is tempting to offer simple reassurance that God can provide a sense of refuge even in the context of great suffering, ultimately the answers that will matter will be those that come from your own best attempts—on your own and with trusted members of relevant faith communities—to reconcile the reality of human tragedy and brokenness with a robust or revised spiritual framework that nonetheless provides orientation and support.  Spiritual journaling, in which you meditate deeply on how your beliefs can serve as resources in this troubled time, and how they are changed by it in turn, can be one way to engage such questions.  Another is to write a “letter to God” expressing all of your feelings and questions, then pause for a day or two, return to the letter, read it aloud, and write a response, attempting to sense God’s reply.  Some people also find honest discussions with trusted clergy helpful, while others explore alternative spiritual traditions that make more sense to them in the wake of their experience.

“Will I ever forgive myself for not being able to save him?”  When we are unable to protect the lives of those we love most—and perhaps our children most of all—we can easily fall into a pattern of self blame that at least answers the agonizing question, “Why did this happen?” by responding that, at some level, it was because of us.  But of course this is an answer that also seems to call for unending punishment for our sin or crime, and that compounds the problem by leaving us unable to provide the genuine care and love to our remaining children and others who deserve our care.  “Loving kindness” meditation can be an alternative, helping us cultivate an attitude of compassion for ourselves and others.  Another would be writing a letter to Charles presenting your struggle for self-forgiveness, then pause a day or two, as with the “letter to God” mentioned above, and respond as he might, imagining him fully healed of his emotional and physical pain, and fully able to engage your letter.  Grief therapists who practice “chair work” can also provide strong support and direction for such imaginal dialogues, which typically are very healing.

“How do I move on if I wake up with thoughts of him and go to sleep with thoughts of him? And why am I unable to connect with him in my dreams like I use to?”  You can’t banish the thoughts, however hard you try; research indicates that thought suppression simply leads them to come back all the more forcefully.  But you have some choice over the kind of thoughts you invite.  If his image materializes for you with sad and tearful eyes, vividly imagine yourself drying them, soothing him, and loving him through it. If you visualize him after he died, conjure a competing image of your lovingly tending to his body, much as most of humanity has done for deceased family members throughout history.  In other words, look for ways to engage the image in a healing fashion, speaking the words that you had no chance to speak, providing the care that his private act denied you.  Again, therapists acquainted with trauma-informed grief therapy can assist with this, and in so doing help you gradually reopen the door to dreams of better times that are currently eclipsed by the traumatic and intrusive thoughts and images.

Finally, bear in mind that your loss, though uniquely your own, is shared in other variations by hundreds of thousands of others who have also survived the suicide of a loved one.  Web sites sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Alliance of Hope offer bridges into these support communities, both online and face to face.  Consider taking steps toward others who share this walk, combining principles of self-care with engagement with a community of others seeking similar paths through and beyond a most difficult loss.

—Dr. Neimeyer

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