Editor’s Note: with many approaching the holidays with a loss recently behind them, and their grief overlaid with the despair of these times, we thought this Dr. Neimeyer column might be helpful–LL
Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My 18 year old son hung himself in a tree in June. Since that day my life is full of guilt and heartache. I’ve seen multiple counselors and many of them have been great and they all tell me the same thing: it’s not my fault. But, I cannot forgive myself for not getting him help sooner, for not seeing the signs, for not saving my son. It is my job as a mother to keep her child safe and I didn’t. Every day I put a mask on and pretend I’m ok but I’m not. I hide from the world for the most part. I cancel plans. I don’t date. I’ve gained weight and I drink too much to numb the pain. I don’t know how to move forward with this guilt. I know somehow I need to for my daughter and most importantly for my heath. As a little background, my first husband attempted suicide when we were married and many years later completed suicide. My nephew with my son’s dad hung himself in our garage when we were on our honeymoon. I should have seen the signs! I should have been more vigilant. If you can give me any advice or any books to read I would appreciate it. I’ve read so many books but nothing is helping. I love my son and I miss him so much. This time of year is particularly difficult. Christmas was always so special for us and his birthday is January 1st. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
As this holiday season begins, I cannot imagine a more tragic contrast between the meaningful and joyous family times you once knew, and the achingly broken mask of holiday cheer you have tried to wear in the years since your son’s suicide. In the silence beneath that mask so many tormenting questions live on, compounding the loneliness and incomprehension with self-accusation. Like so many of us who have lost a loved one to suicide, you find little consolation or reprieve in the reassurances of well-meaning others, even the otherwise thoughtful and empathic counselors you’ve consulted. And so now you bravely bring your urgent questions to this forum seeking some kind of answer that can restore hope, ameliorate the corrosive guilt, and allow you to begin to reclaim at least one life that is teetering on the edge of being unliveable—your own. With a full recognition that the deep anguish and questioning you feel will not easily be erased by my response, let me offer at least a few thoughts that might suggest some way forward.
First, recognize that nearly every survivor of suicide struggles with seemingly unanswerable questions about why their loved ones ended their lives, and how they failed at the critical moment to recognize the risk and take action to avert their dying. And sadly the fact that nearly 50,000 people die by suicide annually in the US alone underscores how very difficult it is to read the warning signs and take effective precautions. In fact, with the widespread availability of firearms and lethal drugs, the National Center for Heath Statistics confirms that suicide has increased by nearly 25% over the last two decades. So there are literally hundreds of thousands of other families struggling to make sense of similarly horrific losses, with no easy answers at hand.
Our best understandings of the dynamics of suicide, however, clearly suggest how complex and multidimensional the factors are that lead to its pervasive presence in our lives. Biological factors such as a disposition to depression and other serious mood disorders, interpersonal circumstances such as losses of or alienation from crucial relationships and perceived burden on others, and personal factors such as substance use and hopelessness all play a part. In the case of your son, the heavy presence of suicide in the family across generations strongly suggests a genetic disposition to depression and despair, at a level that even medical experts do not fully understand. In the face of such complexity, it is understandable that we strive to find simpler answers, even if they take the form of the “if only” thinking that places the blame for the tragedy at our own doorstep. But we pay a terrible price for this illusion of control—the idea that had we acted differently in a critical moment, it would all have worked out differently. Certainly suicide awareness and prevention are laudable goals, but retrospective self-blame ignores the harsh reality that often is greatly more complex than our feeble efforts to control the course of events arising from a convergence of factors to which we at best make a modest contribution.
So what might you do now to move through this grievous loss and begin healing your heart and your family? One step would be to seek the mutual support and understanding that can be offered by others who know their own losses to suicide, as through onsite and online groups organized by the American Association of Suicidology, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or the Alliance for Hope. [These three are clickable links] In the community of concern each offers, you may begin to find genuine comprehension of your pain and inspiration for living despite the shadow of this heavy loss.
A further step would be to seek truly specialist professional care. Many features of suicide and violent death loss require specialized
interventions in which the average counselor or therapist simply has no training. These could include practices such as a slow motion “restorative retelling” of your experience of the loss, accompanied by a therapist who can help you compassionately acknowledge the feelings that arise and make greater sense of the experience, or use of well developed protocols for working with images and associated emotions connected to the loss in a way that lets you bring healing resources to bear on them. Facilitated symbolic “conversations” with your son can also be a powerful vehicle for addressing your pain and perplexity, moving toward a restoration of a loving bond with your son that was cruelly broken by his death. Organizations such as the Violent Death Bereavement Society, the EMDR Institute, and the Gestalt Therapy Institutes that operate in many large American cities can point you in hopeful directions.
In closing, it is understandable that this most tragic of losses has stirred deep anguish, incomprehension, guilt and self-neglect, but these responses need not be lifelong companions. I encourage you to continue your quest to seek fuller understanding of both your son’s circumstances and your own, and to reach out for a level of mutual support and professional assistance that the world is prepared to give. These might prove to be the most precious gifts of the holiday season for your daughter, yourself, and all those who love you.