“My son took his own life…” x

Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

My 17 year old son took his own life not even a month ago. I find I can’t even type the details. He used a shotgun in our basement. Our whole family  found him shortly afterwards.

I recently read about “atypical depression” which very well described Edward’s condition. He was doing well. He was brilliant, funny, caring, compassionate and had good friends. He had the support and respect of his college aged gaming community. He was seeing a therapist. He had plans for the future. He knew he was well loved. He was successful in school and in the activities he loved best. He certainly had moments of great joy.

However, he also was occasionally moody, and had bouts of depression from which he seemed to bounce back. In his final note he said he didn’t believe he could change, that it wasn’t in his DNA or character. He reiterated how vehemently he was opposed to medication because it would change who he was. That he hoped we understood that he was going to be honest and true to himself to the very end.

He and I were very, very close. We talked about everything. I gave him all the time he needed and unconditional love beyond measure. He promised me he would always talk to me when he was down. And he did. Many times.

I’m now inconsolable. Did I miss a clue? Why didn’t he talk to me? I’ve spent my entire life devoted to being the best Mom to all of my sons. How could I have been so blind to Edward’s last despair? I’ve been so in tune with him for so long. His therapist told me she didn’t see ANYTHING to be concerned about. She called him “the great pretender.”

The very night before his suicide, I asked him how he was doing. He said, “I’m fine, Mom,” and hugged me. It was kind of a joke between us; and I asked, “No, really, how are you doing son?” He looked me right in the eye and said, “Really, Mom. I’m fine.” We hugged again and I told him I loved him.

I’m a wreck. We all are. We started individual and family therapy. I journal. I draw. I’ve written his friends to share memories and many have.

Even though he wrote to me in his note that he knew how much I loved him, thanked me for my support and always standing up for him, he also said he imagined my face when I saw him dead and it made him sad. Then said he loved me and that he would continue to love me even after his heart stopped beating, I’m not feeling comforted.

I cry and cry and cry and cry. I’m not sleeping or eating and am deeply depressed. (Started an antidepressant a week ago). I cannot imagine a life without Edward. He was my heart. I have frequent panic attacks and have to take an anti-anxiety medication because I am hysterical.

My main question is: Is it common with atypical depression to miss signs?

What else can I do to help my family now? I’m so useless. I’m not functioning. I can’t cook. I can’t do much of anything except cry, write and draw. Not much of that either because I can’t focus.

Help, please!


Dear Nancy,

Tragically, many survivors of suicide would no doubt identify with your sense of shock, horror and self-reproach in the aftermath of a family member’s suicide, which evidence suggests hits mothers especially hard. Especially when one has strived for a lifetime to “be in tune” with a deeply loved child, through triumphs and tribulations of all kinds, it can seem impossible that one “missed the signs” of imminent self-destruction. And yet, especially when our loved one masked an underlying hopelessness, sense of alienation or perceived burdensomeness with a sense of equanimity and reassurance–especially, as is often the case, once a highly lethal suicide plan has already been decided on, the cues are often few and faint, and hard to distinguish from other troubled times from which he or she had “bounced back” before. Ironically, the same brilliance and compassion that Edward evidently displayed in abundance could also be drawn upon to conceal his fatalism and “protect” you from his growing depression or despair. As a result, you, like far too many suicide survivors, are left replaying the tragedy without answers to your anguished questions, and blaming yourself for failing to discern his secret intents and avert the trauma of his dying.

What then can you do to help yourself and your family now? One answer would be to be compassionate to yourself. You are unlikely to be cruelly accusing other family members of inattention to Edward’s pain, so try to treat yourself with the same understanding. Recognize that the terrible isolation of suicide loss might call not only for the professional therapy that you have sought, but also for the community of others who have known some version of the same pain. Mutual support groups for suicide survivors online Alliance of Hope [Click Here] or optimally in person through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention Support Groups [Click Here] can help restore a sense of connection in the face of stigmatizing loss, just as internet resources like the thoughtful Grief After Suicide blog [Click Here] can help provide provisional answers to the many questions that arise in the wake of such loss.

And finally, recognize that finding one’s footing in the world again after suicide bereavement is a longer term proposition, not something that can be measured in a few weeks or months. My advice in this regard is to start small, and stay connected. Collaborate with your family to prepare a meal together. Go for a walk with your husband daily. Make an effort to stay involved in the lives of your other sons, and open to their grief about your common loss. Share your art and journaling with responsive others, both professional and in your world of family and friends when it feels appropriate to do so. It is clear that, despite his pain, Edward loved you greatly, and adopting a loving attitude toward yourself even in your grief can meaningfully extend a positive legacy of his life, and help recapture it from the overshadowing circumstance of his tragic death.

–Dr. Neimeyer

4 comments on ““My son took his own life…” x

  1. I can totally identify with Nancy. My precious, outgoing, full of life, funny, talented 20 year old son took his own life 3 years ago. As in Nancy’s case, we were so close and we thought he was doing great. He had a semester abroad in Cardiff all set to go to just a few weeks after his death and had spent the summer getting all of the paperwork and plans in place for his travels. Our last conversation was about how he worked out the details of his visa. He often shared his worries and frustrations with me but we did not know he was ever seriously at that level of depression. At the time of his death I thought he was quite happy with his life.

    So it’s been 3 years but finding peace and reconciling the son I knew with the son who did this is a continual battle. Great Christian counselors have been helpful and the need to continue to mother my 2 younger kids who are now in high school and college has given me motivation to get up every day and keep moving forward. But there is still much in our lives to grieve and overcome.

    Still trying to figure out how we will ever take another family portrait, how to answer the question “How many kids do you have?” and how to celebrate our first Christmas at home as we have traveled to relatives’ the past 3 holiday seasons. Things in our life that used to be highlights are now the most challenging. But what can we do other than try to focus on the good from the kids we do still have here on earth and to take healing one day at a time.


  2. I’m not sure if you’ll ever see this, Nancy, but I my heart is breaking for you.

    Speaking as someone who has been on the other side of this, who has had to explain to her parents that she has suicidal thoughts, please don’t blame yourself. I’ve often been ashamed or afraid to tell them for the exact reasons you’ve touched upon: I don’t want them to blame themselves for what is, at the end of the day, a disease as real and indiscriminate as cancer.

    “Smiling depression” is difficult to spot. Also, those who take their own lives often seem happier than usual in the days leading up to their death, because they’ve made their peace. To look at them, this seems like a good thing, as though the depression is lifting. Even a psychiatrist or therapist could see it that way. Mood disorders are unpredictable, to say the least, and the sufferer is

    Please don’t think of yourself as useless. You’ve suffered a parent’s worst nightmare. I hope that in the time between your letter and now, you have found some healing and peace. I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but from the perspective of someone with a severe mental disorder, I know your son loved you fiercely. People with depression typically feel like we’re a burden, so suicide is meant to benefit the ones we love. To a mind afflicted with a mental illness, this seems like the right thing to do.

    You did nothing wrong. You did not fail your son in any way. I hope that you can accept that and release any sense of guilt you may be carrying.

    I wish you peace and light.

  3. My son took his life 6 wks ago…I’ve never ever felt pain like it.. Every day is a struggle.I feel so guilty I didn’t save him that morning, he was my son and i should have been able to protect him..We talked about everything the wk leading upto his death even about suicide. He really would not have done this in a normal state of mind..I question myself all the time what had gone wrong that morning. People tell me how I should be feeling and what I should be doing…Some days I want to be with him ,I miss him so much the pain is so bad. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone ..I think what my life was like before he left me and how I can carry on without him…Maybe one day I maybe able to except that my son took his life.. I really dont think I will .Has I’m told so many times.Life goes on😢

  4. My Son also took his Life October 29, 2019! Reading this article as I’ve sought out something that may help me to understand How/Why? We were very close with open consistent communication. He and his 3yrs Older sister were also very close! He had a beautiful smile, sense of humor and talented in many ways. He was raised around the water and his Love of the water was reflected in his hobbies as well as job. He had many wonderful caring and loving friends. The severity of his mental state was not detected but was aware of some physical, mental/emotional pain and seeing a doctor! Who stated to me that “I did not see it coming!” or he too would’ve been there that evening in his despair. THAT is my agony as his mother and being so close that I was NOT there in his moment of hopelessness and despair! I will forever carry the pain of that with me! So continue to read I will…however, I do have his beautiful sister whom he Loved and She loved him! along with her 2sons (my grandsons) loved their Uncle and his sense of humor! For that I keep pushing forward and continue to read and search for some Peace and Understanding How in the World this could possibly have happened…Why didn’t he call me “I need you Mom”
    His Dr. stated their last visit was with a “firm handshake, eye to eye contact and a smile”! He knew he was Loved so very much and our last conversation just the day prior “I Love You Mom”…Please God help me to understand…AND I think I need a Doctor! Continue to read…I will! Being there will probably never be the right answer other than the Peace that he must have now is much better than what he felt at that moment I was not there:(

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